This article dates from June 2004, and the Step-Compo has long since disappeared. It was a brave effort by the Japanese – a lightish, stylish folding electric bike, but it was soon overwhelmed by cheaper Chinese tat
Not everybody can see the point in owning one, but most people recognise that a folding electric bike needs quite a dose of high technology if it’s going to be portable and rideable. To satisfy these two contradictory requirements, take the most efficient motor and batteries you can find, bolt them to the lightest frame and add the neatest folding mechanism.The Honda Compo is a classic in such company, and naturally enough, it hails from Japan, where space-saving electrical gadgets are very much the thing.
Honda has been producing folding electric bikes for the domestic Japanese market since April 1998, with the launch of the racy-looking Raccoon Compo.Three years later, the Raccoon was replaced by the lighter, and even more stylish, Step Compo. Export efforts revolved around the simultaneous launch of the Step Wagon – one of those bloated people carriers, the Americans laughingly call mini-vans (you should see the maxi). In America, the Compo is viewed as a Step Wagon accessory, but for the home Japanese market, this compact, cute and reasonably light machine seems to have been aimed primarily at women – not the station wagon kind, but everyday ladies making everyday bicycle journeys. Electric bikes are big news in Japan, with sales of close to 500,000 last year, and – being Japan – a sizeable minority are folding models.
…Mayor Ken’s Wonderful Congestion Charge has created a whole new market…
OK, an electric folding bike is ideal for Mr Macburger’s leisurely circuit of the trailer ark, and Mrs Suzuki’s station commute, but would you or I want one? Demand has apparently rocketed in the UK this year, with several dealers reporting container- loads of bikes pre-sold before arrival. Most are for leisure use, but a growing minority of buyers are, like Mrs Suzuki, looking for a practical rail-link folder, and let us not forget Mayor Ken’s Wonderful Congestion Charge, which has created a whole new market in motorised car-boot jobs in and around London.
In theory, a folding electric bike offers all the storage advantages of a conventional folder, plus the ability to laugh at gradients and headwinds. In practice, most of the current crop are either too heavy, like the ETC, or offer limited performance, like the SRAM Sparc-powered Dahon Roo. A glance at the graph below reveals that nothing quite hits our weight/performance target, but some are getting close.
The Honda Step Compo
Forget those dorky shoppers and frightful frumpy folders of old – the Step Compo is one of the neatest and most sharply-styled small bikes you could hope to find.The general stance is vaguely Birdy-esque, but otherwise the machine is more or less unique. The frame is delightfully crafted aluminium, featuring an oval blue-anodised main tube, hinged at the rear to a silver-anodised monocoque housing the power unit and battery, with two arms reaching back to provide rear wheel drop-outs.The polished alloy saddle stem pops out the top of the monocoque at a rakishly sharp angle.The front end is less satisfactory from a styling point of view, with a rather ramshackle hinge operated by a sort of wand, and slightly naff chromed stem and forks.
Despite this front/rear disparity, the Compo is a real looker.The motor/gearbox assembly is styled along motorcycle lines, but it’s unobtrusive, and the tiny battery nestles invisibly behind the saddle stem.To the untutored eye, this is no more than a bicycle with a slightly unusual frame, and you really do have to look hard to pick out the electrical accoutrements.
STATE OF THE ART: The lightest electric bikes tend to have the shortest range. Note that the best performer to date is also the crudest – the Zap friction drive fitted to the Brompton
…Honda claims the motor will pull to 14.4mph, but this certainly isn’t the case…
Gears come, very sensibly, courtesy of a light and compact Nexus 3-speed hub in the rear wheel. Like the Panasonic power unit fitted to the Giant Lafree and other electric bikes, power is fed into the crank (through what would conventionally be the bottom bracket), so both human and motor output is fed through the gears in the rear wheel.This is the best system for hilly areas, because the motor effort can be geared down, which keeps the motor singing happily, even at low speed on steep gradients.
The styling at the front is less satisfactory
Gear ratios are highish for a small- wheeled bike at 43″, 59″ and 80″, but low in electric-assist terms. Unassisted, the bike nips about like any other small folder, although the extra weight, and a degree of mechanical resistance in the power unit, make the machine feel quite slothful.Turn the key to the green ‘ON’ position and it’s a different story. Unlike the Panasonic Porta-Ranger we tried back in December 2001 (the Honda’s natural competitor), the Compo is a perky little performer, with enough oomph to lift the front wheel in first gear if you don’t take care.This tendency is exacerbated by a short 98cm wheelbase and rear- biased weight distribution (65% of the weight is over the rear wheel). It shouldn’t cause a serious upset, but you do need to take care pulling away, particularly on steep gradients.
Note the aluminium monocoque, power key, hinge and motorcycle styling cues.The battery lives in the box behind the saddle stem
The Honda power consumption graph is quite revealing. The white peaks represent power used by the motor in each gear, while the grey area represent the power drawn from the battery. At low speed, a considerable amount is wasted.
Within a few seconds, you’re up through the gears at 8 or 9mph in top, with the power-assistance starting to fade away. By 10mph, the motor is fading fast, and top whack is a shade over 12mph. Thereafter, you have the choice of cruising gently along at 12mph with the motor making a modest contribution, or taking advantage of the 80” top gear and pedalling on to 14 or 15mph on your own. If you take the high speed option, you need to reach down and fumble with the key, because the motor will otherwise continue to buzz uselessly as you pedal. Incidentally, Honda claim the motor will pull to 23km/h or 14.4mph, but this certainly isn’t the case.
With saddle adjustment of 71 to only 96cm, we found higher speed a bit beyond our reach at first. Strangely enough, there’s plenty of stem left when the saddle hits the maximum height stop, so if you buy a Step Compo, we’d recommend doing what we did and drilling out the height stop pin.This enables the saddle to be raised to 100cm or so, which should suit all but the lankiest Europeans. However, a word of warning in best nanny state tradition – beware of making such adaptations if you’re both tall and chunkily built, because with a stem as steeply raked as this, there’s a real risk of over-stressing it, with rather unpleasant consequences. It’s worth remembering that these little bikes are designed for delicate porcelain-skinned Japanese ladies, not hairy barbarians like you.With the handlebars fixed at a lowish 91cm, the very tall may feel a bit ‘bum-in-the-air’, but for some that racy position will be an advantage.
Road behaviour is on a par with most other small-wheeled, short-wheelbase bikes. The Compo is nippy, but easily caught out by potholes, and rolling resistance is a bit depressing.Tyres are the ‘small’ 305mm 16-inch size widely used in the Far East. State-of- the-art rubber in this size rolls quite well on a good surface, but the 50psi Duro tyres achieved only 13.4mph descending our test hill.That’s respectable, but noticeably slower than the ‘big’ 16-inch Brompton tyre, for example, and very slow by 26-inch standards.
The real beauty of a crank motor is hill climbing, and once the going gets tough, you soon forgive the little Honda any slothfulness on the flat. Compared to the Porta-Ranger, and the similarly-powered Lafree, the crank sensor is insensitive, so a little more muscle power is needed before the motor chips in. But pedal reasonably hard in first gear, and the Honda will climb anything South Somerset has to offer. Gradients of 12.5% (1:8) are easy, restarts at 18% a mere trifle, and we just cleared 22%, or 1:41/2, and you don’t see many roadsigns like that outside t’Dales. Serious gradients are quite hard work, of course, but a great deal easier than riding a conventional bike, and faster than pushing one.
A word of warning.The Honda power unit buzzes along quite efficiently on the flat, but if the motor speed is allowed to fall, the power managed only 9.7 miles at consumption will rise alarmingly. Forget to change down on a hill and you’ll be eating batteries. In this a modest 11.8mph…” respect, the fuel-sipping Panasonic is streets ahead.
Another difference to the Panasonic system is the ‘Eco’ setting.The Giant Lafree delivers full power until you reach a hill, when the motor output is ‘capped’ to limit the climb speed. On the Honda, power is unaffected, but you have to give the pedals an extra push before the motor cuts in (thereafter, you can pedal as normal). Forget it – like most economy devices, this one is virtually useless. If you want to ride for economy, avoid straining the motor at low speed, and turn it off once in a while, something that applies to all electric bikes.
Equipment is limited to the centre stand, a bell and a pair of vestigial mudguards that might be useful in a shower, but would leave you very wet in serious rain.
Range & Charging
The Honda Step Compo’s nickel-metal hydride battery is genuinely handbag-sized, weighing just 2.2kg.The problem is a capacity of barely 84 Watt/hours.To put that in perspective, the Lafree has a 156Wh battery and the Ezee Forza 314Wh – almost four times the size. Surprise, surprise, the Step’s bijou battery is lighter, but gives barely a quarter of the range. Riding our usual hilly ‘mountain’ course, the Honda managed only 9.7 miles at a modest 11.8mph. Riding exactly the same course on ‘ECO’ yielded a range of 10 miles at 11.6mph. Honda claims a range of 121/2 miles with normal power and 19 miles on ECO.That might be possible in laboratory conditions, but you’d be lucky to achieve anything similar on the road.
The battery has a neat and fairly accurate 5-LED fuel gauge, but you have to nip round to the back of the machine and press a button to see it. With the range being so limited, the lights pop off at intervals of little over a mile, although the final flashing ‘reserve’ light stays on for almost quarter of a ‘tank’ – more than two miles. In practice, of course, the light flashes away unseen and unheeded until the motor cuts out.When it does, this sprightly little machine starts to feel a bit depressing. The frame is rigid enough, but the ‘stiction’ in the drive makes it hard to pedal, and the limited gear range and rather high gearing doesn’t help either.
We generally recommend buying an electric bike with twice the battery capacity you need on a typical ride. On that basis, the Honda is really only up to trips of five miles or so, which is a bit disappointing. It’s hard to understand why the engineers went for such a small battery, accounting for only 12% of the vehicle weight.Twice the battery would give a range of more than twenty miles (bigger batteries discharge more efficiently too), for a weight gain of only 2kg – a trade-off most people could live with.
Overall running costs, including bike and battery depreciation, consumables and electricity, works out at around 8.5p per mile – one of the most expensive around. Fuel consumption – including charger losses – is just over 14 Watt/hours per mile, which compares rather badly to the Panasonic-powered bikes. (The leisurely Porter-Ranger achieved about 11.5Wh per mile and the much faster, and wonderfully efficient Giant Lafree ST, 10.8Wh per mile.)
The good news is a rapid charge.This comes out at about two hours twenty minutes, putting the Honda amongst the exclusive list of electric bikes that will recharge over a leisurely lunch. Unfortunately, the charger is pretty big (25cm x 10cm x 5cm) and in 240 volt land (that’s almost everywhere except Japan and the USA), the bike needs a chunky 240-110 volt converter too.This pair, plus leads and plugs, weigh almost 2kg, which doesn’t sound much until you realise that on ten to twenty mile trips you’ll be carrying this little lot in a backpack…
Incidentally, to transform the performance of the Honda Step Compo, simply swap the rear 14-tooth sprocket for a 13-tooth, increasing the gear ratios to 46″, 64″ and 86″. This increases the maximum assisted speed to 13mph plus, giving the bike a more relaxed long-legged feel at the expense of extreme hill climbing ability. This simple change results in a higher average speed (12.7mph) and a greater range (10.4 miles). Well worth the effort.
The Honda makes a neat and compact folded package. Off the stand and with the saddle stem removed, it’s even smaller
How long have you got? The easiest way to fold the Step Compo is to put it on the neat little centre stand, and release and fold the handlebars, mainframe and pedals.The VP-116 pedals are reasonably compact, but a bit cruel to fingers, and nails in particular. Fold One is a less-than-a- minute job, producing a package of 186 litres or 6.6 cubic feet. which is much much smaller than the Porta-Ranger and well into conventional folding bike territory.The wheels need to be strapped together (a strap is supplied) and the package sits very tidily and securely on the stand. Folded like this, the bike would be welcome on most train services, but you’ll need the arm muscles of an all-in wrestler to hoik 18.7kg on board.
…the Honda Compo is a stylish and effective electric folding bike…
If you have another minute to spare, removing the saddle stem and strapping it between the wheels reduces the volume to 158 litres, which we’ll call Fold Two, and lifting the stand reduces the volume to 130 litres (4.6 cubic feet).With the stand up, the package tends to fall over, but this lower, slightly longer Fold Three package will go almost anywhere a Brompton will go. And that’s seriously compact.
Last but not least, if you have five minutes to spare, the Honda has a clever trick up its sleeve, for not only is this a folding bike, it’s a separable one too. As tricks go, it’s a bit long-winded, involving no fewer than 26 illustrations in the helpful (but entirely Japanese) handbook. Basically, you start by whipping out the battery, unfastening a quick release on the left handlebar, twisting and removing the left twistgrip and brake assembly and putting it in the battery box. Having relocated both the front-rear cables to the rear, you fold the handlebars as normal, open the frame hinge and press a little release button, which rather alarmingly allows the hinge to fall apart.This leaves you holding a 2.2kg battery, a front section weighing 4.2kg, and a much larger rear portion with all the electric and drive gubbins, weighing in at 12.3kg.The process is grease-free and relatively quick and foolproof.Whether it would be any use is another matter, but clever, nonetheless.
Honda also supply a neat soft bag affair to carry the bike at Fold One plus the stand. This comes complete with shoulder straps, or a front strap and rear castors – much easier, but for smooth surfaces only. A neat touch is that the seat tube drops into a steel subframe fixed to the castors, so the bike stays upright and most of the weight ends up on the wheels.You might not want to wrestle the bike into the bag very often, but it’s obligatory on the Shinkansen and pretty useful on the Routemaster to Little Cobblington. The usefulness of the bag is limited by the gross weight (20kg, including 1.3kg of bag) and the usual folding bike Catch 22 – what do you do with the bag when you ride off?
On paper, it’s easy to dismiss the Honda Step Compo. It’s heavier than most (but not all) conventional folding bikes, and slower than a full-size electric bike, with about half the range. Even amongst folding electric bikes, some of the crude Zap friction-drive conversions we’ve seen do much the same thing for little more than half the price.
On the positive side, it folds well, it’s pleasant to ride, and it’s a stunning looker. If style is your thing, whether on the commuter run or cruising those hilly Sustrans leisure routes, you might well be tempted by the Step Compo.
With a high-tech lithium-ion battery, higher gearing, and a few grams shaved off here and there, we think the bike would be greatly improved. Meanwhile, a spare battery will increase the range to 20 miles, for about £150. It will also reduce the need to carry the heavy charger on longer day rides.
We think the Honda Step Compo certainly does have a place in the great scheme of things. It isn’t cheap, but if you can live with the limited endurance, it’s a stylish and effective electric folding bike.
Honda Step Compo £1,095
Weight (bicycle) 16.5kg (battery) 2.2kg (total) 18.7kg (41lb)
Gears Nexus 3-speed
Ratios 43″ 59″ 80″
Batteries Nickel-metal hydride
Nominal capacity 84Wh
Maximum range 9.7 miles
Fuel consumption 14Wh/mile
Full charge 2hr 20m
Running costs 8.5p/mile
Test Duration 60 miles
Manufacturer Honda web www.honda.com
UK distributor 50cycles tel 020 7794 5508 mail firstname.lastname@example.org web www.50cycles.com