If there ever was a vehicle to receive the full electrification treatment it would be the humble scooter. No, not the kind you see kids back-flipping on ramps at your local skatepark, but the entry-level Lexmoto Echos, Piaggio Zips and AJS Modenas of this world.
With most boasting a top speed of around 30mph and extremely restricted horsepower outputs, they are the perfect platform for stuffing with small battery packs and hub-based electric motors for a less polluting and more silent alternative to the pukka pukka of the teenager’s freedom machine.
What’s more, the devilish concoction of a global pandemic and a recent fuel shortage means more folk are looking for ways to buzz around town without having to share a carriage with potentially deadly human beings or the need to queue with raging folk at a ransacked fuel station.
Chinese electric scooter company Niu has known electric is the way to go for a long time and has been busy trying to tear buyers away from petrol options for some years now. Its current range features the futuristically sporty NQi model, as well as a larger capacity rival in the form of the MQi GT.
This bike, the skinny-framed UQi GT, is a pitched as an urban warrior, with neo-Honda Cub styling and thoroughly modern onboard tech, it makes a strong case for itself as an alternative to riding public transport or getting sweaty on a bicycle.
You can ride one at 16 years old, so long as you have a CBT, and it will travel around 35-40 miles on a single charge. Topping up the batteries is only done via a standard domestic plug socket, where it will take seven hours, or the best part of your day/night, while top speed is irritatingly limited to 28mph. At just shy of £2,000, this bike is expensive compared to some of its petrol powered counterparts and it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but that’s no reason to dismiss it.
Because this is an electric vehicle, Niu has seized the opportunity to install an advanced ECU that allows owners and users to connect to the bike for things like Over the Air updates or to beam data to a smartphone app. Probably so you can see how fast you whizzed down a hill, or how much money you’ve saved on petrol in a week.
Perhaps more importantly, it means you can quickly locate the bike if you’ve parked it in a particularly packed spot, receive notifications if it detects it is being moved or stolen and carry out rapid smart checks and diagnostics on the machine, which it can then send to your dealer.
It’s more akin to the type of tech you might find in a modern car, but it all feels a bit overkill for a little scooter like this. Granted, it’s pretty cool that you don’t need a key (you can use a smartphone instead), but I found myself using the provided transponder and the key for the steering lock anyway.
In addition to this, the scooter likes to make a lot of noise when it is disturbed and it doesn’t take much to set off the alarm. Luckily, it was never that busy in the parking bays that I used during the loan, but I can imagine in bustling London or Liverpool, it might be a different matter.
With just 28mph to play with, this is never going to be a replacement for a proper motorcycle, but then it was never intended to be. View it like a pumped up bicycle and you are much closer to the actual riding experience.
The seat is quite tall (840mm) for a scooter and anyone under 5’7” will find that they have to step up onto it. However, one leg is all you’ll need to balance the machine, since it weighs around 75kg with the battery pack in place. On that note, it is possible to lift up the seat and remove the cumbersome 11kg battery pack, should you wish to charge it away from the bike.
Small wheels aside, the Niu UQi GT handles well and nails the brief of chic city slicker, as it is more than happy to zip in and out of traffic. The upright riding position gives a great view of the road ahead, the narrow (ish) bars allow the bike and rider to slice past stationary vehicles and the brakes are plenty strong enough to screech the near-silent commuting to a halt.
Being electric, it is particularly zippy away from a standstill, but then anyone used to a larger motorcycle will start to wonder where the power has gone. It gets near its top speed fairly fast but then starts to feel surprisingly slow.
This is fine if you live in the centre of a city where traffic barely gets past 20mph, but my town features a bit of both and on the roads with a 40mph limit, I did feel like I was causing a bit of a queue behind me. But then this would be exactly the same on a petrol scooter, so I’m not sure why it bothered me.
Perhaps it was because I knew the Bosch motor attached to the rear wheel was likely capable of much more, but I also realised that engineers have to deal with the irksome problem of eking as much range from the relatively small batteries as possible. Ride this thing like a maniac and it’s possible to drain the batteries in around 20-miles, which isn’t great, so there’s definitely a balance of performance and economy to be found by the rider.
The NIU UQi GT is as fun as it looks and thanks to its lightweight, manoeuvrability and general ease of use, it rapidly became something I regularly jumped on to carry out various boring chores like popping to the shops or heading to the Post Office.
And that’s the point, because it doesn’t ever try to replace a larger capacity machine, but instead feels like a positive jump from an old-school bicycle to something a little more modern and less sweaty.
Due to irksome UK laws, you can’t ride a pedal-powered eBike that offers assistance over 15mph without a lot of paperwork and general faff, so the fact this merely requires a CBT (that takes a day and costs around £100 for the theory and practical training) to be fully road legal is a big draw.
It can feel expensive compared to some of the cheaper 50cc twist-and-go models on the market today, but they feel especially cheap. The NIU UQi GT is no Mv Agusta, but it certainly feels sturdy enough to survive the rigours of daily life, with decent switchgear, bright LED lamps and a crisp digital display for the obvious read-outs.
There’s no point getting into a debate about the cleanliness of electricity, but the NIU UQi GT feels like a much cleaner thing to own. There’s no mucky oil or greasy chains to service and it doesn’t stink if you wheel it into an office space, like I chose to do.
The biggest bugbear is the range and the fact you can’t simply top it up in a few minutes when the tank runs dry might put off those new riders who genuinely want the freedom a set of wheels can bring. But with fuel supplies so sporadic, now might be the time to ditch dinosaur juice for good.