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Riding an electric bike, especially for the first time, is like the discovery of a superpower. For those of us who have gotten so used to pedaling with the full force of our body, it feels so magical when you suddenly can travel so much faster while using just a fraction of the energy. Finding the best budget electric bikes can help you get the most bang of the buck before you invest in a professional-level one.
You may think that battery-powered bicycles are a new thing made possible with today’s modern technology. In fact, electric bicycles were first documented in the 1890s. The very first one was using a direct current (DC) hub motor. Today, e-bikes are increasingly favored in many major U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco.
It is not a surprise that e-bikes are gaining popularity, especially among millennials. Electric bikes are zero-emissions vehicles. They have a much lower negative impact on the environment. A recent study by MIT shows that e-bikes are 18 times more energy-efficient than an SUV and 13 times more than a sedan.
Yes, e-bikes are great for commuters who need to save energy and time, but what about for those who want to cycle for exercise? Many argue that riding an electric bike can not achieve the same amount of health benefits as riding a traditional one. In 2019, the Department of Public Health and Brigham Young University did a joint study to compare the health effects of traditional bikes and their battery-powered counterparts. The result showed that the average heart-rate during electric mountain bike rides was 94% of the average heart rate during conventional ones.
Electric bikes on the market today are priced from $500 to $2000. We are also seeing more advanced features such as integrated accessories, smartphone integrations, built-in security, solar-charging ability, etc. No matter if you are considering buying an e-bike for commuting, exercising or recreational purpose, before you throw a lot of money into it, you may want to get your feet wet by investing in an inexpensive one.
This guide is for those who are looking for an economical electric bike that can achieve a similar amount of performance as their expensive counterparts. We first walk you through the criteria and factors to consider when evaluating an electric bike. Then we’ll give our recommendations based on our tests, as well as by the research done by our fitness gear team.
What to Consider When Buying A Budget Electric Bike
Type (or Class)
Electric bikes are generally classified into three categories depending on their level of motor assistance. These classifications are mainly done for regulatory reasons. The three categories are: Hand-Throttle, Pedelec (also called Pedal-Assist), and Speed Pedelec (or S-Pedelec).
- Hand-throttle: As the name suggests, the motor of the bike is activated and controlled by a throttle, mostly mounted on the handle. Similar to a motorcycle or a scooter, when you twist the throttle, the motor will propel the bike forward. There are two types of throttle configurations: the thumb throttle allows you to operate by pushing your thumb on a small level, but a common complaint is a sore thumb after a long ride; the full twist throttle requires you to use the entire hand and the throttle takes up the entire end of the handlebar. Hand-throttle e-bikes are the most common type in the U.S. as there are looser regulations.
- Pedelec: A pedal-assist motor is regulated by pedaling. You still step on the pedal as you normally would on a conventional bike, but a motor will provide assistance to increase the propellation. They usually have a speed limit of 25 kph in Europe and 32 kph (20 mph) in the U.S. Compared to the hand-throttle e-bikes, the power of a pedelec e-bike is more regulated. Therefore, it can be used on most roads and paths just like conventional bikes.
- S-Pedelec: S-Pedelec works exactly like pedelec but has a higher speed limit of 45 kph (28 mph). In some countries, a license is required to operate an S-pedelec e-bike.
Nowadays the majority of electric bikes are powered by rechargeable batteries. Since the battery places a significant amount of weight on the bike, the size, weight, and placement of the battery are important factors to consider. A battery can be mounted externally on the rear rack, on the down tube, or incorporated inside the frame. An externally mounted battery makes it possible to replace it. You can also remove the battery for charging instead of charging the entire bike. Some bikes may have multiple batteries. Most batteries take three to six hours to fully charge. The lifespan of the batteries is usually around 1000 charging cycles.
The riding range determines how far you can go on a single charge. It is dependent on the battery, the weight of the bike and the rider, the speed, the motor and tire pressure. The riding range for most standard e-bikes is 30 to 80 miles. The world’s longest-range so far is a breaking 367 km (228 miles) by Delfast’s Prime electric bicycle.
There are two types of motors depending on where they are placed. A mid-drive motor is placed on the bottom bracket whereas a hub-drive motor is placed inside the hub of the rear or front wheel. The mid-drive motor gives a more natural feel when pedaling. Because of its location, the bike is more balanced and stable. E-bikes with a hub-drive motor are more like cars, the power can be sent directly to the front or rear wheels. It gives you a sensation of being pushed along. Motors can also be categorized as brushed or brushless depending on the presence of a brush inside the electric motor. A brushed motor is less efficient but cheaper, whereas a brushless motor is more efficient, has a longer lifespan but more expensive.
If you are bringing your bike on a road trip, or you have multiple bikes to carry in the car, or you have limited space to store the bike at home, you may want to look for a bike that is compact and lightweight. Nowadays, other than folding bikes, some companies are coming up with mini-commuter bikes that are significantly smaller in size. The lightest folding bike for adults we have tested is the SwagCycle Pro Folding Electric Bike that weighs only 30.4 pounds.
If you are planning to haul heavy loads, may it be the hardware you just bought or your fun-loving toddlers, make sure that you consider the torque of the e-bike. The most common limits are in the range of 200 and 300 pounds, which includes the weight of the rider.
At WIC, we tested 16 different budget electric bikes that are under $800. Our tests were mainly done in common biking venues such as cities, parks and hiking trails. We tested the bikes with and without cargo load and at their claimed maximum speed. Considering all the factors laid out above, we selected the three best budget electric bikes that stand out in our evaluation.
Best Constructed and Most Versatile
SUMMARY: The Ecotric 20” Folding Electric Bike is the winner in most tests we have done. From the motor power, body built, riding experience and the overall feel, it outperforms all other electric bikes, including some expensive ones in the thousand-dollar range.
WHERE IT STANDS OUT:
- Hand throttle, pedal assist, walk assistant mode. You can change the way you power the bike. The throttle is half-twist, a good compromise to avoid thumb or wrist soreness.
- 7-speed controls with up to 30 mph. Though it claims to ride up to 20 mph, we were able to ride at 30 mph on a flat surface during our test.
- Wide tire for all terrains: city roads, beach, sand, snow, mountains. You can use it for many occasions.
Professional Level with Great Riding Range
SUMMARY: The Ancheer Electric Mountain Bike is a professional mountain e-bike. The design and material makes it sturdy yet lightweight. The riding experience is powerful but smooth. We recommend it for use in difficult terrain such as mountains or steep hills.
WHERE IT STANDS OUT:
- Professional 21-speed transmission system.
- Riding range of up to 31 miles. We managed to ride almost 36 miles in a single charge. The battery is removable for convenient charging.
- Quiet and smooth transition between the manual and pedal-assist mode.
Most Compact and Lightweight
SUMMARY: The SwagCycle EB-5 Pro Folding Bike is one of the smallest e-bikes we have tested. With impressive portability, the body is very adjustable to accommodate most body types. We recommend it to those who need to carry the bike around or have to stow the bike in small spaces.
WHERE IT STANDS OUT:
- Triple fold to almost one-third of its full size. Folding and unfolding is very easy and only takes less than a minute.
- 37 pounds. It is one of the lightest foldable e-bikes available on the market