Test ride: Civilized Cycles' new $5,500 electric bike is the Tesla of two-wheelers

The Civilized Cycles Model 1 electric bike on a New York City sidewalk.
(Image credit: Civilized Cycles)

There's a new electric bike on the market, and it could be a good option for people who would rather ride than drive a few miles to work.

The Civilized Cycles Model 1 features a pneumatic suspension, comfortable seating for two and pop-out panniers to carry groceries, briefcases or even art supplies. It's got a 750-watt electric motor that can hit 28 mph, and the swap-out battery (you can get a second one for an extra $399) should last about 30 miles on a charge.

The Civilized Cycles Model 1 will retail for about $5,500 when it becomes available this fall, although early birds can pre-order one for $4,500 at CivilizedCycles.com. Your choices of color are black, red or silver. 

That's a lot more than what many of the best electric bikes cost, but Civilized Cycles hope the Model 1's versatility and comfort will appeal to urban commuters.

Civilized Cycles Model 1 design

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The Model 1 looks a bit like a vintage Vespa, thanks to the familiar curve of the panniers that cover most of the rear wheel. It's even got a built-in headlamp, turn signals and tail light. That's no accident, as Civilized Cycles founder and CEO Zachary Schieffelin once owned and ran a Vespa dealership in Manhattan. 

Zach told us that selling Vespas made him realize that customers wanted something that went fast and could carry groceries, but which they wouldn't need to register as a motor vehicle or need a motorcycle license to ride.

The Model 1's frame is a single curved piece of solid aluminum that looks like an abstract sculpture on its own. The motor tucks beneath the seat, and the battery and electronic control unit are held inside a compartment in the right pannier. If you spring for a second battery, there's another receptacle in the left pannier. 

A diagram illustrating the features of the Civilized Cycles Model 1 electric bike.

(Image credit: Civilized Cycles)

The tires are good and fat, a little thicker than what you'd see on a regular mountain bike but nowhere near as massive as beach tires. The bike has a five-speed internal-hub Sturmey Archer transmission, and four-piston Tektro hydraulic disc brakes front and rear. The Model 1 comes with a two-year warranty.

Technologically, the Model 1 has a display screen mounted in the center of the handlebars, and there will also be an app to run diagnostics or lock and unlock the bike. You can also use a PIN to lock the bike via the display screen. The screen displays your speed, an odometer, battery charge level and amount of range remaining.

Gliding over cobblestones

I took the Model 1 for a test ride a few weeks ago near Civilized Cycles' headquarters in the Brooklyn Navy Yard across the East River from lower Manhattan. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and easy the ride was.

I first noticed that like many electric bikes, the Model 1 is a lot heavier than a regular bike, at 89 pounds. I certainly wouldn't want to have to pedal it up a steep hill without a power assist.

But as soon as I started moving, the Model 1 felt light as air. Part of that's due to the impressive pneumatic suspension, which puts a shock absorber right under your seat. It also helps that you've got automatic power assist that gives you a bit of extra juice even when you've got your hand off the throttle, although you can barely feel it.

The Civilized Cycles Model 1 electric bike in a garden.

(Image credit: Civilized Cycles)

Usually, riding a bike over a pothole is more than a bit rough, but the Civilized Cycle made doing so very smooth, with a soft bounce rather than a hard jolt. I couldn't even feel the rough finish of a manhole cover when I rode over one. 

The Brooklyn waterfront has plenty of rutted streets and rail tracks, but the Model 1 made those manageable. Riding over cobblestones was kind of pleasant rather than teeth-knocking.

Zach showed me how the pneumatic suspension adjusts itself to each rider. You get on the bike and put all your weight on it, then press a button on the left handlebar to let the air out of the suspension. When the bike's all the way down, press the button again to fill up the suspension, and the bike rises up like an old Citroen to, um, meet your seat.

Gunning the motor

It wasn't until halfway through my second ride that I even remembered to try the throttle, which is on the right handlebar like on a motorcycle or Vespa. I gunned the Model 1 on a straightaway and the speedometer hit 37 before I started running out of road. The bike accelerates very fast.

I'd convinced myself that I'd taken the bike up to 37 mph, but Zach told me the bikes had a speed limiter set to 28 mph (45 kph) and the speedometer was probably displaying kilometers per hour. Still, 37 kph (about 22 mph)  felt about as fast as I wanted to go on a trafficked street. 

The pop-out panniers on either side of the rear wheel looked kind of flimsy at first, but felt solid to the touch. There's quite a bit of room in there — up to 80 liters of capacity when expanded, according to the Civilized Cycles spec sheet. 

Together, the panniers can support up to 50 pounds of baggage. You might be able to fit two Trader Joe's paper bags in each pannier, end-to-end. Each also has a thick waterproof zip-up cover to keep the contents dry during inclement weather.

The expanded panniers on the Civilized Cycles Model 1 electric bike.

(Image credit: Civilized Cycles)

Zach told me that the pop-out panniers were also designed so that children seated behind pedaling parents could put their legs in the sections. For larger humans, there are built-in footrests. 

He also told me that he and his designers made sure to keep the bike parts and the electric-motor parts independent of each other. Both wheels come off easily, he said, and any regular bike repair shop should be able to work on the brakes, tires or wheels without trouble.

Zach said each battery can be charged from zero to 80 percent in about two hours when plugged into a 45-watt DC adapter connected to a 120-volt wall outlet. (The battery takes a USB-C plug.) The remaining 20 percent will take another two hours, as you often find with lithium-ion batteries.

Zach told me he commutes to the Brooklyn office about eight miles each day from his home in Astoria, Queens. A lot of that route is straightaways on a dedicated bike path, where he guns the throttle and gives the battery a workout. By the time he arrives, the battery's down to about 25 percent capacity, but he said it would be more (i.e. discharged less) if he didn't accelerate so much.

The idea is that commuters will pop out the battery and charge it when they get to their offices or other destinations. Getting a second optional battery will double the approximately 30-mile range.

Is the Civilized Cycles Model 1 for you?

The Model 1 is not cheap. The top three picks on our list of best electric bikes retail from $1,500 to $2,000. For the Model 1's projected price of $5,500, you could pick up a mid-sized Vespa that you could ride on the freeway, but then of course you'd need a motorcycle license and insurance coverage. 

The Model 1's advantage is that it's so damn comfortable to ride, thanks to the air suspension. We're not sure if that's worth spending an extra couple of grand to get, but the Civilized Cycles Model 1 is definitely worth test-riding if you're in the market for a durable commuter bike.

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.