When our photographer Aleksander pulled up to the SmartShanghai office on his new scooter, I felt like Tetsuo in Akira, admiring Kaneda's bike, like, "Ceramic double-rotor two-wheel disk drive!"
The Niu -- a new scooter by a new Beijing startup -- looks more like a smartphone remix of a Chinese scooter than that futuristic red bike in Akira. At 5000rmb, the Niu is on the higher end of the Chinese scooter market, but despite some minor issues and room for improvement, its acceleration, battery life / weight, features, and tech-integration justify the price, IF this bike can survive a few years on these Shanghai streets.
What It Is
Niu means bull, but also means badass / awesome (hence the slang term Niu Bi). In an interview with Bloomberg, Niu CEO Li Yinan said, "Our ancestors worked on the backs of buffaloes…Now we want to have young people get back on ‘Niu’ and see it as a cool icon.” Li is pretty niu -- dude started university at age 15, later became the youngest vice president of Chinese tech giant Huawei, then joined Baidu as their Chief Technology Officer. Part of his motivation for starting Niu is environmental; everyone in China wants a car, and many view bipedal transportation as something for the lower classes: Ayis, deliverymen, families of four sharing one bike.
So with 50 million USD in startup cash (most coming from venture capital), Li set up Niu, hired a 70-member staff, including people with experience at Xiaomi, Honda, LeTv, Huawei, and Apple, and released the first bike a few months ago (and this TRON lookin' promo video).
Smooth, quick, high-tech, a bit stiff, and a little flimsy is the vibe on this one. Let's break this down Mario Kart style:
Speed: They say the top speed is 45km/h (27mph), but we got it up to 52km/h. Not crazy fast, but that's probably a good thing. An Indian scooter currently in development, the S340, will top out at 75km/h (47mph)
Weight: Heavy. Would take two-three people to carry it, but the battery is light -- it's only 10kg. The nice bit about its heft is that two heavier dudes (~90kg) can ride on this totally comfortably, without feeling sketch at all.
Battery Life: In our experience, it takes five hours for a full battery charge. Now, they say the bike can go 100km without another charge, but that does not account for driving style. They calculate this based on 20km/hr with no stopping. Yesterday, our photographer (who has a more wild driving style) started with a full battery charge, and by 50km, was down to 15%. At 15%, the Niu will limit the top speed to 20km. We have not tested how far that final 15% will take you.
At 2500rmb, the Panasonic lithium-ion battery is the most expensive part of the bike. Most scooter batteries in China are clunky, lead-acid bricks. Lithium-ion batteries are lighter, more environmentally friendly, and last longer. The Niu also comes with a portable battery charger, so you can just bring it inside and charge it at your desk while you work. Update: As for battery security, the battery is locked under the footboard, and the lock for that compartment is under the seat. Someone with a crowbar will still get this battery out if they want, but the battery is light enough to carry if you're worried.
Acceleration: Really nimble Bosch motor, which gives you a big advantage in Shanghai traffic. Like, if you pull the throttle all the way, you'll launch forward. This is the most impressive aspect of the N1. Of course, it can't compare to a motorcycle, but certainly much, much quicker than other scooters in this price range.
Handling: The suspension is a little stiff, which means better handling, but you will definitely feel the bumps in the road. You can lean into corners a bit. Somewhat related, the seating position on this bike is not so comfortable for long rides.
Brakes: Good. Big disc breaks, high-quality tires. Performing well even in the rain.
App Integration: Niu has a proprietary, Chinese-language only app for Android and iPhone. This app can show you the location of your bike via GPS, show your last route (if you haven't shut the bike off yet), display how much battery life you have left and how far that will take you (again, not accounting for driving style, so not accurate), link you with repair shops, and send you notifications when the battery is removed or the wheels move.
The app cannot disable the bike remotely if someone steals it. This has been a standard feature on Apple products for years now, and it's too bad Niu didn't include that, as this bike is candy for thieves. Also, somewhat annoyingly, the Niu app will sometimes send notifications, in Chinese, to tell you "tomorrow, it's going to be cloudy", which can confuse and worry people who cannot read Chinese.
Build Quality: Similar to other, cheaper scooters. Ironically, the build is the weakest part of "The Bull". The plastic on parts like fenders and the seat feels especially flimsy. Aleksander says, "with my driving style…next year, I'll probably buy the second edition of this. I don't believe this scooter is gonna last that many years." One of our staff got a little overzealous with the throttle, hit a wall, and cracked the fender.
Note: We've only tested this bike for three weeks. We'll update this article sometime in the next few months with more details on build-quality and durability.
Off-Road: Have not tested yet
Features worth mentioning:
- Big, bright LED headlight, with high-beams and a few different settings. Rear lights and turn signals are really obvious too.
- USB charging, so you can plug in your phone or whatever.
- A nice little hook to hang your groceries from.
- The battery is lithium-ion, not lead-acid like a lot of e-bikes here.
- Transponder keys with lock, unlock, and alarm-arm. There's a button that will help you locate you bike, too.
Is It Worth It?
Do you have health insurance? There's a saying in Chinese, "肉包铁，铁包肉" (Flesh protects steel (bike); steel protects flesh (car)". If you're someone who needs to move around the city frequently and can't be late, like a photographer, the Niu N1 is definitely a strong look. Despite the less-than-stellar build quality, Aleksander is super happy with the bike. The acceleration really helps when getting around traffic in rush hour, and the bike feels sturdy. The only question is, how long can it last?
If you're in the market for a scooter and money is not a huge concern, we recommend it. It may cost 5000rmb, but if you spend 100rmb a week on a taxi, well, there you go. Lord knows Shanghai has enough cars, so hopefully Li's plan to make scooters cool to the middle class works. Within 20-30 years, all the cars and trucks on the street will be self-driven Apple and Amazon machines anyway, leaving just e-bikes and bicycles piloted by humans.
Price & Availability
They have two versions. The Urban Edition (3999rmb) can go 80km on a single charge, and has an 800 watt battery. This article focuses on the Hybrid Edition (4999rmb), whose 1200w battery can push it for 100km before recharging. They also claim that the Hybrid edition performs better traveling uphill.
Now, getting ahold of the Niu N1, right now anyway, is a little tricky. The official Niu website claims to be sold out. When we called, they said they didn't know how long it would take, and encouraged us to report any offline shops selling the bikes, but you can buy one around town for a slightly inflated price. Aleksander opted to pay 5800rmb for his, rather than wait.
...or you could just wait for the Harley E-Bike to come out.
If you're looking for a scooter, or want to get rid of yours, check our buy & sell section. It's free.