VOLT AXIS FOLDING E-BIKE
With Shimano Motor and Belt Drive
From being a humble startup several years ago, Volt are now one of the most widely distributed e-bike brands in the UK. Whilst this has been based on affordable yet good quality hub motor machines in the past, the fruits of Volt’s collaborative efforts with Shimano are now bearing fruit in this particular case in the form of this funky looking electric folder, the Axis. Folding e-bikes are pretty rare and folders with high quality crank motors like the Shimano Steps system even rarer, so I was keen to take up the offer of a review model.
Pros: ride quality and great fold.
Cons: gearing best suited for hillier areas.
At the heart of the bike is a Shimano E6000 crank drive motor, a dependable, high quality choice for city and leisure rides. Its a good choice for a crank drive folder as, at 3.2kg, it’s one of the lighter crank drives out there (though the E6100 is in the pipeline for the next iteration of the Axis and that is said to be around 300g lighter).
The Axis has eight Shimano Alfine hub gears that are shifted electronically; simply press the up/down grey buttons on the right hand set of handlebar buttons and an electronic signal travels down a wire to a small motor located on the side of the hub gears and a small whirring noise indicates the gears have been changed. Pressing the black button on the same set of handlebar buttons means you change into automatic changing mode, where the system will decide when to change for you (more detail on how the system actually works in practice is in The Ride section below).
Once very rare, electronic shifting is now becoming more commonplace and more affordable than it once was, though it still probably adds a few hundred pounds or dollars to the bike it is fitted to. However, I feel that, overall, shifting really is easier and smoother with it compared to most cable operated gear systems as it means you don’t need to manually index the gears.
The Gates carbon belt drive is a great feature, eminently suitable for an e-folder. It doesn’t need oiling like standard bike chains do and so helps keep the bike clean – much-appreciated if you are carrying the bike a lot and don’t want mucky clothes. They also last a long time, so when paired with a hub gear they provide an extremely low maintenance drivetrain setup.
The battery is a standard 418Wh unit that comes with many Shimano Steps-powered e-bikes. It’s not particularly large by today’s standards but it is suitable for a bike like this where you want to keep weight down (and cost too) and where the bike itself is a pretty efficient consumer of power and daily distances less likely to be huge compared to large wheeled machines.
Handling is nippy and agile as you would expect from a short wheelbase bike with relatively small wheels and stopping power more than plenty from the Alfine hydraulic disc brakes. The 20” x 2” Schwalbe Big Apple tyres are a great choice, rolling quickly over tarmac which is the bike’s natural habitat but also giving the ability to head off-road on better surfaced towpaths, forest roads and rail-trails as they soak up smaller humps and bumps with ease.
Perhaps best of all there is power to spare from the Shimano Steps system. The torque sensing power delivery means you just get on and pedal and the power is delivered nicely in proportion to your pedal input. I found the Eco setting sufficient for many hills whilst the middle Normal setting was sufficient for even the steepest hills I encountered around the Pennine foothills of Huddersfield. Perhaps the High power setting would be needed for heavier riders on the steepest of hills. With the power turned off it’s also one of the better motors to pedal unassisted (some motors mean greater pedalling resistance than others when turned off).
The fact it climbs so nicely in moderate settings is a great power saving feature that will extend battery range even in the hilliest of surroundings. I estimate I would manage at least 35 miles on the hilly tarmac roads I encounter daily. Over somewhat gentler terrain, but still with moderate hills battery consumption figures suggested a range of around 50 miles (for reference I weigh around 68kg and would describe my riding style as fairly gentle and riding conditions as sunny, dry and calm).
Operation of electronic aspects is pretty straightforward as long as you remember gear selection is by the right handgrip and power settings and other info settings by the left. The info on the large removable display is very clear and easy to read on the go. Display info that you can toggle through includes all the usual suspects; tripometer, odometer, max speed and range calculator (figures are given for all three power modes) plus, permanently displayed are current time, current speed and % of battery capacity left. Both power setting buttons and gear selection buttons are positioned in the shape of a rocker switch, so although they are quite small I found it quite easy to position my thumb over them and feel which was the top and bottom button (even with my fairly tight fitting winter gloves on). Some might prefer bigger buttons but this is one aspect to try out if you go for a test ride.
Gear changing with the Di2 system is simply a joy; the electronic shifting means it’s accurate, quick and smooth to flick up and down the gear range at the touch of a button. When you are stopped – either at the end of your ride or during it – the system automatically selects gear 4 so you are ready to set off, useful for those riders who often forget to select the correct gear before starting off again.
Even better news for those less confident with gear changing (or those who like to take it really easy) is that there is an automatic option. Once again it just takes the touch of a button to toggle between manual and automatic and once in automatic the system senses your cadence and speed and changes up or down appropriately. The automatic system has been around since 2012 and it has meant Shimano have had time to refine what is an extremely complex operation, though it might not seem so at first glance.
Personally I found the system changed a little early, though other riders who tried it felt it was about right for their riding style. Of course, if it doesn’t appeal you can always change back to manual. Volt say the automatic changing intervals can be altered but if you are seriously considering a purchase it’s highly recommended to go for a test ride and to check details like this with the dealer to be 100% sure the system can be made to work for you. You can also test out whether you would prefer a different e-folder altogether that features more conventional non-electronic shifting (Volt produce a range of other electric folders with hub motors and manual, non-electronic gear shifting).
It’s also worth noting that, because of the gear changing motor fitted on the outside of the gear hub, the minimum sprocket size that will fit this hub set up (28 teeth) is fitted, meaning quite a low gearing range, making the bike most suitable for hilly areas as it’s very easy to pedal in the lower gears. The overall gear range of 307% was plenty for the hilly riding around the Yorkshire Pennines I did, especially when allied with the overall low gearing.
In terms of ‘extras’ the Axis is pretty much fully kitted out and the spec is high quality and everything worked smoothly and practically. Quick ‘shop’ stops around town are a breeze; just flip down the very solid centre stand and use the rear wheel lock to secure the bike (of course for longer stops where you can’t keep an eye on the bike a separate lock is essential). The lights give plenty of illumination on unlit roads, full length SKS fenders keep spray to a minimum in the wet and carrying racks front and rear are a forthcoming feature (Volt say a rear rack can be added to this model too at the request of the customer, though again just how this works should be checked in store as heel catch on some designs of pannier may be an issue on a bike with such short rear chainstays).
The frame comes in one size and with the seatpost and handlepost adjustments set at the bottom the bike fitted my 5’8” frame nicely. There’s loads of extra vertical adjustment on seat and bars to suit much taller riders too.
The fold involves only two steps; firstly unlock the handlepost hinge and fold it down onto the drive side of the bike so the rubber grip is resting on the front fork and secondly undo the frame hinge and fold the frame in half so the two halves are held together by the circular magnet system. It’s a quick and easy process and whilst not in the same league for compactness and security of fold as, say, the Brompton folding bike (few folders are) it’s still an incredibly useful feature. The 20 inch wheels strike a nice balance between being small enough for a reasonably compact fold and providing nice stable handling characteristics (larger wheels provide more stable handling on a bike than smaller ones, all other factors being equal). A very handy feature of the frame is the sloping member that goes from behind the mainframe hinge to the top of the seat tube. As well as adding strength this acts as a convenient handle to lift the bike up by your side. Once folded the bike can also be wheeled on the rear wheel in front of you, using the seat as a handle to push the bike forward.
All this means the fold is a handy feature to have on an e-bike with one of the best electric drive systems out there and it allows you to bob the bike in the back of a hatchback car or squeeze it next to you on a busy train. If you want a long slim package, for example for storing indoors in a hallway, you can simply drop the handlebars. It’s no easy job to carry the folded package down steps, take it on the London Underground or lift it above your head onto luggage racks, but if that kind of use is not so important to you the fold adds a great deal of flexibility compared to a non-folder.
For commuting trips in a busy urban environment that features plenty of hills this looks like an e-bike to add to the ‘must try’ list. The ride quality from the Shimano Steps system is superb and the quick and easy fold adds a very handy extra level of usefulness that you don’t get on most e-bikes that feature this high quality of electric-assist.