Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Forget that it folds.
The Long Version: I've been riding the Xootr Swift bike for ten days. I usually like to have more experience with something before I review it, but with summer ending, I'm hurrying this one along.
The Swift is the second vehicle that I've bought from Xootr, with the first being the Mg scooter that I reivewed in two parts - one and two. But Xootr isn't as well known on the bike forums that I was sifting for recommendations, so even after I decided to supplement their excellent scooter with a small-wheeled bike, I spent a lot of time looking at other brands. To make a long story short, I was actually trying to buy a Bike Friday Pocket Expedition, but couldn't get an answer from their local dealer when I e-mailed - twice - to ask how much it would cost. The frustration led me to look elsewhere, so I started researching the Swift.
I was surprised by what I learned. The Swift isn't a Xootr original, but rather was designed and built by an independent maker in New York city. (Swiftfoldersdotcom has more background.) Remarkably, it's still available from a variety of sources, of which Xootr LLC is only one. So if you want a custom steel frame with an exotic mix of components, it's available from its original designer. If you want a mostly-stock aluminum one that will ship the same day that you order it, you can do that too.
Getting the Swift on the Road:
The Swift arrived in a remarkably small - 9"x25"x35" - and light box. The bike has 20"/406 wheels, which are the same size that BMX bikes and most folders use, and they really cut down on the size of the package. The frame is reminiscent of Gary Turner's designs, with the seatstays crossing the seat tube and being joined to the top tube. But this join isn't a weld, it's a hinge: the seat tube is two pieces, held together by the seat post, making the bike into a remarkably light and strong folder. This also makes the shipping charge reasonable, although I do need to warn my fellow Canadians that the default shipping method is UPS Standard with its wicked hidden fees. I contacted Xootr ahead of time, and we compromised on a UPS Saver service that cut the costs down considerably. UPS outdid themselves and managed to deliver it to the right address on only their third attempt, but I digress.
The only tools needed to assemble the Xootr is a hex wrench, which they include, and a pedal wrench, which they do not. I have one, but a pair of needle-nose pliers or vice-grips should also work to give the pedals one last twist. A #1 philips screwdriver is also handy to tweak the brakes. I'm used to doing my own basic bike maintenance, and had it assembled and ready to go in about twenty minutes. That's longer than the ten minutes that I've read about elsewhere, but my time includes the full unboxing-to-ridable process. The bike arrives really, really, really well packaged. The frame is bubble-wrapped, zip-tied, and sheathed in heavy paper to prevent scratches. It took at least ten minutes just to get it unpacked. I recorded the whole thing on video, but I've cut the unwrapping and some of the instruction-reading to manage its length. Even on fast-forward, it's not the most fascinating, so I offer it only for those who have a serious interest in buying the bike. Casual readers are welcome - nay, encouraged - to skip it.
As you can see, putting together the front quick-release skewer stumped me for a while. I've also cut out some of the twiddling: the pedals and stem took more cranking than what you're seeing here. One other thing that you might notice is that I didn't need a pump. The tires come fully inflated and ready to ride.
When I ordered the Swift I added the Thudbuster suspension seatpost, Crossrack, and fenders. The thudbuster is a clever design that works well, and the one that Xootr includes - for the same price that the manufacturer sells it at - has a post that's the correct diameter. The method used for rigid bikes is to use a narrow seat post and a shim to make it into a one-sku-fits-all system, but since the seat post is integral to the strength of the Swift's frame, DO NOT DO THIS. Get it through Xootr. You could order the correct size through Cane Creek, but that's more work.
The Crossrack attaches to the seat-post and holds a standard pannier. I like this system because I want to carry a camera, and this position both protects it in a crash and suspends it from the shocks of resting on top of a regular bike rack. All told it's a great design. The only catch is that it attaches to the seat-post, and stops it from dropping down and locking the frame in its folded position. If you're looking to use the quick-fold ability of the Swift, it's not the greatest addition. The counterpoint is that the Swift is probably the largest-folded folding bike on the market, so it's probably not a big loss for anyone who would consider buying it.
Xootr also sells a bag for the crossrack. The reflective stripe that goes all the way around the Xootr bag is useful - not many panniers are styled for being carried sideways. I would have bought it as well if I hadn't found a convertible bag that is both a pannier and a daypack from MEC. It also has reflectors on three sides, and adds two water-bottle pockets. The Swift doesn't have any braze-ons to attach a water bottle cage, and since the combination of the crossrack and thudbuster precludes using the bottle cages that attach to the back of the seat, this is something worth considering.
(Updated September 2009: I've since spotted two little bolts on the steering riser, and Xootr's website confirms that these are spaced for a bottle cage. Handy.)
The fenders were also bought with the bike from Xootr. They're made by Planet Bike, and are sized to fit the frame and small wheels. I looked for local options, to keep the customs value down, but 20" fenders aren't that common. They're basic and functional, not terribly expensive, and have already saved me a couple of times. Like lights and a bell, they're essential for urban riding.
And Speaking of Riding:
I've never ridden another folding bike, even for a test-ride, and I haven't had 20" wheels since I got tall enough to trade my BMX for a ten-speed. My only recent point of comparison is a wickedly fast road bike with a stiff aluminum frame cushioned by the best suspension seatpost ever designed. The Swift feels just as solid and quick as that old road bike. The little wheels needed a little familiarization, since they really are more nimble than their bigger cousins, and it feels like I could do a wheelie every time the lights turn green. It's a fun bike to ride. I may not be able to keep up with the peloton any more, but I never really could, and it's probably not the Swift's fault.
The Swift is a very sprightly little bike. I'll admit that I wasn't instantly taken by its styling, but now that I see it in person, it makes a lot of sense to me. Performance bikes designed for triathlons have smaller wheels than normal road bikes, and the Swift looks like it was taken to the logical extension of that practice. It just looks like a sporty bike, in ways that curved-frame bikes like the Brompton and Dahons don't. Its relatively high top tube makes it look more like some fancy mountain bikes than a bike that aspires to be luggage. The lack of a cut-in-the-middle hinge has left some people surprised that it can fold.
Born in New York City, this bike is a natural urban commuter. They come equipped with the 65psi version of the Kenda Kwest tire, which have a great reputation, and haven't let me down so far. And while the bike is new, so there's no accumulation of grease and oil on the wheel rim and brake pads, it's worth noting that the brakes are almost frighteningly good even in the rain. During one recent storm I accidentally locked up the rear wheel while sympathy-braking for a cyclist immediately ahead of me who was cut off by a taxi. They're not particularly high-end V-brakes, but they work.
The drive-train consists of a large single front chain-ring and an eight-speed 11-28 cassette on the back, with horizontal rear dropouts that will accommodate an internally geared hub or a single-speed setup. The stock gear range is plenty for this essentially flat city; I spend most of my time in gears 3-6, and the only time I've used the lowest gear was to climb some reasonably steep trails. One of those is the gravel access road to a nearby ravine that was extremely loose after several days of sporadic rain. Naturally, I had the Xootrcam rolling for my first off-road excursion.
Slick tires do very well as long as the surface is solid. Pavement is great, wet or dry, and hard-packed dirt is easy. Soft surfaces: not so much. The hill at the mid-point of the video above is loose sand that's had gravel sprinkled over it, and going down it on a new bike with small wheels was recklessly stupid. Climbing it on the way back was merely dumb. I debiked when the rear tire went sideways as I tried to turn in soft sand; proper technique, lower tire pressure, and/or knobby tires probably would have gotten me through okay. The good news is that the low stand-over height of the Swift means that it was a relatively graceful recovery, and I never stopped moving forward. I just walked the rest of the way to the top, and kept up about the same speed.
Off-road riding was never going to be a big part of what I do, but it is nice to have a bike that can handle the park trails within the city.
The Swift is an easy and fun bike to ride. The small wheels give it a different character and define much of its personality, but there's little compromise in weight or rigidity in exchange for its folding ability. Think of it as a rigid bike that's easier to get through doors. When winter comes, it will take up less space, but ride-ability has clearly been a bigger priority than fold-ability. Folding for the original Swift was considered more of an anti-theft bring-it-inside feature than a crowded-train-commuting necessity, so make sure you're buying the right bike for your needs.
Speaking of anti-theft, locking a bicycle is always a poor alternative to having it somewhere secure inside. But when the seat post of the Swift is removed, the bike is free to fold. Locking it in a folded configuration is bound to confuse people, but also shows off the value of the bike. Instead, I'll just lock the Swift normally and bring the seat post (with its attached crossrack and bag) with me when I need to run in to a store. I suspect that trying to ride the bike without the seatpost to hold it together would end badly and quickly.
As an enthusiastic Xootr Mg kick-scooter rider, why did I buy a bike? The scooter is also fun and efficient, and for short distances its slower speed is compensated for by how easy it is to deal with when not riding it. It's easier to get through doors, and there's no need to lock it up and/or leave it somewhere else. For my little 2km-ish commute, it's probably the better choice. But I'm on my feet most of the time at work: a bike lets me sit down, and pedaling is easier than kicking. But the big reason to add a bike is for the recreational exercise and the ability to get to places that I wouldn't otherwise go. I've said it already, but this bike is great fun to ride, and it's practical too. It has a longer range than the scooter, and mixes better with traffic. There may not really be a need for both, but there's certainly room for them.
The One-Month Update:
I've now had another twenty days on the Swift, and have liked it more with every ride. It's quick, agile, and still stable enough for me to ride without hands - something I've never done before. Granted, I can't do it for very long, but once again that's my fault and not the bike's. While my longest ride has yet to break 20km, the bike is comfortable, reliable, and lets me play in traffic with the best of them. I'm capable of rolling along at a pace that lets joggers pass me and then jumping up to a speed that lets me merge with the cabbies when something blocks my lane. I can't think of a better bike for my urban riding, and see no reason why I'd ever want big wheels ever again.
I've adjusted the seat to a flatter and more comfortable angle, and lowered the crossrack a touch to make it easier to get the pannier on and off of the bike. I can't quite find a way to fit the lock - a Kryptonite Evolution Mini - onto the seat-post without bumping into it with my leg. If I shift it back far enough that I can barely get it out past the pannier, then I almost don't bump into it, and it's good enough to get by. I'm also going to move the left brake lever over a bit, since it's sized for a grip that has the bulk of a shifter next to it, but the front-dérailleur-less Swift didn't take that into account when it was being put together at the factory.
Next spring I may start switching out some components. The stock pedals aren't bad; they're grippy and light, but they're also cheap and aren't the aesthetic highlight of the bike. The stock Kwest tires are very good, but I'd like to get a 2" Big Apple tire on the front of this New York design, and a faster 100-psi 1.5" slick on the back. I think that'll give a great mix of comfort and speed on my thudbuster-equipped ride. New brakes and levers might also be in order, but that's getting to the point of changing things just for the sake of changing things. What can I say? I love to tinker and accessorize.
I realize that there's no such thing as a 'best' or 'perfect' bike, because everyone will have different needs and desires. There's no best camera, car, or shoes, either. But no matter how hard I try, I can't find anything to complain about on the Swift. Sure, it would be great if it was outfitted with top-tier components and was given out for free, but the bike is rock solid, shifting is snappy, and it's quite reasonably priced. After ten days of riding, I'd given this bike twin scores of 4/5, which is nearly perfect. With a few more kilometers under the tires, I've had to bring it up to a perfect 2x 5/5. This is only the third time in I've given that score in over a hundred reviews, and I don't do it lightly now. I just can't find any reason for it not to get the top possible marks.
Updated 27 July 2011: my two-year report on the Xootr Swift can be found here. But in a nutshell, I still like it.