Built around the same geometry as the Filter Hi we tested this time last year Charge's Plug 4 continues with the theme of an all-weather commuting, light touring winter steed that seems to be in fashion at the moment. Specced with a mix of Shimano's 105 groupset components, Pro-Max mechanical road discs and a quality steel frame the £1099 price tag looks as reasonable as the 11kg weight.
The majority of steel frames use Reynolds or Columbus tubing but Charge have bucked that trend and chosen Japanese company Tange's seamless drawn chromoly Infinity tubing. It's double butted for a bit of weight saving; the wall thickness varies from 0.9mm at the ends to 0.6mm in the centre providing a small amount of shock absorption in an already forgiving material.
There are bosses for a rack and mudguards plus the obvious disc caliper mounts welded to the frame with plenty of clearance for tyres bigger than the 28mm rubber that comes as standard. If you fancy a bit of cyclo cross or find yourself anywhere else where you might have to carry it the Plug has the cables running along the top of the top tube to save them digging into your shoulder.
The big surprise is how stiff the frame is, not just for a steel frame but for a frame in general. At the bottom bracket area you won't find any feeling of movement and while you're not going to be sprinting for the village sign that often it's reassuring to know that should you adorn the Plug with panniers and a bar bag that that weight isn't going to be compromising the ride or performance by making the frame flex.
The beauty of steel though is that alongside the stiffness it absorbs vibration and buzz from the road surface, giving a kind of smooth, buttery ride if that makes any sense at all. To be honest if it wasn't for the narrow tubes (and spec sheet) you could easily think it was titanium.
The paintjob is a divider of opinion though, I personally the pink/blue flip looks great especially in the sun but the missus reckon it looks a bit girly. Whatever your thoughts you'll find it to be hardwearing, especially what you need on a bike of this kind.
The front fork is also made from Infinity chromoly and it has no trouble at all resisting the loads from heavy braking on those discs and its shock absorbency is just as good as most carbon forks. Its a cyclo cross job at 395mm long to allow for large tyre and guard clearance in the same way as the Whyte Dorset recently tested. The matt black colour ties in well with the rest of the components and is just as robust as the frame.
Alex ATD-490 double wall 32 hole rims continue the black stealth look and fit in well the no-nonsense look of the Plug. They are solidly built and should take plenty of impacts. I crashed through a few potholes on water-filled back lanes with little effect on their trueness. Charge's own Shield hubs didn't have any issues with the amount of water and salt they were asked to deal with either, running smoothly without play or noises.
The Kenda Kwick Roller tyres have a slightly ironic name given how sluggish they are to get and keep rolling. Grip isn't the best in the wet either, but on the upside the puncture proofing is top drawer, you can't have it all ways I suppose.
The rest of the Charge Shield Lite kit is just as dependable, with the alloy components providing plenty of stiffness for their weight. The handlebars have a compact drop shape that provides another hand position without putting you in too extreme a position when you need to crouch out of the wind.
The new Charge Scoop saddle is just as comfortable, if not more comfortable, than the classic Charge Spoon which is a longstanding favourite in the road.cc offices. It felt comfortable straight from the off and its fluid shape lends itself well to shifting your position while riding.
The Shimano 105 kit is always a reliable performer and adds to the solid feel of the Plug's frame and wheels. It's pretty much bombproof too making it a good choice for performance and longevity. The levers work well with the brakes with plenty of stiffness so that they don't flex under heavy braking.
The shifting is crisp and still works well even with loads of mud and crap on the chain. That canal path test was probably a bit harsh considering how much rain we've had, but the shifting passed it easily.
The majority of the test miles were taken up commuting and it's this style of riding, especially in the wet, where you really notice the benefits of the consistent braking offered by discs. In traffic on wet surfaces you can keep up with the flow of traffic without having to leave a large stopping distance that just asks for someone to overtake you and pull into.
We encountered the Pro Max brakes on the Whyte Dorset and they gave pretty decent performance just as they do here on the Plug. They're nowhere as good as the (now recalled) SRAM S500s on the Plug 5 but a good middle ground between calipers and hydraulics. The 160mm front and rear rotors provide loads of stopping power and enough modulation not to keep locking the wheels up.
On the whole the Charge Plug 4 is a nice ride, very relaxing and easy to live with plus it'll certainly take on the worst of whatever weather the sky throws at you. If you are looking for a replacement winter racer though this isn't it. It's a completely different style of ride with the weight limiting the acceleration and what almost feels like a limited top speed, you get to the low 20's (mph) on the flat and regardless of how much more effort you put into the pedals none of it comes out as speed. Over the course of my reasonably flat commute I'd say the Plug 4 was on average 2-3mph slower compared to my usual winter roadie for the same perceived effort.
Some of this can be attributed to the overall weight of the wheels and tyres as these make up a whopping 3.8kg (including tubes, rim tape, cassette and quick releases) of the 11kg so an upgrade to these could well make the Plug a bit sprightlier. The sluggish tyres will be a significant factor too; they'd be the first thing we'd change to up the Plug's zip factor.
The handling is stable and rather uneventful thanks to the relaxed geometry and long wheelbase. That's not a criticism at all though. The weather conditions and road surfaces the Plug is likely to spend the majority of its life covering aren't going to be the playground for a snappy handling twitchy race bike. As the speed increases the handling remains just as neutral so it's still a pleasure to ride on a quick blast round the lanes or descending. It also makes for confident riding in a pack if the road conditions are a bit iffy.
Take it off road though, and it really is great fun to blast about on. In fact it's probably better suited to this than tarmac as far as grin inducement goes. With tyres with a deeper tread, it'd be even more fun.
Climbing is all about rhythm thanks in part to the weight of the wheels and tyres and also because the Plug isn't really a bike that responds to out of the saddle efforts. The 34/28 bottom gear will get you up pretty much anything in the saddle so it's best just to sit back and enjoy the ride. The higher front end helps here as you can sit up and ease back on the saddle, a style I find beneficial on long ascents seated.
The Plug 4 does exactly what it's designed for. It takes on varying terrain in all weathers thanks to a beautiful frame and good quality, functional kit that'll stand up to the job with no problems. Yes the wheels and tyres are heavy but they're intended to be robust and they certainly don't disappoint on that front.
If you want something that will just replace your winter trainer, go for something like the Whyte Dorset; it has more of a road performance geometry and set up. But if you fancy being able to mix up the terrain you can tackle, the Plug 4 brings plenty of grins once you hit the gravel or hard track.
Charge also offer the Plug 3 should you need to come in under the bike to work scheme limit. You'll be swapping 105 for Sora but it's the same frame, fork and wheelset for £849.99.
Stiff, comfortable steel framed all-rounder, though the stodgy tyres work better off road than on.
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Make and model: Charge Plug 4
Size tested: Silver
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
GEARS: 20 gears
FRAME: Tange Infinity, seamless, double butted chromoly
FORK: Tange Infinity chromoly, disc brake
CRANKSET: Shimano 105, double ring 50/34t
DERAILLEURS: Shimano 105
SHIFTERS: Shimano 105 STI
WHEELS: Alex ATD-490, double wall rims with Charge Shield disc hubs
TYRES: Kenda Kwick Roller Tendril, puncture resistant casing, 28mm tyres
BRAKES: Pro Max DSK-717R cable disc with 160mm rotors
HANDLEBAR: Shield Lite
STEM: Shield Lite 31.8mm
GRIPS: Charge U-Bend 90°
HEADSET: FSA TH-857
SADDLE: Charge Scoop
SEAT POST: Shield 3D Lite
PAINT: Triple coat plus double lacquer
PEDALS: Wellgo alloy road
BB: Shimano X-type
CASSETTE: Shimano 105, 12-28t
CHAIN: YBN S10CR
SPOKES: Stainless steel
SEAT CLAMP: Single Bolt
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Charge say on their website that the Plug was originally designed to be simple and reliable. At its heart is still a very simple welded steel frame which could be repaired anywhere in the world should the need arise. The reliability is there to especially with those wheels.
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
The welding is neat and tidy at the tube junctions and all the little add ons, cable guides, mounts are all neatly welded into place as well. The paint finish is hard wearing and looks good too.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Infinity is Tange's second tier chromoly which is double butted and seamlessly drawn to create a uniform strength.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Everything you need is here
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
A good balance of reach and height allowing for a decent seat to bar drop without being extreme. The slightly higher front end (compared to a racing steed) allows for good visibility in traffic. The seat tube/effective top tube length is uniform throughout the range, for example - the L has 56cm/56cm though the actual top tube length is shorter at 54cm due to the slope.
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, the steel frame gives a very forgiving ride while still providing plenty of performance. It's pretty much one of the best steel frame ride's I've known.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
With the tyres pumped up to their 100psi max its quite a stiff bike but the above-mentioned ride quality of the frame and fork keeps the balance.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Power transfer seems good through the frame but a lot of it is lost through those tyres. It takes a lot of input to keep it rolling.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
No none at all.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Very neutral.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Very composed and responds well to rider input. The behaviour of the handling is very much in keeping with the style of riding the bike is intended for.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Charge's new Scoop saddle is very comfortable straight from the off. I would say the bar tape is a little on the thin side though.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The wheels are stiff and so are the components to be fair, they can be though as the frame offsets it.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Bin those tyres if you fancy efficiency over reliability. The brakes do make for good efficiency though as you can carry speed much later into a corner or roundabout saving the effort of accelerating back up to speed again.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
Shimano's 105 is always a great performer and while it may not be that exciting or as refined as the dearer groupsets its always very dependable and stands up to poor weather well.
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
The wheels and really dictate the ride on the Plug and while they are weighty they are robust which is what they are designed to be. Agreed you can make strong wheels light but then you're bringing cost into the equation.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
Alloy components are ideal on a bike of this kind providing a good balance of weight versus stiffness. The shallow drop bars work well with regards to the style of riding found on the Plug
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes.
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes.
Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?
The Plug 4 is a good all-rounder let down a bit by those tyres which have such an effect on virtually every aspect of the ride; change those and it'll make a huge difference. The price is pretty spot on especially for the full 105 groupset and discs so it's a good value for money option. On the whole the Plug 4 is going to give you years of service.
Age: 35 Height: 180cm Weight: 76kg
I usually ride: Whatever needs testing or Genesis Flyer, fixed of course! My best bike is: Kinesis T2 with full Centaur Red
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed,
With 20 years of road cycling and over 150,000 miles in his legs it's safe to say Stu is happiest when on the bike whatever the weather. Since writing his first review for road.cc back in 2009 he has also had a career in engineering including 3D-CAD design and product development, so has a real passion for all of the latest technology coming through in the industry but is also a sucker for a classic steel frame, skinny tyres, rim brakes and a damn good paintjob.
His fascination with gravel bikes is getting out of control too!