If you're in the market for a small-wheeled folding bike for commuting there are many choices, but one that should definitely be on your list is the S6L from iconic brand Brompton – it's super-easy to fold, fun to ride and you can tailor it to your needs and, assuming you have at least £800 to spend, your budget.
As well as being a well-known name in this market – though there are quite a few others out there, such as Tern, Birdy, Airnimal and Dahon among others – Bromptons are acknowledged as having one of the easiest folding mechanisms and compact sizes when folded. This makes them particularly appealing for commuters who combine their ride with public transport (no need to reserve space for a folding bike on the train, and you can take them on the tube), and the addition of two small wheels that allow you to trolley the bike when folded is very useful. All very convenient.
Riding a Brompton is a very different experience to a regular road bike. It's nimble and agile, and the lively steering takes a little getting used to at first, but you quickly tune into the quick reactions. What might surprise you about the Brompton is how much fun it is to ride – it really does put a smile on your face as you make your way along the road.
The 16in wheels provide impressive acceleration from a standing start – you can get up to speed with minimal lag and the range of gears on the test bike offered good low options for climbing, with enough top-end choice for fast high-speed stretches of your commute. Where the small wheels aren't so good is in dealing with rough roads and potholes, and at very low speeds the bike can feel a bit wobbly and the in-line steering feels very lively. It's part of the compromise for the extremely small folded size, but it's a handling trait you soon get used to.
There's no sense you're riding a bike that is able to fold away in seconds with a hinged mainframe, it's impressively direct handling with no vagueness when leaning over into corners or dropping down steep hills. The locking levers secure the two halves of the frame together, avoiding the old problem you used to get with Bromptons where the frame could inadvertently start to tuck under if, say, you hopped off a kerb. It handles reasonably responsively and with no huge amount of detectable flex, even when pedalling fast and swinging through corners. There's no bob when riding out of the saddle either.
The handlebar is in line with the front wheel and gives the Brompton quick steering that makes it ideal for nipping and tucking through congested streets and navigating the many hazards that face cyclists in busy areas. But it's also remarkably stable at higher speeds, and not at all skittish even over rougher roads, helped to an extent by the small polyurethane elastomer between the rear wheel and main frame.
Unlike regular road bikes, the Brompton is only available in one size, but I felt perfectly comfortable with the fit and reach with no changes necessary. The double seatpost ensures there's enough adjustment to accommodate a wide range of rider heights, and Brompton includes a small attachment that serves as a post height indicator so you can easily set the saddle at the right height after being folded. Brompton also offers four handlebar types to accommodate different positions to suit your needs; the S-Type on the test bike is the lowest and sportiest option. You're not exactly cheating the wind, but it's ideal for short commutes and tolerable for longer rides.
One thing to bear in mind is that, as Iwein discussed when he reviewed the S2L-X back in 2010, there's a high level of Brompton-only parts in these bikes. They do work really well, though. Here, the padded saddle cushions your bottom from the impact of sunken drain covers and potholes, and the smart telescopic seatpost makes it easy to get the right saddle height with large quick release levers.
Up front, the grips are padded and grippy when riding without gloves, and a bell integrated into the brake lever is a smart detail; it's easy to operate and makes a loud and satisfying ring.
Brompton also specs its own brakes and tyres. The brakes are powerful enough to bring you to a speedy stop should a pedestrian step out into the road in front of you, while the tyres are robust and durable, coping with debris-littered roads and being slammed into potholes or sunken manhole covers. A reflective band around the sidewall is a nice touch for some extra visibility during darker commutes.
Protecting you from the perils of getting chain oil on your clothes is a neatly integrated chain guard. There are also mudguards to keep off road spray, and it's nice to see a generous-length flap extension on the front mudguard to stop your shoes getting too soaked.
Another useful addition is having a mini pump fitted to the frame, so discreet that you could be forgiven for not even spotting it at first.
Lights are essential for winter commuting, and Brompton has smartly added lights in a very neat way to the bike. There's a large rear light and, up front, a Cateye Volt 300 mounted neatly above the front wheel. This saves having to attach lights to handlebars and seatposts with fiddly clamps and silicone bands that aren't always that secure, and meant the bike was ready to ride into the dark evening straight out of the box.
You can customise the Brompton to suit your needs, and that includes the gearing. Bath is a hilly place so we chose a geared option, naturally, and went with the 6-speed model. A 3-speed BWR (Brompton Wide Range) hub gear is paired with two external sprockets and a compact derailleur system. Both the hub gear and two sprockets are operated by individual trigger shifters underneath the handlebar, with easy-to-view gear indicator windows. The triggers are ergonomic and fall naturally within easy reach.
It does take some time to get familiar with the gear range and to operate the twin trigger shifters, but you quickly get your head around it and how best to use the gears for different scenarios. The range was sufficient to let me scale steeps climbs without leaving me spinning out on flatter roads. It's a good setup, with no huge gaps between the gears.
Based in London, Brompton has been hand-building its bikes for nearly 30 years and the design hasn't strayed far from the original. Folding a Brompton is an easy and quick job, and it's mostly intuitive, once you've had a few goes. The well-designed manual outlines the few steps required to effortlessly unfold the bike, but I'll admit it does take a few attempts before it's second nature – best to practise before doing a live run on a busy crowded railway platform.
It's possible to get a bit flustered on your first few attempts, but the key is to remember the steps and to do them in the right order. It soon becomes a doddle and you'll be showing off to your mates just how quickly you can fold it down. The large plastic locking levers are easy to operate and fasten the bike securely into its upright position.
If your commute involves public transport, the Brompton really is going to work for you. It's small enough once folded – 585mm high, 565mm long and 270mm wide – that it'll fit in the luggage rack on a train.
The steel frame is tough and you only need see the high number of Bromptons on the roads of various vintages to realise they're built to last. It's not light, though, weighing in at 12.5kg (27.5lb), but the weight is at least offset by the small wheels and the wide range of gears, so it doesn't feel heavy when pedalling along.
Where it's obviously more noticeable is when you pick it up. It's a bit of a lump. For a bike that folds so elegantly and is designed to be easily transportable, it's a shame it's not lighter for carrying; even hefting it into the boot of the car is a two-arm job unless you've been working out.
A basic Brompton costs £820 but from there you can customise the bike to suit your needs and budget. If you're feeling flush and you want a lightweight Brompton, the titanium version sheds a couple of kilos but also removes a decent chunk of cash from your wallet, upping the base price to £1,400.
Our test bike, with the 6-speed gearing and a few extras such as the front luggage mounting block, front light and two-tone paint job, costs £1,090. It's not cheap, but if you have a commute involving a train journey with a short distance at either end that is too far to walk, the Brompton offers the easy fold and compact size you need. The ride may be compromised in certain situations because of the small wheels, but it's far improved from older versions. It's easy to see why the Brompton has, for many, become the default choice, and why secondhand ones still go for decent money.
The Brompton is both easy to use and a delight to ride. It's hugely customisable with a broad colour palette choice and optional extras, plus – if this is important to you – it's built in Britain.
The iconic Brompton is hard to beat, easy to use and a delight to ride
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Brompton S6L folding bike
Size tested: one size
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Each Brompton can be custom built for you, from handlebars to colours, lighting to luggage, create your bike.
All Brompton bikes are made in our factory in London. There are 1,200 parts which make up the average bike. Many of which are bespoke to Brompton.
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?
A Brompton is the perfect bicycle for the city.
It folds down to a portable, practical size (585mm high x 565mm long x 270mm wide / 23" x 22.2" x 10.6"); so can be taken on other forms of public and private transport. It can also be taken inside (homes, offices, bars) so it is a lot less likely to be stolen.
Its ride position and agility are more than a match for conventional bicycles. Small wheels mean fast acceleration from red lights and increased maneoverability through busy streets.
It is tough and can take everything the city throws at it, every day. A steel frame, efficient and puncture resistant tyres, handmade with high build quality and a design that has been refined over 25 years means Brompton bikes provide years of regular city use and beyond - check out these amazing journeys, pushing the bike to the limit.
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
It's evidently a very high quality product with very good attention to detail.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Full steel frame and fork – a titanium frame option is available.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Provides very lively and snappy handling.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Very good, with the S-Type handlebar providing a sporty position.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very comfortable, with well-padded grips and saddle.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Despite the hinged frame design it feels stiff enough to make swift progress.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Well for a small-wheeled folding bike.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
Wasn't an issue.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Lively
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
It's a snappy and direct-handling bike at low speeds but quite stable at higher speeds; it's a good balance for a mixed-speed commute.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
There's nothing I would change.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
Really liked the 6-speed setup, providing a good range of gears; it coped with hills and flat roads well.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
Wouldn't change anything.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
Doubling up the 3-speed hub range with two sprockets is a smart idea.
Wheels and tyres
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? Yes
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
If you want a folding bike, it's likely a Brompton will be on your list. While the price is quite high, you can customise the build to suit your budget, and the performance, usability and functionality do go a long way to justifying the cost.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
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: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.