There's something very appealing about humming along almost silently on an electric vehicle, emitting nothing but eco-friendly PC-ness.

And, as Camille Jenatzy showed in the 1890's, electric vehicles have some serious performance credentials; a DC electric motor produces maximum torque at zero revs so an electric vehicle needs neither gearbox nor clutch to take off like a scalded cat.

Given enough amps, DC motors can produce startling power figures; they are routinely used to propel freight trains and nuclear submarines. Jenatzy was the first human to travel at more than 100km/h and at one stage held the world land speed record in his electric car, La Jamais Contente (Never Satisfied).

But it is the production and storage of those amps that is the problem at this stage of electric vehicle development - and indeed, always has been. Fuel cells are in their infancy; while they emit nothing but water vapour the hydrogen that fuels them is both messy and expensive to produce.

The endurance of battery-powered vehicles capable of performance comparable with internal-combustion engines is still measured in seconds rather than hours - which brings us to the Helio electric cycle.

The Helio was designed by eGO vehicles in the US and is now built in Taiwan. It's distributed in South Africa by Flexible Energy Solutions, which claims that it will soon be homologated here as an L1 moped - the equivalent of a 50cc scooter.

And before you ask, Cyril, L1 vehicles are street-legal in South Africa for one person only but may not be ridden on a freeway.

It's based on a very strong, boat-shaped, sheet-aluminium chassis with an equally sturdy gooseneck in front to house the steering head and electrical controls.

The 24V, 34ah battery pack and 1.5kW, direct-current electric motor are inside the chassis and drive the rear wheel via a Gates toothed belt. This keeps the centre of gravity as low as possible, while the top of the box functions as a footboard, complete with self-adhesive, non-slip flooring.

The front suspension looks like it came off an upmarket mountain bike, with gaitered telescopic forks and a built-in fork brace, a cable-operated disc brake and straight handle-bars at the top of a long steering stem.

The rear axle is directly mounted in slots in the chassis, obviating final-drive problems but leading to an uncomfortably firm ride; the saddle, however, is sprung and the makers offer in addition a sprung seat post with damper.

Compared to the rest of the (very robust) chassis the seat post looks a little under-engineered but it's firmly braced by two supports running down to the rear axle-plates and carried my 100kg+ without a problem.

Street kit

All Helio electric cycles have head and tail lights; the Commuter model shown here also has indicators and a hooter operated by conventional motorcycle switchgear on the left handlebar, mirrors and a neat "Cycle Computer" pod on the right that displays speed or distance (but not both at the same time).

There's a little carrier behind the seat with a folding, steel-mesh basket; a handlebar-mounted front basket is available as an extra-cost option. The maker claims the whole thing weighs only 60kg - which is a little surprising considering the robust construction of the chassis.

To ride it you turn a key-switch on the gooseneck to either left (far) or right (fast) and turn the twistgrip on the right handlebar towards you in the time-honoured manner. As I mentioned above, all electric vehicles produce maximum torque at zero revs so the Helio jumps off the line far harder than you'd expect from a little 1.5kW motor.

As soon as you close the twistgrip the motor becomes a generator, which has the effect of slowing the Helio very sharply as well as giving the battery a boost as long as you are still moving.

In "fast" mode top speed is about 35km/h (and you'll get there in less than 60m) and claimed range 25km; the company says "far" mode will take you 35km, but at only 25km/h.

Unexpectedly stable

However, acceleration in "far" mode is so slow that it can only be used on very quiet roads; around other traffic you need all the acceleration you can get.

Riding it feels more akin to a bicycle than a motorcycle or scooter; it's unexpectedly stable thanks to its low centre of gravity and 20" bicycle wheels, rather than the 10" rims common on 50cc scooters.

However, its steering head is practically vertical and its wheelbase only 1018mm so its steering is lightning-quick; the combination of electronic and disc braking will stop you so quickly you have to brace yourself against the handlebars to avoid sliding off the seat.

Think of it as a powered bicycle rather than an electric scooter; it's ideal for private estates (particularly those with noise regulations), suburban streets, popping off to the shops and going to school.

It's recharged from a household socket, draws less current than a kettle and recharges to 80 percent of its capacity in only three hours so no internal combustion engine will ever match it for economy.

At R14 000 it's expensive for a scooter but cheaper than a decent mountain bike but, just as I wouldn't advise commuting in downtown traffic on a bicycle, the Helio has neither the muscle nor the range for the Big-City Boogie.

The 60³ Protocol

No electric vehicle motoring.co.za has tested, with the possible exception of the Adequate Energy has that benefit but, before I am accused of bias against electric vehicles, let me try to quantify that.

After noting the commuting requirements of as many of my colleagues as I could, in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, I formulated what I have named the 60³ Protocol: it states that a viable commuter bike should be able to carry a 60kg teenager a distance of 60km in less than an hour.

This protocol is completely arbitrary - and it should be noted that at least one 50cc moped I've reviewed didn't make the grade - but it's a starting point for unbiased evaluation of alternative forms of propulsion.

Helios electric cycle specifications