The model I rode was the P6L-X, which means that it is set up with "butterfly" trekking handlebars, 6 speeds, fenders but no rear rack. The "X" at the end indicates that the frame is the lightweight version - with titanium fork and rear triangle. Generally Bromptons are available either all-steel or with titanium parts, either with or without fenders and racks, with a variety of gearing options, with or without dynamo lighting, and with a choice of handlebar styles.
Now I know that lots of people find these trekking bars goofy, and I agree. But you know what? The Brompton is already goofy, so to my eye the bars look right at home here. Imagine replacing that expanse of foam with some nice cork tape - I think this could look great.
Here is a close-up of the hub and derailleur together.
The staff at Harris Cyclery showed me how to fold and unfold the bike and attached a huge basket to the front, so that I could carry all of my stuff home. I first rode on the streets behind the store without the basket, just to get used to the bike. Because the Brompton is so low to the ground and has such small wheels, it initially gives the impression of being a very long bike and this took me some getting used to. It also felt "different" from normal bikes when starting from a stop: At first there was an odd sensation of momentary front end wobble when starting, so I practiced starting and stopping at intersections until it felt natural. Then I mounted the front basket and set off.
My ride home was just over 9 miles and the first half of it was on fairly busy, hilly roads, in 5pm suburban traffic. The Brompton does not handle like other bikes I am used to, but I did not find this bad or difficult to manage, just different. I soon discovered that the bike was easy to maneuver through tight spaces, and was capable of making dramatic turns gracefully and safely. I used this to my advantage when cycling through town centers in stand-still traffic. I was also pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to cycle up hill; The Brompton had a light, roadish feel to it when climbing. Cycling downhill felt stable, and the brakes were easy to control and modulate.
There is a lot of talk about small wheeled bikes having a "harsh ride quality," so here is my take on it. When riding the Brompton, I was aware of a constant, but extremely subtle feeling of road vibration regardless of whether the road was smooth or bumpy. This sounds worse than it actually is, so let me clarify: There was no pain or sense of being "knocked about" associated with what I am describing, just a very tiny, barely perceptible "shimmy" type sensation. Interestingly, when the bicycle actually went over bumps - even sizable ones - it handled them better than the average full-sized bike. So: I am okay with the subtle shimmy if it comes with the superior ability to swallow bumps, but others might not agree. Best thing to do is to test ride the bike and see how you feel about the ride quality - but "harsh" would not be a word I'd use to describe it at all. I can imagine riding the Brompton long distances on bad roads.
The trekking handlebars were not as helpful as I had hoped in allowing for a variety of hand positions. I mostly kept my hands on the tops and occasionally on the corners. It is not possible to reach the brakes from the other positions, but moreover the other positions are not especially comfortable. I've been told by several Brompton retailers now that many customers prefer the traditional M-bar, but with bar-end attachments that will allow for a more ergonomic hand placement.
Both the Co-Habitant and I rode the Brompton repeatedly over the course of the two days I had it on loan. My positive impressions included the high quality of the build, the smoothness over bumps, the maneuverability, the ease of mounting and dismounting (low step-over), the compact size, and the amazing load capacity. This bike is designed for enormous front bags, plus whatever the rear rack can fit - I had no idea it could carry this much stuff. And as far as aesthetics, I find the Brompton charmingly eccentric, and would be fine riding it. My favourite colour option is the raw lacquer, though I also love the new sage green. My not so positive impressions included the weight (a 20lb folding bike?), and the fact that should you not wish to drag the bike around with you everywhere, it is not so easy to lock up safely. While I know that most people are crazy about the famous Brompton fold, I am neutral about it. Maybe I'm just being difficult, but I don't get the miracle there: Okay, so it folds... Isn't that the whole point of a folding bike? But I am only partly serious and I do understand that it folds better than the other folders out there. It is a neat design that is especially conducive for travel - which is precisely why we are considering it.
In reality, our biggest problem with buying Bromptons is that in the course of choosing all the options we'd want (good lighting, 6-speed gearing, fenders, racks, extras) the bikes transform from what initially promises to be reasonably priced to something entirely unaffordable. Depending on the components and options selected, a Brompton can easily double or even nearly triple in cost, so that is something to keep in mind. Is it worth it? That depends on how much you want or need a folding bike. And among folding bikes, the Brompton is widely acknowledged to be "the best." Thank you to Harris Cyclery, in West Newton, MA, for this extended test ride.