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Vital MTB Test Sessions: Four Exciting Electric Mountain Bikes Reviewed Head-to-Head 50

Curious what you can get away with when you put a motor and a great big battery into a mountain bike? The Specialized Turbo Levo SL, Norco Sight VLT 29, Santa Cruz Heckler, and Trek Rail E-bikes face off in Idaho.

Vital MTB Test Sessions: Four Exciting Electric Mountain Bikes Reviewed Head-to-Head

If you're ready to MAX out your fun meter at every point on the trail, E-bikes do a great job. As we discussed in a recent Inside Line podcast, we've shied away from testing many of them in the past. It was high time to see just how far they've come. Aiming for a proper sampling of the goods, our lineup includes four 150mm-travel rides from well-known brands. The bikes sport a variety of motors, features, and suspension designs, and all sizes were chosen with comparable reach values.

In this video, we break down their strengths, their weaknesses, what we think of this type of bike, and pick our personal favorites. Welcome to Vital MTB Test Sessions for electric mountain bikes. Click play, DIG IN!

 

We couldn't believe the downhill-bike like sense of comfort they encouraged, the speeds we hit, amount of terrain we covered, and stuff we could climb.

Key Timestamps

  • 1:32 - Bike Intros
  • 2:47 - Hill Climb Challenge
  • 4:44 - Specialized Turbo Levo SL Review
  • 9:03 - Sprint Challenge
  • 9:40 - Norco Sight VLT 29 Review
  • 12:39 - Bike Lift Challenge
  • 13:23 - Santa Cruz Heckler Review
  • 17:12 - Trek Rail Review
  • 21:53 - E-MTB Thoughts
  • 23:04 - Our Favorite Bikes and Motors

Specialized Turbo Levo SL

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  • Travel: 150mm (5.9-inches) rear // 150mm (5.9-inches) front
  • Wheel Size: 29-inch
  • Motor: Specialized SL 1.1 // 240 Watts // 35Nm torque
  • Battery: 320Wh + optional 160Wh extender = 480Wh total
  • Suspension Design: FSR
  • Frame Material: Carbon
  • Measured Weight: 38.3-pounds (17.4kg, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Large
  • Model Tested: S-Works
  • Warranty: Lifetime
  • MSRP: $13,525 USD as tested // Models start at $6,500
  • More Info: www.specialized.com

When the Specialized Turbo Levo SL launched, it turned heads with its sleek looks and low weight. This 29-inch E-bike is just 38.3-pounds. In addition to having the shortest chainstays at 437mm, the low weight makes it the most mountain-bike feeling of the bunch with way better agility and slow-speed pop. It just has a more familiar feel and ride quality. It handles quicker in tight terrain and is easier to pump and throw around, providing an experience that's altogether less cumbersome. You can brake a little bit later for corners, and hopping the rear end up tricky climbs is also far easier.

The reduced weight is in large part due to the use of an exclusive and more efficient 240W motor. It puts out half the torque at 35Nm. On the trail it provided the most natural motor feel of the bunch, gently boosting your efforts at precise times, and was the unofficial wheelie master. We found that it holds pace on low-angle climbs and flatter terrain, but the others run away and maintain more battery power on steeper grades and soft terrain where more torque is a clear benefit. Even so, battery life was quite good considering the smaller 320Wh size in the downtube. With the 160Wh add-on, you're up to 480Wh.

We looked forward to testing this bike and it delivered the expected mountain bike ride boosted by a moderate electric assist. If you want to feel like you’re still earning your climbs and retain a familiar, nimble feel, the Levo SL is the weapon of choice. It also works better with no motor assistance than the rest.


Santa Cruz Heckler

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  • Travel: 150mm (5.9-inches) rear // 160mm (6.3-inches) front
  • Wheel Size: 27.5+
  • Motor: Shimano Steps E8000 // 250 Watts // 70Nm torque
  • Battery: 504Wh
  • Suspension Design: Lower-link VPP (Virtual Pivot Point)
  • Frame Material: Carbon
  • Measured Weight: 47.3-pounds (21.5kg, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Large
  • Model Tested: X01 RSV
  • Warranty: Lifetime
  • MSRP: $10,599 USD as tested // Models start at $7,399
  • More Info: www.santacruzbicycles.com

The Santa Cruz Heckler was hands down the most eager to tackle rowdy sections. It truly stood out with its general braap-ability. It doesn't matter what's in front of you, this bike has it handled. The additional low-central mass of a motor and battery paired with the buttery lower-link VPP suspension blew our minds when changing directions and in various situations of smashing.

The Shimano Steps E8000 motor gives a strong initial boost and lots of early grunt that will help get things moving. On the weakness front though, it signs off pretty quickly and lacks much top-end assistance – almost like it has more to give and is being held back by programming.

Overall, if there was an e-bike that could convince the die-hard mountain biker to like these electric toys, this may well be the one. We love that Santa Cruz brought the "Heckler" name back embodied in an E-bike. It carries all of the original Heckler attitude to a new era and did a number on our perception of E-bikes. Climbing is easier and going downhill you'll be filled with new levels of confidence as you plow through the rough stuff with loads of control. This one is incredibly stable with great pop, excellent small-bump compliance and big-hit reserves, plus a strong parts spec.


Trek Rail

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  • Travel: 150mm (5.9-inches) rear // 160mm (6.3-inches) front
  • Wheel Size: 29-inch
  • Motor: Bosch Performance Line CX Gen4  // 250 Watts // 75Nm torque (updatable to 85Nm)
  • Battery: 625Wh
  • Suspension Design: ABP (Active Braking Pivot)
  • Frame Material: Carbon
  • Measured Weight: 48.9-pounds (22.2kg, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Large
  • Model Tested: 9.9
  • Warranty: Lifetime
  • MSRP: $11,999 USD as tested // Models start at $4,999
  • More Info: www.trekbikes.com

Within just a few minutes of riding, the Bosch CX-equipped 29-inch Trek Rail gives the immediate impression of e-MTB dominance. Extra effort on this bike is rewarded more than any other since the motor just keeps on pulling, giving that a little bit of consistent extra torque that makes it amazing in scenarios where you're pushing things to the max. The Rail also won the Energizer Bunny Award for the best battery longevity in our test.

Ultimately, the Trek Rail does everything pretty well, making it one of the best all-rounders in the test. With descending characteristics you'd expect from your favorite Trek mountain bike, the Rail is easy to ride and even easier to climb with its snappy torque and steady pull. If budget is of no concern, the 9.9 build is near the top of the pecking order in the E-MTB landscape. It's not as playful or charismatic as some of the others, but this tuxedo-looking bike symbolizes class and intention with a big win on battery life. 


Norco Sight VLT 29

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  • Travel: 150mm (5.9-inches) rear // 160mm (6.3-inches) front
  • Wheel Size: 29-inch
  • Motor: Shimano Steps E8000 // 250 Watts // 70Nm torque
  • Battery: 630Wh + optional 360Wh extender = 990Wh total
  • Suspension Design: ART with Horst link (Advanced Ride Technology)
  • Frame Material: Carbon front // Aluminum rear
  • Measured Weight: 52.7-pounds (23.9kg, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Model Tested: C1 29
  • Warranty: 5 years
  • MSRP: $7,499 USD as tested // Models start at $4,699
  • More Info: www.norco.com

The Norco Sight VLT 29 is arguably the best bang-for-your-buck E-bike in the test. This bike combines a carbon main frame with an aluminum chainstay, features a quality spec, and has the most progressive geometry of the bunch.

It rides lighter than the scale indicates. Compared to the Heckler, which shares the same Shimano motor and specs, just a bit of extra perceived effort was required on the climbs. The steep 78.7-degree effective seat tube angle puts you in a nice upright climbing position, which is awesome in big uphill scenarios. You're able to keep the front end down and charge to the top.

Pointed downhill, wide-open segments and sweeping corners are the Sight VLT’s forte. We hit 41.9mph on this bike, the fastest recorded speed, without feeling sketchy at all.

The integrated battery life also proved to be quite good. There is a 360Wh range extender for more adventurous riders, providing up to 990Wh. That's impressive and could be key for those looking to do some huge rides.


Comparative Suspension Analysis

Using the bike industry's leading linkage analysis software, André Santos was able to determine a close approximation of each bike's kinematics for this comparison. Though they don't always tell the full story, these charts provide great insight into several key factors that impact how the bikes ride. 

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André's Insights and Observations:

Anti-squat is an intrinsic property of the linkage that counteracts pedal-induced bob and determines the overall pedaling efficiency. Most non-electric trail and enduro bikes have nearly 100% anti-squat on average. A 100% anti-squat value is the "gold-standard" value in which the rear suspension does not extend or compresses under acceleration, resulting in minimal pedal bob and better pedaling efficiency. Interestingly, the anti-squat values of all four E-bikes tested here are very close to 100% at sag on rear cogs in the 21-50 tooth range. Despite having motors, this suggests the bike industry is applying similar principles to optimize the pedaling efficiency of E-bikes. Most of the group uses a 34-tooth chainring, while the Specialized Levo SL has a smaller 30-tooth chainring to help boost anti-squat to the 80-90% zone. If a 34-tooth was used it would drop to 60-80%.

Chainstay growth (chain extension) causes the crankset to rotate counter-clockwise when the suspension compresses, also known as pedal kickback. Chain extension is directly related to anti-squat values, with exception to high-pivot bikes with chain idlers. At 50% suspension compression we can see the Santa Cruz Heckler has slightly more chain extension (and more pedal kickback) than the rest of the group. However, when the suspension fully compresses the Santa Cruz has the lowest total chain extension and lowest total pedal kickback. The Specialized has the lowest chain extension of the group, but since it uses a smaller chainring the resulting pedal kickback is similar to the Trek and Norco. Despite these differences, all of the bikes have relatively normal numbers of kickback and chain extension.

Braking forces from the rear wheel can slightly affect the suspension. This is called anti-rise. The higher the anti-rise the more the rear braking forces tend to compress the rear shock, but the less the bike will pitch forward under rear-wheel braking. The Specialized, Norco, and Trek have near 50% anti-rise at sag, meaning that the rear suspension is relatively independent of braking forces but the bikes have slightly more tendency to pitch forward. The Santa Cruz has 85% anti-rise, which is a number commonly found on short dual-link designs such as VPP. This means that the Heckler preserves geometry better under rear braking.

 

Looking at leverage ratio and progressivity we can find some significant differences in the group. Ideally, progression in a linkage should match with riding style. More progressive kinematics will fit more aggressive riding styles because the suspension handles harder impacts better, while more linear suspension will suit less aggressive styles because the full range of travel is easier to use. As a reference, most non-electric enduro bikes have around 20-25% of linkage progression measured in terms of bottom-out resistance, while many downhill bikes have around 40%. In this case, the Specialized favors a less aggressive riding style without major jumps or hard impacts due to its 13% of progression. On the other hand, the Santa Cruz is quite progressive at 39%, which will fit very well a more aggressive riding style and offer a decent amount of resistance against harder landings and impacts. The Norco and Trek are in the middle of the spectrum with a moderate amount of progression at 23% and 27%, respectively.

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It's pretty cool to feel what the infusion of a motor and battery can do to something with two wheels. For now, these bikes are expensive, limited on terrain, and an absolute riot.

Relative Performance Ratings

With a wide variety of trail features and pitches under our tires, the areas where the bikes excelled or struggled came to light. Considering how things felt on the trail, we also rated them on various performance metrics relevant to the category.

Specialized Turbo Levo SL - Average Rating: 4.1 out of 5
Santa Cruz Heckler - Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Trek Rail - Average Rating: 4.3 out of 5
Norco Sight VLT 29 - Average Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Side-by-Side Spec Comparison


About The Testers

Brandon Turman - Age: 34 // Years Riding: 19 // Height: 5'10" (1.78m) // Weight: 165-pounds (74.8kg)

"I like to have fun, pop off the bonus lines on the sides of the trail, get aggressive when I feel in tune with a bike, and really mash on the pedals and open it up when pointed downhill." Formerly a mechanical engineer and Pro downhill racer, Brandon brings a unique perspective to the testing game as Vital MTB's resident product guy. He has on-trail familiarity with nearly every innovation in mountain biking from the past several years and a really good feel for what’s what. Dirt bikes are also a big passion of his, and you'll find him lining up at hare scramble and enduro races.

Brad Howell - Age: 40 // Years Riding: 25 // Height: 5'9" (1.75m) // Weight: 165-pounds (74.8kg)

Brad started mountain biking when a 2.25-inch tire was large, and despite having threads, bottom brackets sucked. Riding in the woods with friends eventually lead way to racing, trying to send it at the local gravel pits, and working in bike shops as a wrench to fix those bikes. Fortunate enough to have dug at six Rampages and become friends with some of the sport’s biggest talents, Brad has a broad perspective of what bikes can do and what it means to be a good rider. The past few years Brad worked in the bike industry and got to see the man behind the curtain. These days, though, he just likes riding his bike in the woods with friends.

Sean McClendon - Age: 35 // Years Riding: 21 // Height: 5'10" (1.78m) // Weight: 190-pounds (86.2kg)

"Griz" is a battered veteran of MTB gravity racing. Following a major crash during the 2010 USA National Championship Pro downhill race, he put in the hours and fought his way back to health and the fun that is two wheels. Griz has ridden for a number of the USA's top teams throughout his racing career, testing prototype frames and components along the way. Currently managing US Dealer sales and the Fresh Blood amateur development team at DEITY Components, he remains motivated by the mantra "whips don't lie." You'll often find him perfecting his high-flying sideways aerial maneuvers while living the #pinelife in Idaho.


Which type of bike should we test next? Are there any models that really interest you? What test location would be best? Leave your suggestions in the comments. We look forward to your feedback!

Video by Shawn Spomer and John Reynolds

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