Specialized introduced their first electric bike internationally back in 2012, it was a road-only model that turned heads because it was beautiful looking and super quiet. In 2016 they wowed ebike enthusiasts again with their first mountain models in the US including a hardtail called the Turbo Levo, and this review is for the fat tire version of that bike called the Turbo Levo Comp, I got to test ride and review the 2017 model. Priced at $5,000 it isn’t the most affordable electric mountain bike on the block but it was designed from the ground up to be a respectable mountain bike first and then thoughtfully-electric. The wires are internally routed, the mid-drive motor completely replaces the bottom bracket and merges with the frame to raise clearance and lower suspensions, and the battery pack slides up into the downtube from below. The entire geometry of the bike was built around the added weight of these e-systems, the thicker tubing, and extra large 4.6″ wide fat tires. It’s more relaxed and upright, offering cross country performance, and is being produced in four frame sizes so you don’t have to compromise body position and comfort if you’re a relatively tall or short rider. However, there’s only one high-step frame style vs. mid-step or step-thru and the top tube isn’t angled very much. So thankfully, the bike comes with a seat post dropper stock. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a fanboy for Specialized and actually purchased one of the more expensive FSR full suspension models myself in early 2016 because it was one of the first Brose motorized bikes to hit the US and I wanted to see how the motor performed. So far, I’m loving it!
In my opinion, Class 1 pedal assist performance is perfect for fat bikes because it offsets their weight and slower high-friction tires. Even though it’s very trail capable, this can be an all-purpose electric bike capable on paved roads, soft loamy Earth, sand, and even snow if you take the tire pressure all the way down to 5 PSI. Specialized chose a 250 watt nominal motor and kept the 20 mph top speed limit to say within the realm of human performance (albeit, a super-athlete). Whether you’re using an ebike to recover between hard rides, more of a weekend warrior or someone dealing with an injury, managing seasonal snowfall, or building trails, this thing is a blast to ride… but it does sacrifice on utility. There are no rear rack bosses or fender mounts. The rear seat stays are so wide that even aftermarket racks could be difficult to mount and the tire is so tall that a beam rack probably wouldn’t work unless you swap out the seat post dropper. Perhaps a trailer or backpack is the best solution, and there’s also no pedals or a kickstand (or provisions for adding a kickstand). The bike is relatively lightweight in part because it is so focused on being a sport platform, but I miss some of the little extras, especially because it’s a hardtail. While conducting this review, I spoke with a marketing rep named Sean Estes who explained that ebikes can distribute people across trails because they allow you to focus more on the parts of riding that you enjoy and can overcome steep ascents and boring terrain, even get you to local trails vs. driving to something more interesting or enjoyable on a traditional bike. I like to think that more people riding any kind of bikes means more trails being built. There’s a lot of torque in this motor, up to 90 Newton meters, and the brakes are very capable with 200 mm up front and 180 mm in the rear. I like that the levers offer tool-free adjustable reach and can be used with just two or one finger. It runs a 1×10 drivetrain with the heavier, less expensive, SRAM GX which performed great and is fairly comparable to the SRAM XX1 (lighter) and still has the clutch to reduce chain bounce and slap. I love the long rubberized slap guard on the right chainstay and appreciate the stainless steel chainring with narrow wide tooth pattern and plastic top guide to prevent drops. Steel is heavier than Aluminum but less porous which means that mud won’t stick to it as easily. It’s just a tougher drivetrain, capable of handling the added forces of a mid-motor. And that’s great, because the Brose system doesn’t offer shift detection and you can mash the gears hard if you shift without care. Note the punched out rims for added flex and reduced weight, the way they customized the seat post dropper with a trigger that matches the size and visual design of the right gear shifters, the short chainstays and straight downtube for snappier handling (and the rubber bumpers to protect from over-steer). Generally speaking, the motor is very quiet and smooth, it starts and stops quickly by measuring rear wheel speed, pedal cadence, and pedal torque, but you won’t know exactly how fast you’re going because there’s no integrated display panel.
So, the motor is rated at 250 watts nominal, which is efficient, but it actually peaks out closer to 530. It climbs very well, even on steep terrain with the larger tires and heavier build of the bike, it hasn’t failed me or my friends when riding on actual mountain terrain in Colorado, California and elsewhere as long as we shifted thoughtfully (sorry I didn’t get some true off-road shots for the video here). It isn’t as easy to bunny hop or lift this bike when navigating technical terrain (compared to a non-ebike) but it’s something you get used to and is applicable to almost all ebikes today which weigh 45 to 60+ pounds. I realize this video review was a bit underwhelming since I was just in the Specialized backlot and pump track but hopefully it illustrates an interesting point. The bike blends in, and being a hardtail, would work well for commuting and neighborhood use. It does’t have a big fancy display that could get scratched at a rack, it has 10 gears with a wide 11-40 tooth spread, so even pedaling unpowered feels comfortable, and the stylish but dark frame doesn’t attract unwanted attention from fellow commuters or trail riders… I think the internally routed cables also look great. I personally feel that people respect specialized so even if they do notice it’s an electric model, you might get more interest vs. seeming like some sort of motorcycler. Specialized makes bicycles, and they’re a longtime leader. The quick release skewer and bolt-in battery aren’t great for urban parking (there’s no traditional keyed locking core for the battery mount) but the battery can be removed easily enough, if you take the time to unscrew it every time. It’s a nice option for charging in-office and the EnergyBus charger uses a magnetic connector that eliminates bent pins and snag drops or trips. I was a bit bummed that the seat stays didn’t have bosses for adding a rear rack as mentioned earlier, but it’s a purist bike… what you do get are bottle cage bosses which work perfectly for the Specialized Zee-Cage and SWAT EMT tool. There’s plenty of room in the center triangle of this bike for mounting a frame bag or hanging on car and bus racks without snagging cables or bumping sensitive bits.
Powering the bike up is incredibly fast and simple. Once the battery is charged (on or off the frame) you press the center rubberized button on the left side of the downtube to power on. With a sort of dance, it shows 10 LEDs (all green when full and changing to red as 10% increments are expended). Above and below the power button are rubberized up and down buttons that change assist level. You’ve got three choices for power and they can be modified using the app. These rubber buttons seem well protected against water and are inset to reduce snags or crushing if the bike tips… but they aren’t as easy to reach as handlebar mounted buttons. It’s a simple, rugged, and non-distracting design for the rider, but ironically I feel that it can actually generate more interest and attention from other cyclists because of the lights. It’s one of the areas I’d like to see addressed with the Mission Control smartphone app someday. I’d like to be able to turn off the side LED lights! The fact that this electric bike (and all newer Turbo models) are compatible with a “Mission Control” app, and that it works on select Garmin devices, is a huge win which offers some unique abilities that very few other ebikes have. And ultimately, even if LED light control isn’t one of them, it’s an issue that black electrical tape can fix. While the app sort of makes up for the lack of a more traditional bar-mounted ebike LCD display, it doesn’t completely address the need to bend over in order to change assist levels. The idea seems to be that you choose an assist level once and then focus on riding. And because the motor controller measures torque, the range of power output is actually very satisfying and I didn’t find myself needing to switch power levels frequently. The app lets you tune acceleration, torque and power for the second level of assist as well as record rides in an e-bike specific area of Strava. You can search and plot courses with GPS and even tell the bike to “get me there and back without draining the battery” to help reduce range anxiety, but it will reduce the power and speed you’re given along the way. In my own experience, the app is cool but not something I use regularly. One of the biggest reasons for this choice is that it requires Bluetooth and uses GPS while also illuminating my screen and there is no USB charging port built into this ebike to offset that drainage. A couple of other reasons I haven’t frequently used the app are that my phone is huge and I don’t want to mount it to my bars and sometimes when I’m trail riding I don’t get good reception so the GPS feature seems limited. One approach to use the app but reserve your phone battery life would be to set the custom performance level with the phone and then just toss it in a bag or your pocket with the screen turned off. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s nice to have an app and I LOVE that my Garmin can control it vs. my phone but I don’t use it for much beyond tuning. More of a set it and forget it ;)
At the end of the day, the Turbo Levo Comp Fat is what I would consider a premium cross country and trail-ready fat tire electric mountain bike, even at the Comp level (which is Specialized’s entry point). You can definitely spend more and get higher capacity batteries, more aggressive geometries, and reduced weight, or even some full suspension fat ebikes from other companies if fat tires are your thing, but the Turbo Levo Comp is still very lightweight, well designed, and well supported. It’s the kind of technology that is fun, can help overcome injuries, is a capable commuting platform because of it’s excellent range and app route planning performance, and it doesn’t stand out. It’s not as comfortable as the FSR full suspension models which is what I chose because of my knee and back injuries, but with high-volume 4.6″ wide tires, this is still way more comfortable than average and the air fork is great. As an owner of a Levo, I still have an unpowered mountain bike, it’s a Specialized Stumpjumper, that thing is much lighter and great fun in its own ways… but I cannot go as far or climb as easily with it (which can add a lot of time). The Turbo Levo ebikes have been designed as a bicycle first with all of the same hardware and accessories as similar unpowered models from Specialized but they simply take you further. It’s as easy to tune and upgrade, and shops don’t seem to be as put off or intimidated by it as some other electric bicycles in my experience, but it still has cutting edge technology there. It’s meant to “just work” without a whole lot of thought and to fit right and ride well. Someday you might need to replace the battery pack, or even want to upgrade the battery to a larger capacity, but the motor is very durable and should just work. You can maximize the lifespan of most Lithium-ion batteries by storing them in a cool dry location and leaving around 50% if you won’t be riding for months. Inside the Brose motor is a belt system (Gates Carbon belt) that produces a smoother more natural feel but is very durable, and the manufacturer, Brose, is a German automotive company with years of experience in the Ebike space. I would consider them a leader. It’s exciting to see more companies stepping into the space, really investing themselves and showing what’s possible now. On the one hand I missed some of the little extras found on electric-first ebikes like a USB charger, LCD display, kickstand, rack and fender options etc. but these are not items you’d find on many normal mountain bikes and I respect that Specialized set them aside and made something more pure here with the Levo Fat, even if they did put ten bright LED lights on the side.
- The bike frame is beautiful, I love that it hides cables in addition to the motor and battery pack, there isn’t even a display panel here… it’s meant to blend in
- This is one of the few electric mountain bikes I’ve tested that has bumpers to prevent oversteer and frame contact of the fork (since the downtube is a bit longer), nice little touch and another “purpose built” feature
- It’s becoming more common with ebikes but this is one of the few fat tire mountain models I have seen with bottle cage bosses, you could carry a folding lock, mini-pump, or use the Specialized Z-Cage and SWAT tool as shown in the review
- Most of the additional weight from the motor and battery are positioned low and center on the frame for improved balance and handling, it’s always nice to be able to remove the battery too for easier lifting and transport
- This is a relatively quiet and stealthy electric bike, great for riding on trails where some riders might not be as receptive to e-bikes, it’s a Class 1 so allowed in more spaces than any other type of electric bike (pedal assist only, 20 mph max speed)
- Priced at ~$5k this isn’t exactly a cheap electric fat bike but it’s the entry price point for the Turbo Levo fat tire series and it comes with a great warranty, dealer support (from a wide network of dealers) and is made in four sizes so the overall experience should be great
- The extra fat 4.6″ tires improve comfort by adding cushion and in my experience they grip well and handle soft surfaces excellently (such as snow or sand, just lower the air pressure), they do increase drag a bit and create some buzzing noise on concrete
- Sturdy thru-axle design for both wheels increases stiffness and manages trail and mountain terrain properly, the bike is purpose-built and not just an existing frame with battery and motor attached, the frame geometry is specific
- I’m a big fan of the seat post dropper (which uses internally routed cabling), it allows you to mount the bike easily and handle transitions from efficient pedaling to shock-absorbing squats with the press of a lever, the bike only comes in diamond high-step so the dropper just makes it more approachable in general
- I wouldn’t call this bike super light weight at ~52.3 lbs but it uses high quality Specialized M1 Aluminum and the RockShox Bluto air fork is lighter and more adjustable than a lot of competing fat ebikes
- Extra large 200 mm hydraulic disc brake rotor up front front (the rear is 180 mm) offering improved stopping power and smoother more controlled stops for the added weight and forces of big tires
- In addition to the mobile phone app (iOS and Android), you can actually download a special app to some Garmin devices and use them to adjust bike performance and battery use so you arrive without fully expending the charge, it connects with a special ebike area of Strava as well
- The battery integration looks great and the pack doesn’t rattle but it really isn’t “locked” into the frame, a standard 6 mm hex wrench bolt holds it in place… at least you don’t have to worry about losing the key but a thief could get at it easier and they cost a lot so be careful, the battery also doesn’t have a handle or easy grip area so maybe use two hands when carrying it to be safe
- The simple LED side display concept makes good sense for mountain biking because it keeps the handle bar clear and there’s less to break if you crash but the lights can attract unwanted attention, this is something I’d like to have an option to disable in the app, some people use electrical tape to cover the lights
- Without a standard LCD computer screen or clicker buttons at the bar you don’t get the same feedback about speed, range or battery and aren’t able to adjust on the fly without taking a hand off the bar (or stopping completely to reach down to the buttons on the downtube), you can use your phone for more feedback but then you’ll drain its power as there is no USB charging port on the bike within reach
- No rack bosses on the seat stays and a wider opening mean that hardly any racks will work with this ebike, you might have to resort to wearing a backpack, a beam rack option might work but would raise the seat post dropper (do not mount it to the sliding part of the seat post)… I bring this up because hardtail fat bikes are often sought out for hunting and other expedition type rides where you need to carry gear, perhaps a trailer could be used
- The Brose motor system is compact, quiet and responsive (with cadence and assist sensors) but doesn’t offer shift sensing so you can mash gears and wear the chain faster if you don’t pedal and shift carefully (just let off a bit and ease the motor out when shifting), Brose also has a new high-torque motor for 2018 but this review is for the 2017 model
- Specialized opted for a more compact, smooth look at the bottom bracket so you’ve just got a thin plastic shield around the motor vs. a tougher, possibly easy to replace metal skid plate seen on some of the other bikes… just a different approach and probably fine for cross country riding, I believe there is a sticker protector for the downtube to keep little rocks and things from chipping the paint
- Considering the large capacity of the battery pack and the ability to sync the bike with apps and select Garmin devices it would be nice if there was a USB charging port somewhere so you don’t drain your portable device using wireless and GPS featuers
- The magnetic plug on the charger and at the bottom bracket can pick up junk from your floor (like staples, nails, iron filings etc.) so just try to keep it clean, another minor consideration is that the bike doesn’t come with a kickstand or provisions for adding one yourself
- I don’t think this electric bike comes with pedals, it’s a minor gripe but you’re paying a lot already, at least the Specialized dealer will have some great options to choose from