2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

By Indefinitely Wild on at

“Holy Shit!” Those are the first words said—or, more typically, shouted—by everyone who’s thrown a leg over the 2016 Specialized Turbo S. This thing is fast. But it’s not the speed that takes you by surprise, it’s how well electric power is integrated into the human cycling experience.

What Is It?

Back in 2010, Specialized — one of the four biggest bicycle companies — embarked on a program to electrify its bikes. It’s a programme that’s not yet complete, as we’ll explain below, but it is one that has been delivering impressive products for the last two years.

In fact, the company now has four electric bicycles in its range: The Turbo, Turbo X, the Turbo S we’re reviewing here and even the Turbo Levo FSR Expert 6Fattie mountain bike.

The Turbo S is the top-of-the-range city bike; a road bike with aggressive geometry and quality components, but a comfortable upright riding position. The kind of thing you see people who ride race bikes on weekends commuting on during weekdays in New York, LA, Seattle or wherever. Just this one’s got a battery in its frame and an electric motor on its rear hub.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

New for 2016 is a motor that, at 500 watts nominal and 750w peak, is twice as powerful as last year’s; a battery that, at 19.5 amp hours, is 40 per cent larger; a Shimano XT groupset that’s nicer than last year’s SRAM components; and a smartphone app that allows you to tailor the bike’s performance to suit your individual rides.

This is the kind of stiff, responsive, agile ride with which you can aggressively tackle traffic. All of the Turbo S’s parts are high-performance but robust, which should make for a bike that’s relatively low-maintenance and able to deal with inclement weather. The XT hydraulic disc brakes and 1x11 drivetrain sacrifice only weight compared to top-tier XTR stablemates.

But that’s looking at the Turbo S as a traditional pedal-power-only bicycle, which is very much is not. You’ll notice the incredibly large frame down tube, which contains the removable battery and the large hub motor in the rear wheel. Those bring weight up from the 18-20lbs that’d be typical of such a high-end urban commuter to 54.5lbs. And, compensating for that are heavy duty, double-wall aero rims laced 36 times to a high-flange hub on the front and that very, very high-flange motor on the rear.

Positively fat 700x45mm Specialized Armadillo (anti-puncture) tires would be ridiculous and performance-blunting on any normal road bike, but here, run at just 45psi or so, are necessary for keeping such a heavy bike stable and riding well over rutted urban terrain. They work and feel more like motorcycle tires than they do traditional road bike rubber.

Cleverly, running lights are integrated front and rear, wired into the main battery and always-on while the bike is running.

You control and monitor the bike’s performance from a little LCD/joystick control unit on the right handlebar, above the shift levers.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

The switch turns the bike on and off; the LEDs indicate charge, if you don’t have your smartphone with you.

Who’s It For?

I haven’t told you the price yet. And that’s for a reason. Most of us won’t have ridden bicycles since our youths in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s when bikes were cheaply bought at Sears and disposed of as we grew. Since a few of us didn’t give up bicycles when we started driving and many of us got sweet jobs working at tech companies or on Wall Street at the same time as cheap Chinese imports started dominating the affordable market, quality bike makers have since shifted their focus towards much more expensive, high performance bikes.

The people buying brand new Giants and Cannondales and Treks and Specializeds want ultra-light frames and wheels and the fanciest components possible. And the Turbo S very much exists in that same world. It costs $7,000/£4,537.

The cheapest Turbo starts at $3,000/£1,944, the comfier Turbo X is $4,500/£2,916 and the off-road Turbo Levo is a little bit more, at $7,500/£4,861, since you’re also paying for suspension.

So, the Turbo S is for experienced cyclists who understand and appreciate what goes into a five grand bike, or current car drivers who are looking to spend less time in their M4 or S5 sitting in traffic on the way to Mountain View. The former look forward to putting in a little less effort on their way to work, the latter can look forward to putting in a lot more.

The Turbo S is still very much a bicycle that you have to pedal and ride. Just one that makes doing so a lot faster than before while making longer distances more achievable.

But why a bicycle? Why not simply spend less on a scooter or motorcycle while still achieving similar traffic-busting abilities? It’s all a question of licensing and legalities. Cyclists enjoy a myriad of benefits over other road users — no registration, no insurance, no licenses, free parking everywhere, access to bicycle trails, the ability to ride on pavements in some areas, the ability to take advantage of crossings, dedicated lanes, tax breaks, commuter benefits from employers, the ability to bring your bicycle inside your office or flat…the list goes on. Even here in Los Angeles, where I can legally split lanes on my motorcycles, a bicycle is often a much easier and more convenient way to get around.

You’ll note that the Turbo S is compliant with California’s just-signed electric bicycle law, to the letter:

A “class 3 electric bicycle,” or “speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle,” is a bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour, and equipped with a speedometer.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

Integrated lighting is slick and extremely bright, but doesn’t flash.

Design

The real challenge Specialized faced with this bike wasn’t in slickly integrating the battery (which it achieved) or making the weight disappear (which is really just a question of centre of gravity and fitting good brakes). The real challenge was in providing the above mentioned “assistance” in a way that feels natural, smooth and which amplifies your ability to control the bike rather than compromising it.

And that is the crowning achievement of the Turbo S. Never mind that you can sustain 28mph for a dozen miles or more without breaking a sweat or climb the steepest hills without losing your breath. What matters here is that you can do both while retaining the natural, unencumbered and easy experience of riding a bike.

As part of this review, I’ve asked everyone who’s stopped by my house for the last week to throw a leg over the bike. And haven’t told them it’s electric. Those friends have ranged from other experienced cyclists to people who probably haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 10. None of them had any issue with riding as normal, none of them crashed, none of them was even scared. They just shouted, “Holy Shit!” and kept riding with a giant smile on their face.

Specialized has very obviously spent many thousands of man hours studying the way humans apply power to bike pedals and figuring out how a hub motor can add assistance to the powered portion of that pedal stroke without any sort of jerk or kick or lag or unnecessary continuation of power after the human has stopped applying it. The result of all that effort and the entire point of this bike is that pedalling is simply easier than it would be otherwise. Less effort is required than the level of acceleration, sustained speed or climb would otherwise dictate. Nothing else feels different at all.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

Many of the components are the same you’ll find on a £4,000+ mountain bike. So Specialized’s done a good job of delivering a bike that meets the expectations of its price point even away from its electric assist.

Using It

The other night, I rode from Hollywood to Silverlake to meet friends for a spicy pork blood dinner. And in the excitement of going for a ride on a really exciting, brand new bike, I forgot to grab my lock on the way out the door. No matter, I beat them to the restaurant by 15 minutes, answered every question about the Turbo S a passing homeless guy had, then followed Ty as he searched for parking up a steep hill. Honestly, his 4Runner kind of held me back; I could have ascended faster if I wasn’t following him.

When he finally found a spot 10 minutes later, he said, “Man, that’s some serious wattage you’re putting down,” winked and picked the bike up and threw it in the back of his truck.

54lbs is heavy for a bicycle, but isn’t so much that a reasonably strong person can’t still manipulate it statically like they can a regular bicycle. It’s the floppy front wheel and spinning pedals that get in the way of me loading it onto the roof of our Subaru Outback more than it is the weight; I can still do it myself just like I can with the 26lbs Giant Reign.

That night I wore jeans, nice shoes and a button down shirt. It wasn’t a long ride, but I showed up outside the restaurant without being sweaty or out of breath in the least. Just amped from blasting through cars for 15 minutes and with messy hair from going 28mph helmetless. I ate my fill of Thai food, then I rode home with a swollen belly in less time than it’d have taken to grab a Lyft.

I spent six years commuting through New York on a light, simple, stupidly brakeless fixed gear. Now I mostly ride trails here in SoCal. What I like from a bike isn’t a comfortable ride or an easy experience, it’s a little bit of warfare in between meetings or at the end of a long day. And in that the Turbo S delivers. It steers quickly, holds a line with confidence and powers away from traffic faster than most cars manage. It very much is not a motorcycle; it’s light and agile in a way that defies that type of vehicle. And it requires much more effort.

It’s not that you don’t have to try to ride this Specialized electric. You still have to stand on the pedals to beat cars or climb a hill and you still have to maintain a fast cadence at high speeds. It’s just that you can do all that in jeans instead of shorts, nice shoes instead of Sidis and without making the back of your shirt wet.

What of range? The Turbo S has four modes: Turbo, Eco, off and Regen. Honestly, I’ve just left it in Turbo. Eco just isn’t fast enough once you’ve tasted faster speeds (it feels like roughly 50% power). Off, well…you’re pedalling a 54lbs bike on low-pressure tires, and regen is the same, you just gain a tiny portion of charge on descents; not enough to be worthwhile. Turbo is so smooth and lasts so long I’m not even sure why the other modes are there.

That first night, I went from 86 to 74 per cent charge on a 8 mile ride, pedalling it at max speed between stop lights and accelerating as fast as possible away from them. Most of that was fairly level, but I did climb that very steep hill as Ty looked for parking.

Specialized claims a range of 35 to 60 miles, depending on how you ride. 12 per cent of battery across 8 miles seems to exceed that claim, and I’ve since seen similarly impressive results. I have yet to go for a ride long enough to run the battery down fully, but maybe I’ll get a chance to do that this weekend and will update this article when I do. As it stands, I can easily hit the outskirts of LA from my relatively central home, and return, without approaching battery discharge. And LA is a big city.

A full charge on a 110V outlet takes just 3.5 hours. You just pull a rubber plug from the right side of the frame and plug in the transformer. That’s a little too big and heavy to easily take with you, but takes up no room under a couch or a desk. I’ve just been plugging the thing in at night and not worrying about it too much.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

Still worried about range? The smartphone app (iOS and Android) connects to the bike via Bluetooth and allows you to incrementally tune and track performance. Most importantly, it allows you to define an upcoming ride by time or distance and adjust motor performance to suit the desired battery capacity you’d like at the end. You can track your rides and calculate the amount of energy they take, then use that information to inform settings for future needs.

I’m not a long-distance commuter, but again I have not even come close to maxing out the range of this thing in my normal use. I’m currently at 70 per cent charge following a 18-mile ride which I started with unknown capacity. And I keep it in Turbo everywhere.

Like

Takes the hard work out of riding a bike. You’re still riding, you’re just not sweating.

All the involvement and fun of cycling.

All the legal advantages of a bicycle.

Hills are made flat.

Excellent brakes and super-grippy tires inspire confidence in heavy traffic.

I’ve had bad experiences with 23mm wide Armadillos, but these “Nimbus” models ride well, and forego the greasy feel of previous generations.

Why all road bikes don’t have disc brakes yet, I just don’t know. These stop with authority.

1x11 gears are simple and give you all the range of effort you need.

Integrated lights are incredibly bright.

App takes guess work out of range.

Charging takes surprisingly little time.

Surprisingly not terrible to load onto a car roof, thank the optimal centre of gravity for that. You can pick up a single plate at the gym, right?

Rides incredibly well for such an agile road bike. Manages LA’s terrible pavement very well.

Out-accelerates Porsches (to about 15mph).

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

No Like

Desperately cries out for an integrated USB port for phone charging.

Learning the price makes 100 per cent of potential converts go from maniacal grins to sad face, instantly.

Walk up home or office? You’ll get about three stories before passing out.

Expensive bike + expensive parts = one big lock and one cable lock,minimum.

Integrated lights provide excellent vision for riders, but don’t flash to catch the attention of the 99.9999% of car drivers who aren’t paying attention.

A chain ring-concentric motor would further optimise the centre of gravity while improving acceleration, braking and ride.

2016 Specialized Turbo S Review: The Best Electric Bike Yet, At A Price

The hub motor is really the last electric component that’s not so slickly integrated that it’s invisible. I guess we’re all going to have to get used to rear wheels looking like this.

Should You Buy It?

Specialized’s end goal is to make electric power available across its entire range of bikes. With this new Turbo S, it’s already achieved perfectly seamless integration. The next hurdles to tackle are weight and cost. Mostly cost.

If a £5,000 city bike makes financial sense for you, then there is no longer any reason to hesitate. This bike is everything you want it to be. It’s as fun and involving as a good road bike, with the effortless nature of an electric, smoothly combined into a single, legally permissive product. But you Google employees are relatively few and far between and it is unknown whether or not the price of a competition bike will transfer to the utility of a commuter bike.

The rest of us will have to watch and wait as this technology trickles down to levels attainable by mere mortals. This bike is awesome and this bike is capable of shifting large swaths of commuters out of their cars and onto bicycles, it just needs to become about seven times less expensive to do that. If this Specialized is anything to judge by, you’ll be riding an electric bicycle as soon as you’re able.


This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there