Wil Reviews The 2020 Specialized Levo SL Expert Carbon
When Specialized launched the Creo last year, the first-ever e-Bike to be built around the company’s newly developed SL 1.1 motor and battery system, we knew it would only be a matter of time before we’d see the technology adapted into an off-road version.
Check out the video review of the 2020 Specialized Levo SL here!
- 0:18 – Intro
- 0:50 – Levo SL vs Levo
- 1:38 – Background & Development
- 2:11 – SL 1.1 Motor
- 2:46 – The Battery
- 3:22 – The Range Extender
- 4:03 – 2020 Lineup & Pricing
- 4:31 – Levo SL Expert Carbon
- 5:43 – Complete Bike Weight
- 6:01 – On The Trail
- 6:11 – Geometry & Handling
- 7:20 – Fox 34 Fork
- 7:55 – Motor Performance & Efficiency
- 9:05 – Mission Control Tuning
- 9:19 – Issues & Component Notes
- 9:52 – Overall
- 10:56 – How Will Other Brands Respond?
- 11:24 – The Wrap Up
The SL 1.1 motor is, of course, a big story for the Californian brand. Instead of relying on a third-party company like Brose, Bosch or Shimano, Specialized designed and engineered its own mid-drive motor system. And with its svelte profile and stunningly low weight, the Creo has been garnering a tonne of attention since its release.
It turns out that we didn’t need to wait long to see Specialized bring its new motor to the dirt though. In case you hadn’t heard the news, Specialized has just launched a brand new e-MTB called the Levo SL. As the lightest full suspension electric mountain bike that Specialized has ever produced, the Levo SL is also the first e-MTB to be built around the SL 1.1 motor and battery system.
Compared to the Brose-manufactured motor found in the regular Levo, the SL 1.1 motor is more compact, lighter and also less powerful. Peak power output is 240W, compared to 565W in the Levo. The internal battery pack is also less than half the size (320Wh vs 700Wh). That might seem a little strange in an era where e-MTBs seem to be getting bigger batteries and more powerful motors, but in the case of the Levo SL, it all adds up to an e-MTB that is vastly lighter than the competition. How light? We’re talking complete bikes as light as 16.9kg, which is 4kg lighter than the equivalent Levo.
As I found out during my time with the 2020 Specialized Levo SL, that has significant benefits on the trail.
Yes, There’s A Motor In There!
With its 29in wheels and 150mm of travel front and rear, the Levo SL shares a very similar profile to the regular Levo. Thanks to the SL 1.1 motor however, the Levo SL’s frame is slimmer and lighter overall, giving it a very discreet look for an e-MTB, along with chainstays that are nearly 20mm shorter. The battery pack sits above the motor inside the enclosed downtube, and while it can be removed, you’ll need to unbolt the motor first to do so.
The Sidearm chassis was developed from the lessons learned during the development of the current Stumpjumper, and the same basic frame shape carries over to the Levo SL. This sees a reinforcing asymmetrical strut that hides the shock from the drive-side. As well as strengthening the front triangle, the Sidearm strut helps to brace the gap between the rocker link and the upper shock mount. According to Specialized, this helps to reduce the ‘undamped travel’ that the old Stumpy/Levo frames could experience under hard loads.
The Levo SL’s suspension kinematics are pretty similar to the regular Levo and Stumpy. Thanks to the more compact motor, the main pivot is a touch lower compared to the regular Levo, giving the Levo SL slightly more neutral pedalling performance. Otherwise, the rear shock is still a standard off-the-shelf metric size, and the Levo SL carries over the hidden flip-chip in the lower shock mount. Rotating this chip allows you to raise the BB height by 6mm and steepen the head and seat angles by half a degree.
What’s It Wearing?
There are five models in the 2020 Levo SL range, with prices ranging from $9,800 to $26,500. No, that last number isn’t a typo. That’s the actual price of the extremely limited ‘Founder’s Edition’, which comes with a crème de la crème spec and a bonkers paint job that includes gold leaf graphics. Wowsers!
The entry-level Levo SL Comp uses an M5 alloy frame, while all other Levo SL models are built around the same FACT 11M carbon fibre frame. It’s worth noting that whichever Levo SL model you’re looking at, they all come with the same SL 1.1 motor and 320Wh internal battery.
Compared to the regular Levo, the Levo SL gets a lighter weight build kit that employs a 150mm travel Fox 34 fork on every model, along with 2.3in tyres. For a closer look at the specifications of all five models, along with Aussie pricing and more detail about the background development behind the new Levo SL, check out our detailed first look story.
Here I’m going to go into more detail about my experience from testing the mid-spec model of the range; the Levo SL Expert Carbon.
2020 Specialized Levo SL Expert Carbon Specs
- Frame | FACT 11M Carbon Fibre, 150mm Travel
- Fork | Fox 34 Float, Performance Series, GRIP Damper, 51mm Offset, 150mm Travel
- Shock | Fox Float DPS, Performance Series, EVOL LV, 210×52.5mm
- Drive Unit | Specialized SL 1.1, 35Nm
- Battery | Specialized SL1-320 (320Wh)
- Wheels | Roval Traverse Carbon 29, 30mm Inner Rim Width
- Tyres | Specialized Butcher GRID Trail 2.3in Front & Eliminator GRID Trail 2.3in Rear
- Drivetrain | SRAM GX Eagle 1×12 w/Praxis 30T Alloy Crankset & 10-50T Cassette
- Brakes | SRAM G2 RSC 4-Piston w/200mm Front & 180mm Rear Rotors
- Bar | Specialized Trail Alloy, 27mm Rise, 780mm Width
- Stem | Specialized Trail Alloy, 40mm Length
- Grips | Specialized Trail Lock-On
- Seatpost | X-Fusion Manic, 34.9mm, Travel: 125mm (S), 150mm (M/L), 170mm (XL)
- Saddle | Specialized Bridge Comp, Hollow Steel Rails
- Available Sizes | Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- Confirmed Weight | 17.6kg (Medium size, setup tubeless)
- RRP | $13,200
Sizing, Fit & Setting Up
At 175cm tall, I’ve been riding a Medium size in the Levo SL. The short seat tube means there’s good standover clearance and plenty of room to accommodate the 150mm X-Fusion dropper post. However, for those around the same height as me who might be looking to upsize to the Large, bear in mind that there’s a big 45mm jump up in the seat tube length. That means for my given saddle height (69cm BB-to-saddle), I physically wouldn’t be able to fit on a Large. Or at least, not with a 150mm dropper post anyway.
I didn’t find this to be a real-world problem though since the cockpit on the medium-size Levo SL fits so well. The 435mm reach doesn’t sound long on paper, though the not-mega-steep 75° seat tube angle ensures the seated pedalling position is open and roomy. This is complemented by the 780mm wide riser bars, which have a great profile.
While we’re on the contact points, it’s no surprise that Specialized has them absolutely dialled on the Levo SL. The Bridge saddle has a smooth and supportive shape, and the lock-on grips feature a less obtrusive tread profile compared to the previous Sip grips. Even the dropper post lever, Specialized’s own SRL design, is a pleasure to use.
One thing I did note with the SL 1.1 motor and the alloy Praxis cranks is that the Q-factor is still relatively wide at 181mm. A broader stance on the pedals will improve rider stability on the descents, but it might also be less appealing to those with more delicate knees. As a comparison, the Shimano STEPS motor with XT cranks is narrower (177mm), as is the latest Bosch 4th Gen CX motor (175mm). The Yamaha motor featured on Giant e-MTBs is the narrowest I’m aware of on the market (168mm).
For my 68kg riding weight, I set up the Fox 34 fork with 74psi in the EVOL air spring to hit 25% sag while standing on the pedals. The rebound was set a little slower than halfway at nine clicks from the slowest setting.
To achieve 30% sag on the rear Float DPS shock, I had 180psi inside the air spring along with the stock 0.8³ volume spacer. The rebound was set exactly halfway at 7/14 clicks.
Though the Levo SL will arrive at Specialized dealers with tubes installed, the Roval rims are ready to go tubeless. My test bike was set up sans tubes, and I chose to run the 2.3in Butcher upfront with 20psi, and the rear 2.3in Eliminator with 23psi. Both tyres feature the newer GRID Trail casing, which is a substantial improvement in terms of stability over the previous GRID casing. It’s also nice to see Specialized’s new tyres actually measuring up at the claimed width.
All up, my medium-sized Levo SL Expert Carbon came in at 17.6kg on the Scales Of Broken Dreams™. I did have the chance to weigh the same size in the pricier S-Works model, which drops down to 16.95kg, but does add nearly $6K to the price tag.
Riding The Levo SL
I’ve spent a total of four days aboard the Levo SL so far, with around 150km of riding and 4000m of elevation gain around the purpose-built trails of Stellenbosch in South Africa. The conditions during the launch were very similar to what I experience back home in Australia. Dry, dusty and rocky, with trails that varied from fast and smooth hardpack rollercoaster singletrack, through to loose, lumpy and raw descents. This provided a solid opportunity to test the technical prowess of the new bike, while also getting a feel for the on-trail performance of the SL 1.1 motor and real-world experience of the battery range.
My immediate reaction from riding the Levo SL? Just how similar it feels to its naturally-aspirated counterpart; the Stumpjumper. The 437mm chainstay length is shorter than that of the regular Levo (455mm), and shorter than much of the competition. It’s actually the same length as the Stumpjumper, and it’s a big reason why the Levo SL is so lively on the trail.
The light front end helps too, with intuitive steering feel provided by a standard 51mm fork offset and a not-super-slack 66° head angle. Without a tandem wheelbase, the Levo SL doesn’t ask you to ride it in an exaggerated manner. It’s an easy-handling bike with spot-on weight distribution and oodles of natural agility.
And here’s the thing. I think it handles better than the Stumpjumper. The reason? It’s heavier. With a motor and battery onboard, there are a few more kilos in the Levo SL chassis, and that makes it a more planted bike on the trail with significant momentum carry on rolling descents. There’s just enough weight to noticeably improve stability, but not so much to stifle the handling. It’s a bit like riding a burly enduro bike, except this one is a lot easier to pedal up the hills.
The extra mass on the mainframe also improves the sprung-to-unsprung weight ratio, and that makes the suspension smoother and more reactive. The rear end tracks well through chunder, with a floaty and supportive feel. It isn’t quite as supple, or as big-hit hungry, as the Merida eOne-Sixty I tested recently (a fellow 150mm travel e-MTB), but then the Merida does come with the glue-like DPX2 shock.
I would like to try the Levo SL with a piggyback shock, though I can see why Specialized has stuck with the DPS. There’s already enough overlap with the regular Levo, and ultimately the SL is all about keeping the weight down low. Plus, the DPS shock does have more pop to it, and that suits the bike’s character well.
Up front, the Fox 34 is a quality trail fork that’s easy to set up and tune. The GRIP damper is well controlled, and the big negative chamber in the EVOL air spring allows it to slide smoothly, swallowing small-to-medium size bumps with ease. It does feel quite stretched out in its 150mm travel 29in guise, however, and there’s only so much those 34mm stanchions can do when they’re repeatedly smacked into large rocks at speed.
In these moments where I was possibly pushing the Levo SL beyond its intended limit, there was enough binding in the chassis that I was wishing for the burlier Fox 36 on more than a few occasions. Again, I can appreciate the reasons why Specialized chose the lighter 34 for the Levo SL though.
SL 1.1 Motor – Less Power, More Efficiency
Compared to the Levo’s Brose-manufactured 2.1 motor, the SL 1.1 motor inside the Levo SL uses a gearbox design rather than a belt drive. This allows it to be made significantly more compact, and it’s also a full kilo lighter too.
The gearbox mechanism spins nearly twice as fast as the Brose Mag S motor, with a gear ratio of 1:50 vs 1:27. On the trail, that translates to a higher-pitch whine. I’m told that the decibel level is the same between the two motors, but I definitely noticed the noise more on the Levo SL. It is quieter than a Shimano STEPS E8000 motor though.
It is also exceptionally smooth, and Specialized is particularly excited about how much more efficient the SL 1.1 motor is. This is evident when you remove the chain from the chainring and spin the cranks forward, which rotate with very little drag present in the bottom bracket. According to the engineers, there are around 2.5 Watts of drag in the SL 1.1 motor. A Dura-Ace crankset and BB has about 1.9 Watts of drag.
Of course, the high-quality marine-grade seals help, but it’s mostly because of the way that the motor completely decouples from the drivetrain after you surpass the speed limiter.
During the launch in Stellenbosch however, our test bikes were programmed with a 32km/h assisted speed limit as per local law. Since we were rarely hitting the speed limit, I had one of the Specialized engineers patch into the Turbo Connect Unit (TCU) of my bike to de-tune it to a 25km/h speed limit, in order to get a better representation of what it would be like to ride this bike in Australia.
The motor does continue providing assistance up to around 27km/h, and there’s a very gradual taper to the power delivery as your speed moves beyond that point. If you’re not listening to the motor, it can be pretty hard to distinguish when it’s off. Indeed pedalling the Levo SL above the max speed limit reveals none of the sticky treacle-like resistance that other e-MTBs exhibit.
I also spent a fair bit of time pedalling the Levo SL with the motor switched off completely, and was impressed with how easy it was to pedal. Only on steeper ascents with more acceleration/deceleration changes could I really feel the 17.6kg bike weight. The suspension kinematics certainly deserve credit for the steady pedalling behaviour, but really this SL 1.1 motor is something else.
Insert More Battery Here
With the Levo SL’s 320Wh internal battery pack, Specialized estimates most riders will achieve around an hour of riding on full Turbo mode, and up to three hours on Eco mode. Of course this depends on the rider weight and how mow much elevation you’re hitting. It also depends on how hard you work the motor – it’s still possible to soft pedal the Levo SL in Turbo mode and get the motor to do the majority of the work, but you’ll find your riding speed will be a lot lower compared to a full-power e-MTB like the Levo. And the steeper the incline, the more muscle power you’ll have to commit to keep it rolling along.
I spent most of my time riding in the Trail and Eco modes, where the power delivery felt more natural. In Eco, you’ll actually work pretty hard to ride at a reasonable pace. It’s also possible to alter the power delivery of all three assist modes via the Mission Control app. So for those who want to put in maximum effort to get maximum range out of the battery, you can tune both the support level and the peak power output independently.
You can also extend your ride time by adding on a Range Extender battery, which looks a bit like a water bottle. It sits in the cage on the mainframe and plugs into the main charge port on the side of the frame, using a twist-lock connector to secure it in place. A Range Extender is a separate $600 purchase, though it’s worth mentioning that the S-Works model includes one in the box, and the Founder’s Edition comes with two.
The 160Wh Range Extender adds 50% more juice, and that gives you up to five hours of ride time. Via the app, you can tell the system to drain both the internal battery and the Range Extender simultaneously, or one at a time. It’s also possible to run the motor off the Range Extender alone. For those who want to fly with their Levo SL, you could remove the internal battery completely, and fly with the Range Extender (or two) in your carry-on luggage, since the 160Wh size is right on the maximum limit. See our first look story on the Levo SL for more info about this.
I did get the chance to use a Range Extender on my Levo SL test bike, though because I was riding in Eco and Trail most of the time, and none of the rides were above 50km, I didn’t really need the extra battery. I also found after one particularly long and rough descent that the plug at the top of the Range Extender had just so slightly come loose, disconnecting it from the motor. When I pushed the plug back in, the whole system flicked off, so I had to reboot it. It only takes a few moments to turn the motor back on, but the loosening plug is something I’d watch out for.
Component Highs & Lows
Aside from the loosening plug on the Range Extender battery, I did also experience some rattle from the internal cabling, which is particularly noticeable (and annoying), given the rest of the bike is so quiet and smooth. The soft rubber chainstay protector does a marvellous job at silencing chain slap.
As mentioned above, I would love to try it out with a burlier Fox 36 fork. The 34 is a great trail fork, but it doesn’t handle the bigger and more violent impacts like its big brother does. And because the Levo SL is ready for clocking proper descending speeds, it’s something that more aggressive and heavier riders will want to consider. Then again, those riders may want to consider the regular Levo, which comes spec’d with burlier parts and is rated for use with up to a 160mm travel fork (the Levo SL is limited to 150mm).
I was plenty impressed with the grippy and versatile Butcher/Eliminator tyre combo, which offer good bite in dusty and rocky conditions. The updated Butcher tread pattern feels more consistent, and its cornering blocks lend a lot of confidence to the front of the Levo SL. I’m also glad that Specialized resisted putting on lighter tyres in the search of more gram saving, particularly on the rear.
The SRAM G2 RSC brakes provided the high level of modulation that I’ve come to expect from SRAM brakes, though thanks to the larger brake 200/180mm rotors, they dish out decent power too. They’re still nowhere near as powerful or as fade-free as the Code RSC brakes though, and the bite point is squishier too.
The X-Fusion Manic is an underrated dropper post, with a slick and fast action. Having gotten used to 170mm droppers on my last two test bikes though, I’d be keen to up-travel the 150mm post on the Medium size.
While I’m sending out wishes, I’d love to see a SWAT box of some description on the Levo SL. Given the smaller 320Wh battery, it’d be great to see some of the extra space in the downtube opened up for internal storage. Then again, I suspect the additional reinforcement required would add weight and complexity to the Levo SL’s lightweight carbon frame, not to mention higher manufacturing costs. And the Levo SL ain’t exactly a cheap bike.
One upgrade worth considering is the Turbo Connect Display (TCD). This is a sleek $150 head unit that sits on the bars and provides you with all your ride information including the current assist mode, remaining battery life, riding speed, distance, cadence, and even your power output (from your legs, not the motor). Yes, the Levo SL comes with a free power meter included! If you don’t want a TCD, you can also pair wirelessly to a compatible Garmin GPS head unit to read most of the same metrics, and we’re told that Wahoo will be adding compatibility soon too.
With the Levo SL, Specialized has ushered in a new genre of lightweight, low-power e-MTBs. While it wasn’t the first brand to do so, it has shown the biggest commitment to the concept so far with its in-house engineered SL 1.1 motor and battery system. The new motor offers seamless performance, and its compact size delivers a significant packaging advantage for keeping the geometry tight.
As a result of the low complete bike weight and short back end, handling is superb. It’s nimble and easy to ride, but it offers the stability of a bigger enduro bike thanks to the added mass from the motor and battery. From this perspective, Specialized isn’t so worried about the Levo SL eating into the Levo sales, since e-MTB riders who want maximum power and range for shuttling bigger and steeper descents will still opt for the Levo. Instead, it’s more concerned about what the Levo SL means for the Stumpjumper.
Certainly the Levo SL presents itself as a compelling option for those who don’t need to ride around in Turbo all day long, and its low weight and sleek design may be enough to lure in trail riders who haven’t been tempted by existing e-MTBs on the market. It’s the most ‘normal’ e-MTB out there.
Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how other brands respond to this bike, since the Levo SL establishes something of a fork in the road for e-MTB development. Moving forward, will we see other brands will seek to split their offerings between high-power, big battery e-MTBs, and lightweight low-power e-MTBs? Only time will tell, but one thing is guaranteed – Specialized isn’t going to be slowing down.
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