I don’t know what being sent to review a bicycle for Jalopnik says about my driving abilities, but I got the last laugh for having the most fun with a vehicle review. Tearing through neighborhoods, hills and city streets on an electric pedal-assist bicycle is living out your best unfulfilled grade-school speed demon dreams.
[Full disclosure: Specialized wanted us to review their new Turbo Vado 6.0 e-bike so much that they flew me out to Palo Alto, California, paid for food, travel and lodging, and made sure the bikes were charged and ready to go for each day’s ride. I even got to keep the helmet, as I had sweat in it and there’s no way you’d want it after that.]
For many of us, me included, appreciation for speed started with a bicycle. We cherished steep driveways where you could push off at the top and reach gnarly speeds at the end of the block. Before there were cars, or even motorcycles, that was our jam.
But what if you had a little help? That’s where electric pedal-assist bikes like the new Specialized Turbo Vado come in handy. It’s the trick tech that allowed me to beat a random Prius across an intersection, and get an impressed “You guys are putting us to shame!” from a road biker out on a ride.
That extra electric boost let me, a human-shaped marshmallow who doesn’t ride bikes enough anymore and had an extremely bad head cold during this review, climb a fantastically steep, twisty incline without having to stop halfway up to rest.
You, normal human, can go nearly 30 mph on a bike, and fortunately, it’s on a bike that doesn’t whir loud motor sounds or fight your attempts to pedal with the motor off. Want to use it as a bicycle to whip your flabby butt into shape? You can! But if you want to beat gridlocked traffic to get somewhere on time, it’s a fantastic option for that, too.
Specialized is a California-based manufacturer of high performance bicycles and the Turbo Vado is part of their latest-generation line of pedal-assist e-bikes. It’s meant for people who hate wasting miles in a car on boring commutes, but who still need to get places relatively quickly and arrive without being completely drenched in sweat.
That’s where the bike’s lightweight electric motor comes in, which is capable of amplifying your leg power with 250 W of electric power on the entry-level Turbo Vado 2.0 and 3.0, and with 350 W of power on the Turbo Vado 5.0 and 6.0 (the latter of which we tested). The end result is that the bike can boost your own leg-power by up to 320 percent. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.
The Vado has three adjustable power assist modes: Eco, Sport and Turbo. If you ever want to use it as just a bicycle with all assists off, you can do that. The motor is capable of completely disengaging and won’t fight you if you want to ride without it.
Perhaps the best part about the Turbo Vado is that it’s easily adjustable for your needs with its different power modes. Setting off on full power was usually a bit much in a crowded pod of bikes, so I found it more useful to start with low or no power assist and then crank it up once everyone was up to speed. But if I was setting off on an an uphill incline, full power was a huge help.
All of the power modes are customizable through a Mission Control app that comes with the bike, but unfortunately wasn’t ready at the time of our test ride.
The Turbo Vado 6.0's 350W motor gave it a listed top speed of 28 miles per hour, although we definitely exceeded that by a few mph on the test ride.
That 350W belt-driven motor is powered by a 604-Wh battery that takes 4 hours and 20 minutes to fully charge. It’s controlled on the bike by a small display mounted on the handlebars.
The listed range was around 25 miles in the default Turbo mode, 35 miles in Sport and 50 miles in Eco, however, I didn’t come anywhere close to using it all up.
In addition to the usual brakes on the handlebars, there is also a set of +/- controls to swap through the bike’s power modes on the fly, and a real, honest-to-goodness horn. A 2.2" LCD display was mounted in the center to display relevant information.
The bike’s adjustable 50-mm Suntour NCX fork alleviated some of the gnarlier bumps when its shocks were on their softest setting. However, you’ll still want to pop off your seat for bigger bumps. It’s not entirely a comfort bike.
All Vado models except for the rigid-fork 5.0 are available with both regular and step-through (the version with a lower top bar version often marketed as a “women’s” bike) frames.
The 6.0 came with a built-in 600-lumen lighting system with a headlamp as well as a taillight integrated into the rack of the bike. The taillight gets brighter when you use the brakes, just like a normal road vehicle.
However, while you’ll save a ton of cash on gas, the Specialized Turbo Vado is by no means cheap. The base 2.0 version starts at $2,700 and the 6.0 I rode starts at $4,800. That’s in line with other high-end bicycles and e-bikes, but the 6.0's price tag also translates to about five crusty but mostly running Porsche 944s purchased off Craigslist—or a decent new entry level motorcycle. Your landlord will hassle you exponentially less over the e-bike, though.
This is the part where the deepest, simplest parts of my lizard-brain goes “Bike fast. Fast bike good.” But the model we tested also felt genuinely easy to live with.
The entire battery assembly can be taken off the frame to charge elsewhere, an it locks back on when you’re ready to ride.
The Turbo Vado 6.0 came equipped with a rack to add panniers to, and you can carry an incredible amount of stuff with just those. Flexible fenders on both wheels (which Specialized even tested in a wind tunnel) had little dams underneath to divert water streams kicked up by the wheels and keep you as dry as possible.
Fortunately, it also didn’t really scream “e-bike” in a really obnoxious way. Anyone who saw the fatter frame probably had an idea of what was up, but most of the heavy mechanical bits were kept low to the ground so they didn’t interfere with the bike’s handling. You noticed the weight if you tried to pick the bike up, but it didn’t feel awkwardly heavy on the ground, thanks to the motor’s low placement and the use of a lightweight aluminum frame.
Most of the Turbo Vado’s operation was delightfully quiet, without much of the mechanical noise and visceral gear vibration you get with some electrically-assisted bicycles. The only real clues to its operation were the magnets it used to sense that the bike was moving.
Two magnets mounted to the chain stay and the rear brake rotor triggered the motor’s electric boost with every full rotation of the pedals. Sometimes I got an extra surprise jolt forward when I moved the pedals just enough to line up the two magnets when the bike was on but moving really slowly. Otherwise, man, this thing is smooth.
By far the best part of riding the Turbo Vado was the ease with which you could cut through traffic. Many states treat e-bikes largely as bicycles, allowing you to take bike trails and lane-split to move ahead of gridlocked traffic.
The only true negative was the fact that I hadn’t been riding enough lately. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a while, your butt will have a bit of a bruisey breaking in period.
If that’s the case, you may want to look into a more comfort-oriented seat to swap on, as the Turbo Vado comes with a relatively firm seat.
I did encounter some glitches with the bike’s software, although it’s worth noting that we rode pre-production versions of the Turbo Vado. Specialized’s representatives acknowledged that the company knew of the issues and was working on a fix.
With that caveat, I encountered a couple glitches on our ride. Sometimes the bike would have no power assist until you touched the handlebar controls twice. Another time, the screen itself encountered a glitch where it wasn’t displaying information properly. That was fixed by simply turning it off and on again.
The center screen would also return to its default settings—metric units, and no changes allowed while the bike is in motion—after the bike turned off.
More concerning than the last few software bugs to work out, however, is the legal status of e-bikes in the United States. Regulations concerning e-bikes vary wildly between states, and can sometimes be confusing and contradictory.
The entry-level Turbo Vado 2.0 is in the slower 20 mph class of pedal-assisted e-bikes that doesn’t run afoul of too many regs, however, the Turbo Vado 3.0, 5.0 and 6.0 are in the 28 mph class that does. Some states even treat e-bikes more like mopeds, which is a bit overkill.
While the glitches we encountered weren’t big items that wouldn’t significantly ruin your enjoyment of the bike, I’d love to know how the final programming came out. How well does Mission Control work in production?
As with many software-controlled vehicles, upgrades will be rolled out periodically for the bike. Navigation as well as a Smart Control feature in the app that plans out the ideal battery settings for longer trips were upgrades already in the works.
A TFT touchscreen for the central display was also in development, but not out at the time of our ride.
The legal status of e-bikes is definitely worth watching as well. These may be pricey, but they have the potential to put a few more people on a smaller, easier-to-maneuver vehicle during rush hour, which I’m all for.
Riding the Turbo Vado around reminded me just how much I missed speeding around on a bicycle. I love a good drive on an open road with lots of good curves, but let’s face it: city driving is pretty dull. Sometimes a bicycle is a bit more fun.
The biggest downside is the cost. You could get a new Honda CB300F for that much! But if you’re looking for an e-bike to consolidate your daily workout into your commute, this is definitely one to consider, especially if you’re shorter and want a step-through frame. It’s the easiest to ride, most natural feeling e-bike I’ve encountered.