Welcome to the 2023 Lightweight eMTB showdown. All of our back-to-back testing is done and dusted. Let’s dive into the showdown here. We’ve got four bikes on offer in the category. We have the Santa Cruz Heckler SL, Transition Relay, Orbea Rise, and Giant Trance X E+ Elite.
Lightweight emtb: The Contenders
All four of these bikes find themselves in the lightweight eMTB group, with most hovering in the low 40s on the scale. Let’s chat about some high-level details on each bike before comparing and contrasting. If you want the full review on each bike, go check those out. We won’t be doing that here today; it’s already been done. Here are four convenient links so you don’t have to go digging for old reviews.
We have three different drive systems here, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s start with the Fazua found on the Heckler SL and Relay. It offers 60Nm of peak torque, which I think is enough to make it feel like the bike is doing the lion’s share of the work. It’s not quite enough to hang with full-power bikes, but it’s right in line with the other mid-power bikes in this category. It’s not quite as refined as the Syncdrive and EP8 RS, but it performed well during all of our testing — we had no reliability issues. It doesn’t engage as quickly as the others and seems to provide a similar level of output regardless of your input. It doesn’t match your effort as well as some of the other systems. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it strays a bit from that “natural ride experience” that the other drive systems are chasing. While a lot of drive systems prefer a lighter gear and higher cadence, the Fazua seems to perform the best in a bit harder gear, more like a pedal bike would. The range on the Fazua system is on the high end, with our testing coming in at 3400-3500 vertical feet of elevation gain for a 200lb rider. Its range is slightly better than the Rise (with a 360Wh battery) and significantly better than the Trance X Elite. One of the best things about it is that there’s no noticeable drag with the motor off. That means you can pedal the bike okay with a dead battery, but even more importantly, it doesn’t feel like someone is pulling the brakes for you when you hit the 20mph limit. In fact, it’s tough to tell that you’ve even hit the motor cutoff at that point.
Moving to the Shimano EP801 RS on the Orbea Rise, this system skews toward the more natural ride feel with a higher cadence preferred. Put it in an easier gear than you’d normally pedal and spin a little faster — the bike will reward you for it. The Rise offers a very similar amount of assistance to the Heckler SL and Relay, with maybe a little bit less effort required on steep inclines, especially in profile 2. The newer EP801 is quite a bit quieter than the older EP8, with the distinct rattle being non-existent. The range on this bike is great, even with the smaller 360Wh battery. In our testing, we’ve landed in the 2600-2700 vertical gain range with a 200lb rider. That’s just a little bit less per watt hour than the Fazua system. The EP8 RS is probably the most natural feeling drive system in our test group, followed closely by the Syncdrive Pro 2.
Last up is the Syncdrive Pro 2 on the Giant Trance X E+ Elite. This drive system is a bit of an outlier in our group, being the only full-power drive at 85Nm. Pair that with the overall lightweight bike, and this thing is a rocket. It is easily the fastest drive system in the test. In fact, even when compared to the full-power Bosch Performance Line CX Race on the Orbea Wild, the Trance is faster. In fact, the Trance can feel a bit too powerful at times. With the lightweight frame and full power motor, there’s a decent amount of boost. For the technical bits, it can be easier to climb in one of the lower assist settings. The tradeoff with the fast drive system is reduced range. While Giant has worked some magic with developing a new battery cell type, the Trance X Elite has the shortest range in our group. That’s always going to be the case when you have full power and a smaller battery. In our testing, we consistently killed batteries at 2000’ with a 200lb rider. That’s not quite enough for big eMTB missions, but it would cover quick weekday rides. Giant does make a 200Wh range extender, adding 50% more range. Theoretically, that will get you closer to 3000 vertical feet of range.
Lightweight eMTB Ride Reviews
Comparing these lightweight emtbs on the climbs might be a little tricky as they each offer some unique abilities. It is pretty clear, however, that one does stand out above the others, though both in terms of speed and technical ability.
The Trance X E+ Elite is the best climber in our group. When I first rode this bike last fall, I knew it was going to be a tough one to beat in the climbing department. It offers a great deal of traction while being efficient on the pedals. Pair that with the best-in-class power-to-weight ratio, and you’ve got yourself a mountain goat. It doesn’t matter if it’s rough, steep, loose, twisty, smooth, or fast; the Trance X is going to find itself at the front of the pack. It makes quick work of tough, technical climbs as well as flat-out and smooth climbs. Giant has knocked it out of the park with the suspension on the Trance Elite. It’s efficient enough without going overboard, meaning it still offers a lot of traction and control. It also has a bit more balanced geometry than some of the other bikes in the test. All-in-all, it’s the complete climbing package.
The remaining three bikes fall in a group right below the Trance, but each in its own way. The Rise is the most natural-feeling trail bike. If you want a bike that offers as close to a pedal bike experience, then the Rise is going to be your best bet. The drive system leans to the natural side of the spectrum. As far as suspension goes, it sits higher in its travel and provides snappy handling. The steering is quick, and the suspension is efficient. The Heckler SL offers quite a bit more traction and really starts to shine in rough and technical terrain. The VPP suspension platform keeps that rear wheel glued to the ground. It has a less efficient pedal platform and generally higher-weight builds, so it won’t quite hang with the Rise on the fast and smooth stuff, though. The Relay sits somewhere between the two in terms of traction and efficiency. It offers a balanced ride quality that makes some compromises to perform well almost everywhere without excelling anywhere. It does get some bonus points for having an easily removable battery for a pedal bike experience. However, even with the battery removed, it weighs as much or more as most Rise builds. It doesn’t have any motor drag, though, so it’s not too bad to pedal. The same can be said for the Heckler SL. They’re certainly much better than the Rise or Trance X Elite with the motor off.
This is the part that separates the lightweight emtbs from the big, full-power dogs. Because of the reduced weight, these bikes tend to handle much more like a pedal bike — that’s a good thing if you ask me. We basically have two categories within our test: the trail bikes and the all-mountain bikes.
Let’s start with the Rise and Trance X Elite. These are our trail bikes with steeper angles, quicker handling, and less travel. Pair those attributes with builds that weigh under and close to 40lb, and they handle very well. They are quick, lively, energetic, and snappy. While on paper, their geometries and travel amounts are similar, the two bikes feel fairly different. I think it comes down to the suspension design. The Rise sits higher with a bit more support in the initial parts of the stroke, while the Trance gets into its travel easier for a more plush ride and more traction. The Trance X Elite does an incredible job with its 140mm of rear wheel travel. It offers a fairly composed ride quality that the Rise just doesn’t quite match. If offered a bit more confidence to push into corners and float through the rough stuff. The Rise does feel more sporty and supportive, however. I’d have to think it carries speed better and facilitates pumping. For those wanting a quick and snappy bike, the Rise just might be the ticket. They both do pretty well getting airborne, but I have a new theory after this trip. Bikes that allow you to get into the travel a bit easier actually end up being easier to bunnyhop and unweight. I know it sounds a bit counterintuitive, but hear me out. By getting deeper into the travel, you’re effectively getting the front end even higher relative to the bottom bracket. That’s going to take less of a pull to get the front end off the ground. Bikes that sit higher take more effort to compress and get the front end off the ground. Someone will certainly tell me I’m wrong, but either way, the Trance is easier to bunnyhop than the Rise.
Moving into our all-mountain bikes, it’s a similar story. On paper, they look similar, and on the trail, they feel very different. The Transition Relay is a bit slacker and has a bit more travel than the Heckler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s plusher and more composed when things get rough. In fact, it’s the opposite. The Heckler SL offers more traction and composure in the bumps, while the Relay transmits a bit more trail chatter through to the rider. Both bikes are still extremely capable. They feel more planted and stable in the rough while offering more confidence to hit some of the bigger features than the Rise and Trance. The biggest feature I hit during our testing trip was on the Relay — the little extra travel went a long way in absorbing the big impact. The rear suspension feels pretty bottomless with a lot of progressivity. In fact, I had to run closer to 35% sag to be able to get full travel as frequently as I’d like. The Heckler SL felt a bit quicker and more confident in the corners, likely due to the traction. The small rear wheel made the bike fun to push into the corners, even some of the tighter ones. Both bikes handled high-speed sections very well, with a lot of stability and control. The Heckler SL felt a bit quieter in the bumps while the Relay moved around a bit more. Although, neither one felt sketchy when pushing the pace in rough terrain. The Heckler SL felt a bit easier to get off the ground, and I’d imagine this comes down to the suspension being a bit easier to get into.
Lightweight vs Full-Power EMTB
Would you give up a full power eMTB for lightweight emtb?
Conor – I go back and forth on this question a lot. Some days, I want to put the full-power bike in boost and get up the steepest fire roads as fast as possible. Most days, however, I think I’d be happier on a lightweight ebike. I like the handling gains enough to pay the power penalty. When it comes to range, my time to ride bikes is fairly limited, and the length of time I have to ride is usually cut short by my needing to get home and make dinner for the kids, not my battery. Something like the Fazua with 3500-ish feet of range is going to be enough for me, with the exception of a few days a month.
Zach – To me it all comes down to range. I do shorter rides on my ebikes almost daily where I prefer a lighter ebike and don’t need the extra power but my favorite thing to do is huge ebike rides in places I’d normally not ride. For that range and power is very helpful. While it’s a very hard decision for me, if forced to make the decision I’ll lean towards a full power ebike with over 700wh of battery.
Who are these lightweight EMtbs for?
Orbea Rise – most natural
I like the Rise for the person who wants the most natural feeling eMTB. The weight, handling, suspension, and motor feel more like a pedal bike than any other in our test. I also like the Rise for folks who ride a wide variety of terrain, both up and down. It is the most trail of all our bikes. Also, in the bigger battery configuration, it’s going to offer the most range for any lightweight ebike.
Giant Trance X E+ Elite – best climber
The Trance Elite would be my pick for folks who want a quick little trail ripper. It doesn’t have the range that the other bikes have, so it’s less suited to big eMTB missions, but for laps at the local trail network, it’s maybe the most fun you can have. The suspension quality is flawless in my mind, offering a lot of traction, control, and pop. The drive system makes it an incredibly fast climber.
Santa Cruz Heckler – best descender
I’d pick the Heckler SL for the folks who don’t want to compromise descending and handling characteristics on their ebike. They want it to be as fun, lively, and easy to maneuver as their pedal bike. It is the most fun descender we have in the test while being capable and stable for rough descents. If you ride your bike for the downhills, the Heckler is for you.
Transition Relay – most versatile
The Relay is the most versatile bike in our group. So, if you’re looking for a bike that can handle anything you could ever imagine throwing at it, the Relay is going to be your rig. It comes in the standard 160mm version we tested with 29” wheels, as well as the burlier PNW version with a mixed-wheel setup. It also allows for riding with the battery removed for places that won’t allow ebikes or for riders who want to want to work a little harder from time to time.
Well, that’s going to wrap it up for the 2023 Lightweight eMTB Showdown. Thanks for sticking around. If you need help making one of these cool new bikes, yours, come pay us a visit.