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The Beta Tests

First Impressions: Norco Fluid VLT

Norco's new Budget E-Bike is Shockingly Good

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A few months ago when Norco asked if we wanted to check out one of 3 updated E-MTB models they’d be launching, I chose the new Fluid VLT based purely on its travel numbers. To be fair, the only information I had at the time was that, wheel sizes, and model names. The Fluid VLT, a 29er suspended with 130 millimeters of rear wheel travel and 140mm up front, immediately piqued my interest.

The mid-travel 29er category has produced some of my all-time favorite bikes over the years, and e-bikes have already taken me on some of my all-time favorite rides, so I was instantly excited about my first opportunity to combine the two. The anticipation was palpable as I peeled open the box to get my first peek of the bike that would satisfy my curiosity. Then came the disappointment.

Look, I’m not the budget bike guy. That’s usually gear editor, Travis Engel’s beat. I’m the snobby, spoiled one that gets all the carbon fiber, wireless-shifting, Kashima-coated future-bikes. I do not normally test bikes with Shimano non-series brakes and forks that have no knobs to adjust them. So when I looked down and saw those things, my excitement level plummeted. Which, frankly, I’m embarrassed to admit. But in my defense, I was taken by surprise.

When brands launch new bikes they almost always send ones dripping with bling because high-end stuff is more likely to impress and receive praise from the media. You see, my negative reaction wasn’t snobbery, it’s the brands’ fault. They’ve conditioned me to be this way.

Does anyone believe that? Yea, me either. Besides, this is the high-end version of this bike. Unlike the Sight VLT and Range VLT that Norco just released as well, they chose not to do the Fluid in carbon, and decided to make it a price-point model in an attempt to create an e-bike that people might actually be able to afford.

As I assembled the bike and took note of its weight of 60 pounds, with the 900 watt-hour battery installed (we’ll get to that later), it transitioned from something I was excited to ride to something I had to ride for work. Again, not proud to admit this. All bikes are fun. I know this to be true, which is why I immediately turned my frown upside-down, got stoked, and went out on a big, long, fun ride.

Nope, that didn’t happen.

I put it off for another few days until I was getting down to the wire with my deadline. And you know what I learned when I finally did—still begrudgingly—get out on it? That I’m an idiot.

Despite it being more than 10 pounds heavier than the next heaviest e-bike I’ve ridden this year, the Fluid VLT is an awesome ride. It carries its weight super well. That’s partly due to the fact that you can haul ass in Boost mode on this thing with almost no range anxiety. That is, if you opt for the industry leading (at any price-point) 900 watt-hour battery.

Norco went a unique route here and is selling batteries separately. This gives each model and spec a range of prices. And, well—ranges. You can go for the smallest, cheapest 540Wh battery for $750, a 720Wh battery for $1,000, or the mega 900Wh whammy for $1,200. With the big battery, the Fluid VLT A1 lists for $6,100 and will go huge distances. If you can swing the big battery for this bike, I’d definitely recommend doing so. It’s only 3 pounds heavier than the 540Wh option, and you can stay out much longer (or stay in Boost the whole time). The difference between 57 and 60 pounds is less noticeable than the added ride time you’ll get, so I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. On a lighter-weight, higher-end model like the Carbon Sight VLT C1, there might be more of a benefit by saving on battery weight, but I don’t know that the payoff is the same on the Fluid VLT.

What I love most about the Fluid with the big battery is simply that I get to be on full power for longer without having to worry about it. The other day, I went out with just 2 of 5 bars of juice, rode for almost 2 hours in Boost mode nearly the whole time, and made it home with power to spare. When fully charged it can easily outlast me. This bike might be the least expensive e-bike I’ve ridden, but it’ll take me the farthest with the least amount of stressing about it running out. That counts for a lot.

What also counts for a lot is that even though the Fluid is on the more affordable end of the performance E-MTB spectrum, it still has Shimano’s best motor, the EP8. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but at least it has one of the nicest drive units money can buy, along with bluetooth connectivity for motor tuning, diagnostics, and firmware updates thought the Shimano E-Tube and E-Tube Ride apps. The EP8 can provide up to 85Nm of whisper-quiet torque, has great tuning options, and integrates cleanly into the bike’s design.

But that really wouldn’t matter if the bike didn’t ride well. If it were a janky ride, they could power that EP8 with all the battery in the world, but I still wouldn’t want to continue riding it. Luckily, the Fluid VLT is a solid performer in that department. The geometry is comfy, the weight is balanced, and the suspension platform is nicely done. The basic RockShox Select R shock only has a rebound knob—there’s no compression control on the damper at all, and it really isn’t needed. I have the bike set up at 30 percent sag and it pedals super well. Even though Norco tunes the VLT bikes with less anti squat, favoring traction over pedaling platform, the bike is nice and still when pedaling. The shock isn’t sophisticated, but it actually feels a ton better than I expected.

I was certain that the suspension components, especially the fork, would be the bike’s glaring weak point, but they really aren’t. While neither the shock or fork feel amazing, they get the job done well enough to handle advanced, technical terrain without feeling sketchy. The bike is balanced front to rear, is easily maneuverable, and is genuinely fun to ride. Moreover, I think the bike’s 130mm rear, 140mm front travel numbers make it an incredibly well-versed all-rounder.

You don’t see a lot of e-bikes in this travel range because when it comes to e-bikes there seems to be a common thought that if you’re going to have a motor helping you get up the hills, you might as well have plenty of suspension travel to get back down. Plus, E-MTBs are heavier so they can use up travel quicker than regular pedal bikes. And while I don’t disagree with these sentiments, I think 140mm up front ant 130mm in the back is a nice sweet spot, just like it is on normal bikes. It’s not vague-feeling like longer-travel bikes are, and you’re never lost in gobs of mid-stroke. The suspension always feels supportive and efficient in all terrain, which I think helps the bike wear its weight as well as it does.

The geometry is what you’d expect for a bike with this amount of travel, with a 65-degree head tube angle, 76-ish-degreee seat angle, and 470mm reach in large. The chainstays are quite long at 462mm, which definitely effects how intuitive it is to get the front wheel off the ground for manuals and things, but on the other hand does feel very secure going fast in a straight line, on rough sections, or through long, sweeping corners. It doesn’t duck and weave like the Canyon Spectral:ON does, but the long stays and 29-inch rear wheel have their advantages.

Other high points include the very impressive Shimano Deore drivetrain, which sports the same 10-51 12-speed gear range and HG+ shifting as XTR. The shift quality is top notch on this bike, offering almost indistinguishable speed and precision when compared to higher-priced components. Even the non-series 4-piston brakes are pretty amazing for what they are. Stopping power, even with the crappy resin-only rotors that come stock, is really good, and the lever feel is smooth and consistent. I’m thoroughly impressed. Not that it needs it right away, but an inexpensive and easy way to add a ton more braking performance would be to upgrade the rotors and pads. With that done, I don’t think you’d be far off the stopping power of some much more expensive braking systems. And while still on high points, the Maxxis Dissector tire spec also deserves a call-out.

When it comes down to it, there’s a lot more to love about the Fluid VLT than things to criticize. I do still think that the weight is its biggest challenge, or at least the most noticeable aspect that affects agility. Smaller and less experienced riders might struggle with the heft when maneuvering the bike on the trail. It takes more core and upper body strength than most riders are used to, but on the other hand, there’s definitely enough power to overcome much of the leg and lung suffering that normally comes along with heavy bikes. The Fluid VLT has a solid, no-nonsense spec, an awesome powerplant with industry-leading battery technology and capacity, great kinematics, geometry, balance, and handling. This bike isn’t about wowing bike snobs like me, it’s made for getting people on trails and planting grins on faces. When it comes to that, there’s not a lot for the money that I think can beat it.

 

For more details on the Fluid VLT, as well as the new Sight VLT and Range VLT, click here.