Keen groupset observers (and we’re sure that there are some) will have noticed that Shimano’s been paying a lot of attention to the high end with recent ground-up redesigns of XTR and Deore XT. Meanwhile, the middling stuff has been languishing a bit, particularly the venerable Deore LX group. LX has been in a bit of limbo between the cheap-and-cheerful Deore and the actually quite spangly XT, with many manufacturers skipping it altogether in their lineups in favour of hybrid mixes from other groups.
For 2009, though, it’s all change. Deore LX is now pitched at “trekking”/leisure/urban bikes, while mountain bikes get the all-new Shimano SLX group. It’s designed to bring a bit of high-end function and style to the mid market, letting Shimano grab back some market share and, more importantly, getting riders some good stuff at economical prices. Does it deliver? We’ve had a couple of months on the Shimano SLX, here’s the lowdown…
Transmissions are where Shimano has always shined, and SLX is no exception. The RapidFire+ shifters share the ergonomics of the pricier XT and XTR units, including the handy-when-you-get-used-to-it two-way release that lets you upshift with either finger or thumb. You don’t get XTR’s Multi-Release, so it’s one click per upshift. Like XT, though, the gear displays are removeable and you can mount the shifters either inboard or outboard of the brake levers to best accommodate your ergonomic whims.
At the other end of the cables are, of course, the derailleurs. Nothing too outlandish at the front, although SLX has adopted a wide-stance parallelogram that should stave off floppiness for longer. There are conventional and top-swing options, as well as E-type plate mount and a bolt-on direct mount version to fit an as-yet small number of FS frames. All will run top or bottom cable routing. Our top-swing test unit did as it was asked, although somehow the (bottom-routed) cable managed to unship from the cam with unsurprising negative effects on shifting. Once refitted and retensioned there was no repetition of this, though, so we’ll call it a one-off. We’re running a triple chainset, but SLX also has front derailleurs specifically designed for a twin-and-bash set – the cage sits lower and has a tighter radius, as it doesn’t have to deal with 42/44t rings.
The rear derailleur brings Shimano’s tucked-away Shadow design to the mid-range. Combined with broad links and generally chunky construction, the SLX mech has proved pretty robust so far, although we’ve had reports of Shadow mechs starting to go baggy at the top pivot rather more quickly than conventional units. The direct cable routing is definitely a benefit, as is the fact that the derailleur will no longer bounce off the underside of certain chainstay configurations. Shifting performance across an HG cassette and chain is as slick as you’d expect. The mech is available in medium or long-cage versions.
Then we have the chainset. This is one of the parts of a bike to which buyers tend to pay more attention to looks, simply because it’s such a prominent presence. To our eyes, SLX delivers on that score – we think it looks better than XT, with the part-polished finish not only being a tiny bit XTRish but also likely to stay looking good for longer. The whole lot (including the bottom bracket) only weighs about 50g more than XT, too.
There’s really no getting away from outboard-bearing BBs these days (unless you’re really dedicated). The SLX setup follows the usual Shimano configuration, with a preload nut and a pair of pinch bolts to secure the left-hand crank. Arguments will continue to rage about outboard bearing setups, but they’re undeniably easy to work on – we’re certainly not missing faffing around with crank extractors and big spanners. No problems here with the bearings, either, although if you’ve got “history” with HTII then we can’t see anything that’s different with SLX that may give you better luck.
Chainring life is something that Shimano has often been criticised for, but SLX addresses that with a composite middle chainring – steel teeth, some chunks of fibre-reinforced nylon stuff to stiffen it up. The inner ring is all steel, while the outer ring is aluminium. If you go for the double option with a 36t ring, that’s aluminium too, and you get a honeycomb-designed bash guard to ward off impacts.
Oh, and there are hubs too – nothing particularly innovative here, but then Shimano hubs are most definitely not broken, so why change them? Centrelock rotor mounts are found throughout, and there’s a 20mm through-axle front hub for the larger-forked among us.
The SLX brakes follow the general style of Shimano’s XTR and XT offerings, although the calipers are noticeably chunkier and also of two-piece construction, with two half-calipers bolted together rather than a one-piece forging. At the lever end, SLX gets the same Servo-Wave variable-leverage gizmology as XT. Indeed, the whole brake lever is very similar, lacking only XT’s free-stroke adjuster (that we didn’t miss in the slightest). We’re not sure how useful the readily-accessible reach-adjust dial is, being the kind of adjustment that you make once and then leave alone for ever.
As well as the similar appearance, the SLX brakes also share a somewhat finicky bleed procedure with their more expensive brethren. The current generation of Shimano brakes seem to be a little prone to getting pockets of air trapped in the calipers – follow the instructions and all will be well. It’s a minor niggle, really, but we’ve got used to just pushing fluid through the system and then doing everything up. You can, of course, sidestep this initially by going for the fully-assembled option – don’t forget to order rotors and caliper adaptors, though.
Once all up together, the brakes follow mid-range Shimano tradition by being reliable, well-controlled and stronger than they feel. There’s plenty of stopping power on tap, but the SLX stoppers don’t have the initial bite of some. The standard resin pads have proved surprisingly hard-wearing, too, surviving conditions that we wouldn’t have dreamed of (or alternatively, would have deeply regretted) using earlier Shimano resins in.
SLX rotors are available in 160, 180 or 203mm sizes, all Centrelock – if you need six-bolters then just pick suitable ones from elsewhere in the Shimano range.
|Cassette (11-32, 11-34)||£39.99|
|Chainset & BB (triple, twin+bash)||£99.99|
|Fully-bled brake (no rotor)||£69.99|
|Brake levers with hoses and oil||£69.99|
|Front mech for triple||£24.99|
|Front mech for double||£25.00|
|Direct-mount front mech for triple||£22.99|
|20mm front hub||£29.99|
|QR front hub||£19.99|
|QR rear hub||£29.99|
|Shadow rear mech (medium or long cage)||£39.99|
|Rapidfire Shifters (pair)||£49.99|
|160mm Centrelock Rotor||£16.99|
|180mm Centrelock Rotor||£19.99|
|203mm Centrelock Rotor||£22.99|
SLX is pretty impressive stuff. It reminds us a bit of 1993’s LX group, in as much as it has most of the desirable features of Shimano’s flagship kit at a considerably lower price. More recently, LX has become a bit of a “lost” group that really hasn’t seen a lot of spec on bikes, so Shimano definitely had to do something with it. And reassuringly, SLX isn’t just a funky-looking cosmetic upgrade – it’s all good stuff. From the saddle you’d struggle to tell it from XT from new – ergonomically it’s identical. The brakes have a little less bite and it’s all a bit heavier, but for the money (and you’ll definitely be able to get SLX kit for somewhat less than the RRPs if you shop around) it’s hard to go wrong…