Review by Johan Hjord // Photos by Johan Hjord and Tal Rozow
Santa Cruz, California-based X-Fusion has been in the suspension business longer than you might believe. The company was actually already involved in making suspension prior to its official incorporation in 1999, and RockShox founder Paul Turner helps with product development, so it has a long history and lots of experience to draw on. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a young brand, because it is only over the past few years that it has gained more widespread recognition and wider distribution in the mountain biking world. We knew they make good products, so we were excited to lay our hands on one of the very latest shocks the company has produced – the Vector Air HLR. With very low weight and lots of adjustability, it had our attention – but how would it perform?
When you pull the Vector Air HLR out of the box, you’re met with an overall impression of quality manufacturing. The finish is good, and the attention to detail is apparent. The paint is uniform, the machining is precise, and the graphics have been applied with care. Not to mention that on the whole, the shock really looks the business too.
Vector Air HLR Highlights
- 430 gram weight (that’s about half the weight of a coil shock with a steel spring in similar dimensions), and currently the lightest of the air DH shocks on the market.
- CVS (Check Valve System) technology added for compression and rebound isolation ensuring the most consistent damping with improved adjustment ranges.
- HLR damping system provides total damping control with external rebound adjustment and high-low speed compression adjustment. Compression and rebound adjustments are isolated from affecting one another via CVS.
- Adjustments include air pressure, reservoir pressure, rebound, bottom-out adjust, high- and low-speed compression.
- Refined compression circuits for more efficient and smoother energy absorption.
- Sized eyelet bushings providing a smoother and more consistent mounting system.
- Oversized CNC-machined aluminum 31.5mm damper body for consistent damping.
- Bored, reduced air canister wall thickness provides increased cooling surface.
- Custom tuning services available directly from X-Fusion ($50 if ordered with purchase in the US)
- MSRP $579.99
Continuing the examination, the dials turn with precision, and everything appeared to be in place to go shredding – so that’s what we did.
On The Trail
The Vector Air was installed on a Morewood Zama, a 7-inch travel single-pivot freeride/mini-DH frame. Fitting the shock was easy using the supplied mounting hardware. For the main air spring, we started with the recommended pressure – body weight in pounds (lbs) minus 20%, which landed us on 160psi. A quick check that the piggy-back reservoir pressure was above the stated minimum of 180psi (don’t confuse the two Schrader valves!), and it was time to hit the trails.
With the main settings roughly adjusted – a bit of rebound damping added to avoid death by bucking, and the main compression settings sort of in the middle, the shock was already behaving well. It soon became apparent that we could get away with less pressure in the main air spring, as the shock offers good mid-stroke support and seemed to cope with larger hits as well. The bike’s relatively low leverage ratio probably also contributed to this. 150psi ended up yielding 35-40% sag which seemed ideal for most applications.
The Vector HLR offers a lot of adjustability, and for the most part, settings are easy to change. The rebound damping dial sits in a less than ideal spot which makes it hard to reach once installed (and depending on frame design this issue could end up worse than we had it here), but it is workable.
The main three adjustment dials spin with a smooth and well-defined motion, and the clicks are distinctive and easy to feel. There is enough resistance in the dials to ensure they stay where you set them as well. The range of each adjustment is wide and each click has a progressive, noticeable effect on the setting. Low-speed compression goes from fully open to very firm, but does not lock out completely (which you would not want on a gravity-oriented shock). High-speed compression is available to tune the shock’s response to bigger/sharper hits and faster shaft speeds – again ranging from open to firm.
Apart from being tricky to reach, the rebound damping adjustment is a pleasure to use, with a wide range of well-defined steps available to make sure you can get the shock feeling just right.
The last adjustment on offer is the internal spring rate and bottom-out control. It works by giving you control over the pressure and volume of the reservoir air chamber. This chamber (which sits behind an internal floating piston, or IFP, that separates the air chamber from the oil side) acts as an internal air spring, resisting the oil that is pushed into the reservoir during compression of the shock. Adding air to the piggy-back reservoir increases the internal spring rate of the shock throughout the stroke, while adjusting the air volume (via the dial) affects the progressivity of the shock towards the end of the stroke. Note that you have to reduce the pressure of the reservoir down to 50psi before you can turn the volume adjust dial, and even then, you need to use a tool to make it turn. A 3mm hex key or small screwdriver or similarly shaped rod does the trick, insert it into one of the holes on the side of the dial and use it for leverage to twist the dial – clockwise to reduce the internal volume of the reservoir. Three full turns of adjustability are on offer, and we saw good results at about one and a half to two turns in and 200 psi in the reservoir – that seemed to leave us consistently using 95% of travel on rough DH trails, even at relatively low main air spring pressure (at 40% sag).
The key take-away here is adjustability. We found all the adjustments of the Vector Air easy to use and effective, and we were pretty much able to get the shock feeling very close to a coil shock, at least during more hectic segments of trail with lots of suspension action. Being able to dial in your spring rate precisely is useful for riders who like to adapt their setup to the riding terrain, and the rest of the adjustments will help them get the ride characteristics they want in any situation.
The shock feels very plush for the most part, including when just pressing down lightly on the saddle. There is little discernable stickiness, and a quick air can/seal clean and re-grease service made whatever was there go away. The Vector Air offers great support throughout the stroke – certainly none of the soft feel in mid-stroke that can sometimes plague air shocks. Bottoming out is a well-managed affair, even hits that actually blew the sag indicator clean off the shaft were not dramatic. Top-out is well controlled too, leaving the shock feeling quiet and solid in action.
Adjustable spring rate, lower weight…why would you NOT want an air shock? Well, there are trade-offs to consider. Small-bump compliance can be an issue on air shocks, as well as changing spring rates (and/or damping rates) due to heat build-up in the shock on long runs. Air shocks also tend to require more maintenance than many coil shocks, as they can suffer from stickiness in the main air spring when seals get worn out. There are also some who just plain prefer the feel of a coil shock, no matter how close the air shock gets.
X-Fusion has taken steps to remedy the heat build-up issues on the Vector Air. A large air can with thinner walls helps with heat dissipation, which we found to be reasonably effective. The shock can get very hot on rough long runs, but we were not able to clearly measure a difference in sag from the top of the run to the bottom. The bottom line is that air shock spring rates are affected by temperature changes (whether ambient or caused by shock actuation), but we find that the Vector does a good enough job of managing the issue.
The Vector Air offers no specific solution to the potential issue of the suspension oil becoming more fluid at higher temperatures (a la Rockshock Vivid Air and its thermo-sensitive “Hot Rod” technology on the rebound needle), but we can’t say that we found this phenomenon to be that much of a real life nuisance. Sure, once the shock gets warm, it starts to feel a bit looser, to the point of sometimes needing to add a click of compression or rebound, but that’s really not all that different to a coil shock loosening up over the course of a day of riding either, as the sun climbs higher in the sky.
Keep your eyes on sag and damping settings throughout your rides, and sometimes you might have to make small adjustments due to weather or type of riding.
Things That Could Be Improved
The one minor nuisance we did encounter was a sudden harshness (spiking) on some types of short and sharp hits with the shock fully extended to start with (such as hitting rocks with the wheel already airborne or dropping off a small step to flat). We did manage to make the issue better by backing off both low and high-speed compression, but we didn’t manage to make it go away completely. This kind of initial stroke harshness is not uncommon in air shocks, but we believe that in this case it can also be attributed to running a standard-tune shock (2.75:1) on a bike with a particularly low leverage ratio (2.54:1) – probably not the ideal combo. Note that X-Fusion offers a custom tune service from the factory for $50 if ordered at the time of purchase, we highly recommend taking this option to ensure you get the correct tune from day one, especially for your riding style. We should point out that we only observed this harshness in certain situations when the shock deals with a short impact from a fully extended state – any hits that occur when the suspension is already weighted are dealt with very smoothly. The shock is reasonably smooth on small bumps and over trail chatter.
Additionally, the position of the rebound adjustment dial could be improved, making it easier to reach once installed on the bike.
What’s The Bottom Line?
The X-Fusion Vector Air HLR is a quality shock, offering lots of usable adjustability in a lightweight and robust package. It performs very well on the trail, getting very close to a coil shock in terms of feel. We were especially impressed with mid-stroke support and the ability to run fairly low pressures while still dealing with bigger hits. We have no particular concerns regarding longevity after several months of testing (and X-Fusion stands by its products with a two-year warranty). While we were not quite able to get rid of a certain harshness on some types of small hits, that is a common occurrence on air shocks and something that is likely not an issue on all frame designs. If you are in the market for an air shock for gravity or aggressive trail riding, certainly consider the Vector Air HLR.
For more details, visit www.xfusionshox.com.
About The Reviewer
Johan Hjord loves bikes, which strangely doesn’t make him any better at riding them. After many years spent practicing falling off cliffs with his snowboard, he took up mountain biking in 2005. Ever since, he’s mostly been riding bikes with too much suspension travel to cover up his many flaws as a rider. His 200-pound body weight coupled with unique skill for poor line choice and clumsy landings make him an expert on durability - if parts survive Johan, they’re pretty much okay for anybody. Johan rides flat pedals with a riding style that he describes as "none" (when in actuality he rips!). Having found most trail features to be not to his liking, Johan uses much of his spare time building his own. Johan’s other accomplishments include surviving this far and helping keep the Vital Media Machine’s stoke dial firmly on 11.