Shimano's Latest XTR Group Delivers Class-Leading Performance 55

Long-term testing of the latest Shimano XTR group reveals outstanding performance.

Shimano's Latest XTR Group Delivers Class-Leading Performance

Right around a year ago, Shimano debuted their much-anticipated XTR M9100 lineup. A couple of months later, we had the fortunate opportunity to sample the goods and recognized immediately that the subtle upgrades Shimano had made were notable. We reserved judgement until we had the opportunity to torture test the XTR M9100 components for a long-term review, but we were impressed.

Months back, we built a Norco Range using the latest and greatest from Shimano. Our build featured a single ring, 10-51 cassette, 4-piston XTR Trail brakes, and no-nonsense Stan’s Flow rims on XTR hubs. This setup favored our personal tastes and takes aim squarely at SRAM’s XX1 Eagle. After hundreds of miles of riding, our initial impressions were confirmed: the new Shimano XTR M9100 rules. Simply put, our experience aboard the XTR M9100 series has been faultless. Easy setup, maintenance-free, and impressive performance. The latest XTR will not only retain Shimano die-hards, but it is so impressive it may convince those who favor other brands to stray from their loyalties. Nobody would argue that XTR is a bargain, but the performance lives up to the price tag. Read on for specifics. 

Strengths

Weaknesses

  • Outstanding drivetrain performance
  • Excellent braking power and improved modulation
  • Lever and shifter ergonomics and integration
  • Micro Spline Freehub limited to just a handful of brands
  • Drivetrain incompatibility with previous Shimano products
  • Brake pad rattle
  • Expensive

Components Tested

  • CS-M9100-12 cassette - $380, 367g
  • RD-M9100-SGS long cage derailleur - $260, 240g
  • CN-M9100 chain - $65, 242g
  • SL-M9100-I shifter - $130, 117g
  • FC-MT900 crankset - 587g
  • FH-M9111 hubs - 237g (rear), 137g (front)
  • BL-M9120 enduro brake lever set - $214, 385g 
  • BR-M9120 4-piston brake caliper set - $350, 385g
  • RT-MT900 brake rotors (203, 180mm) - $170, 149/143g
  • SL-MT800-L dropper lever - $60, 37g
  • PD-M9120 pedals - $180, 398g

Drivetrain Performance

Quiet, quick, and precise. These three words sum up our experience aboard the XTR M9100 drivetrain. We opted for the CS-M9100-12 cassette, which offers 12-speeds and a 510% range when paired with the RD-M9100-SGS long cage derailleur, which obviously competes with SRAM’s Eagle series. We went with the FC-MT900 “black crank,” an intermediate between the old and new XTR. While we have our preferences, there are also options for 11 or 12 speeds, a front derailleur, different cranks, tons of Q-factors, updated shifters, and improved rings; all of which ensure that all drivetrain configurations are accommodated by the new XTR.

Shifting action at the controls is light and quick. We also appreciate the option to push or pull and double shift, with the second shift requiring a little more input than the first to eliminate accidental shifts. The integration and adjustability of the controls have also improved over the previous generation, which allowed us to situate the shifters ideally and keep the cockpit tidy. Additionally, the small rubber grips on the paddles ensured that we never lost contact with the thumb paddle inadvertently. 

Apples to apples the new XTR M9100 drivetrain gets our vote as the top-performing drivetrain available today.

The drivetrain is one that does not require cadence or riding adjustments for smooth shifting, never drops a chain, and stays quiet even after miles of use. Our experience aboard Shimano’s Wide Range cassette and SGS Long Cage derailleur has been one of, if not the most, impressive in recent memory. Zero issues, smooth shifting under load, not a single dropped chain, quiet, and no performance loss after hundreds of miles. Apples to apples the new XTR M9100 drivetrain gets our vote as the top-performing drivetrain available today.

Wheel Performance

In order to ensure that the expanded gear range of the CS-M9100-12 cassette would play nicely with their hubs, Shimano went back to the drawing board to gain a little space around the freehub driver. Because the old HG driver cannot accommodate the new 10-51 cassette, Shimano released a new freehub standard: Microspline. There are now 23 splines, which should distribute loads more evenly around the larger cassette to prevent excessive freehub wear. In some cases, removing a used cassette from the HG driver could take some effort, not so with the new XTR as we were able to service and clean it as needed without any removal issues. At the time of introduction of the new Microspline standard, Shimano also launched its "Scylence" hubs, but after some challenges with manufacturing, these remain unavailable to this date. For our test build, we opted for more traditional FH-M9111 hubs on Stan’s Flow rims.

The XTR hub engagement was quick, precise, and solid. Not a complaint or issue after months of use. They accelerated well, due in part to their light weight and rolled even better. In some cases, hubs with super-quick engagement have a little more drag, but that has not been our experience with the FH-M9111 hubs and we felt that we had the best of both worlds. One issue that needs to be highlighted at this time is that the Microspline freehub has not been licensed to many other manufacturers, leaving you with DT Swiss or Industry Nine as your only options at present, should you wish to opt for non-Shimano wheels. In time, we hope to see more manufacturers be allowed out to play.

Brake Performance

For riders living in areas with extreme riding conditions such as Squamish, downhill brakes are commonplace on trail and enduro bikes. In order to ensure that their latest XTR brakes exceeded expectations, Shimano has gone the extra mile and created two separate brake sets. Our test M9120 brake set with larger rotors and 4-pistons catered to aggressive riding, while the M9100 2-piston option takes aim squarely at the spandex crowd. The new 4-piston XTR brake is “enduro” specific, and claims to have as much stopping power as the current Saint brake, with improved modulation and lever feel. In our experience, they are the first trail-focused brake with enough power, modulation, and reliability to survive the harshest riding conditions, including racing. The new XTR 4-piston brakes shrugged off long descents with heavy braking, and for the first time in quite a while, we did not feel the need to upgrade to a DH brake on our trail rigs. 

Much like the drivetrain, Shimano absolutely nailed it with the new XTR brakes.

The XTR M9120 brakes include a couple of lever updates too. The wider clamping surface increases lever stiffness and the lever blade is slightly wider. Overall, the XTR enduro brake set has struck an outstanding balance between weight, power, and modulation. Much like the drivetrain, Shimano absolutely nailed it with the new XTR brakes. 

Unfortunately, the finned brake pads used on the new XTR Trail brakes still rattle. It may not bother everybody, but we certainly prefer our bikes remain as quiet as possible. A non-finned brake pad is a simple solution for those that cannot live with it, but it seems a shame to lose some of the heat dissipation that comes with the finned pads. We hope to see a solution somewhere down the line. 

Bonus Tech

Along with all of the shiny bells and whistles, we have come to expect with an XTR groupset, Shimano has also released a few miscellaneous items in an effort to produce the ultimate setup. The dropper post lever works with cable-actuated seat posts and integrates seamlessly with XTR brake levers to keep the bars clean. Ours worked perfectly with Shimano PRO’s Koryak dropper. 

Shimano’s SPD pedals are legendary for their durability, so we were pleased to receive a set along with the rest of the components. The platform on the enduro-oriented PD-M9120 is a little bit larger and longer than the previous design, which offers improved contact between the sole of a skate-style shoe and a more planted feel. Cleat engagement remains consistent with previous Shimano offerings, but those seeking improved contact and a more supportive flat-pedal feel will enjoy the updated platform. 

Shimano has also designed a minimalist chain guide, which we chose not to run for the purposes of our review. Nevertheless, for racing applications we would not need to look far to find the configuration we would need.

Long Term Durability

With “R” representing race, some could fear that the XTR M9100 group might be fragile. Our time on it suggests otherwise. We did not smash the levers or drag the rear derailleur across too many rocks, but Shimano has obviously built for the long haul. Sure, XTR has all the bells and whistles, but it also seems to be capable of withstanding the rigors of daily use, minimal maintenance, and the occasional impact. 

We have put several hundred miles on the drivetrain, and neither the cassette nor the chain shows abnormal signs of wear. With aluminum, titanium, and steel used on the cassette we paid particular attention to cog wear, but so far nothing to report. The clutch mechanism on the rear derailleur is adjustable, but we have not yet needed to touch ours. The brakes did not require a single bleed, nor any kind of adjustments. All of the parts tested here performed just as well after hundreds of miles of riding. 

What's The Bottom Line?

There is an old saying that goes, “buy it right, or buy it twice." It will take some saving to justify the expense of Shimano’s XTR M9100 build kit, but those that take the leap can rest easy knowing that they have secured some of the best performing products available.

On the drivetrain side, Hyperglide+ is more than just marketing-speak…it rules. This is simply the best drivetrain configuration this tester has ever ridden. On the braking side, the 4-piston XTR brakes are the most impressive brakes we have ridden in recent memory. Both in terms of power and comfort and with a massive improvement in modulation compared to previous generations. Add in all of the other goodies: pedals, hubs, dropper lever, and Shimano has created a comprehensive, top-performing system that looks stunning and performs even better.

The demand for these parts will likely remain modest due to the price tag, but as the technology trickles down to the more affordable options, other component manufacturers have a problem on their hands. Shimano did their homework, listened to their riders, and produced a stunning setup. 

Visit bike.shimano.com for more details.

Vital MTB Ratings

  • Rear Derailleur: 5 stars - Spectacular 
  • Cassette and Chain: 5 stars - Spectacular
  • Shifters and Levers: 5 stars - Spectacular
  • Hubs: 4 stars - Excellent
  • Brakes: 4.5 stars - Outstanding
  • Pedals: 5 stars - Spectacular

About The Reviewer

Joel Harwood – Age: 35 // Years Riding: 20+ // Height: 5’11” (1.80m) // Weight: 185-pounds (83.9kg)

Joel’s unique coaching background and willingness to tinker with products bring an objective perspective to testing. He dabbles in all types of racing, but is happiest simply exploring the limitless trail networks surrounding his home of Squamish, BC. Attention to detail, time in the saddle, and an aggressive riding style make Joel a rider that demands the most from his products while exposing any shortcomings. 

Photos by Jessie McAuley // Modeled by Jacob Murray

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