Words by: Liam Woods
Shimano has been making bicycle drivetrains much longer than I have been alive and they have gotten really dang good at it over the last four decades. Shimano now makes lots of mountain bike drivetrains, but today we are going to be looking at their top four levels. Starting with the highest end offerings and moving down we have Shimano XTR, Shimano XT, Shimano SLX, and Shimano Deore. All of these models are going to be 12 speed and can have up to a 10-51t rear cassette range.
The most recently released is the Shimano Deore, just coming out a few months ago. Deore comes in at a killer price for a 12 speed drivetrain that can be found on an entry level mountain bike up to a professional’s rig. This is the beauty of when companies make nice parts at an affordable price. All of these Shimano models are going to shift great and have that precise feeling you expect from a brand new drivetrain, but there are some differences between each level, especially price, ranging from $296 for Deore up to $1,350 for XTR. So what do you get for an extra $1000 in price?
As with pretty much all bike parts, the more money you spend typically the lighter the parts get, with the exception of some parts getting stronger. But in the drivetrain market, it's pretty much always more money for less weight. This is very apparent in the Shimano lineup, as with Shimano XTR you're as light as 1,557g for the complete five piece group, compared to Shimano Deore, which puts you at 2,108g for the complete five piece group. For you Americans that are not familiar with grams, that is a 1.25lb. difference between the two. Quite a bit of weight for parts that will be constantly moving on your bike. You also tend to get nicer parts when jumping up in levels. The nicer materials seem to strike the balance of stronger yet lighter, so even though you save lots of weight, they also become more durable which is pretty impressive for any brand to do on most equipment.
You also get more features when you go up in price. For Shimano, there aren't many but the few you do get are pretty worth the upgrade costs. With the two levels of XTR and XT you get some features on both the shifter and rear derailleur that you do not see on the lower two levels of SLX and Deore. To start, the shifter gets a two gear up shift on the XT and XTR models, whereas the SLX and Deore just have a single up shift. While that may not seem like a big deal, once you get used to that double up shift, it's actually a really nice feature, possibly making it worth upgrading the shifter to at least XT. The other really cool feature you find on the top two tiers of Shimano drivetrains is you get an adjustable clutch on your rear derailleur. While all levels do have this, the XTR and XT have an easy access window covered by a rubber plug that you can easily use to tighten or loosen up the clutch. This can be especially useful if you are traveling and get to a bike park and your chain is rattling all about with the foot-deep braking bumps. SLX and Deore also have this feature but it's covered and you have to remove the plastic clutch cover in order to make the adjustment. It’s not the end of the world having to take the extra step, but worth noting the differences. If having the easy access adjustable clutch is a top feature for you, then the XT and XTR rear derailleurs would be the choice.
Another thing to mention is that all of these Shimano drivetrains need to use the specific Microspline freehub body to run any of these 12 speed shimano cassettes. This not only needs to be the correct Microspline cassette but also needs to be the correct one for your hub. This can be quite confusing so do your research and if you have any compatibility questions, please contact our customer support team via email or phone. They will have the knowledge to figure out your exact situation.
As mentioned earlier, all four of these Shimano drivetrains have amazing performance, especially when compared to drivetrains just 10 years ago. The new technology that has been put into these parts is all new and improved. Anyone can hop on the Deore level drivetrain, technically the lowest level we are comparing today, and have a great ride without any performance loss and be able to enjoy the ride. I always say that parts that disappear under you are the best type, as you know they will work and you no longer have to think but can focus on the trail ahead.
Shimano Deore is going to be the entry level into the 12 speed market if you want to run Shimano drivetrains. I mentioned it before and I'll mention again, the Deore level groupset from Shimano is a killer value for what you get. At just $296 for the entire five piece set that includes shifter, rear derailleur, cassette, chain, and crankset, it's hard to beat the price and quality that you get.
Shimano SLX is also a killer value and sees a bit of weight savings over the cheaper Deore groupset. Much of the weight is in the rear cassette that gets an alloy cog and carrier compared to the steel Deore option. Looks get a bit cleaner and materials also get a slight improvement. If XT is out of your budget but you can afford more than Deore, SLX fits right in there as an amazing option.
Shimano XT is often considered the standard in mountain bike drivetrain options. From price, to weight, to durability and performance, it all seems to strike a perfect balance and many riders out there are die hard fans and will run nothing else. You save some weight over the SLX groupset, as well as get a few more features like the two up shift on the shifter and the adjustable clutch on the rear derailleur.
Shimano XTR is the top of the line option, not only saving the most weight, but in many opinions, looking the best as well. No detail is spared with Shimano XTR. It’s quite a bit lighter than the other levels, but it comes with a pretty steep price jump as well. If you are looking to have the lightest Shimano setup and price isn't an issue, XTR is the way to go. If you are looking to save some weight and money, I would suggest getting the XTR cassette and crankset, as these two parts save the most weight, while running the other parts as Shimano XT.
Shimano is the longest running manufacturer of mountain bike drivetrains, and they have the parts to prove just how much experience they have. With four 12 speed models now, there is a level to get almost every rider on a Shimano drivetrain, so which model is best for you? There is no doubt the weight savings and the amazing looks of XTR draw all the eyeballs, and XT is often said to be the standard. But I think now that there are some lower priced options from Shimano that offer the same great performance with just a weight penalty, the mix and match option could fit more riders' budgets now. Are looks and weight important to you? Or do you want some solid components at a wallet friendly price? Both are now possible with Shimano’s 12 speed options.
This article was written / authored by Liam Woods. Liam has been in the bicycle industry for over 10 years as a racer, professional mechanic, service manager and as of late, media and content creator. Liam has ridden thousands of different bikes, ridden countless components, tested endless MTB apparel of all kinds and written reviews on it all. He's a key piece to the Worldwide Cyclery "All Things MTB" content creation puzzle. He also makes consistent appearances on the Worldwide Cyclery YouTube channel and Instagram.