What’s best mix of new Shimano XTR, XT, and SLX?

Mixing and matching 12-speed parts to deliver top tier performance for less


We’d all love to have a full Shimano XTR group on our mountain bike, but mixing and matching parts is a great way to go, too.

Now that Shimano has three distinct 12-speed drivetrains that have interchangeable parts and will soon be available for purchase, one of the most common questions is, what’s the best blend of parts to maximize performance while keeping weight and price in check. To get some answers Mtbr sat down with Shimano North America mountain bike product manager Nick Murdick. Here’s his perfect blend of XTR, XT and SLX. You can full a full detailing of weights and prices for all three groups at the end of this post.

The Shimano XT lever has the same functionality at XTR, but costs less.

Mtbr: Ok, let’s go shopping. Pick you preferred parts and explain why.
Nick Murdick: Yeah, there are definitely places where I’d prioritize. For the shifter (and I only want one) I would go with at least XT because of the multi-release and instant release shifting functions are worth it. Plus I really like the rubber texture on lever.

Outside of weight considerations, there’s little reason not to go with SLX brakes, especially if you’re into that blue steel hue.

Mtbr: Multi-release and instant release are awesome – and the rubber pad has great hand feel. How about brakes?
NM: For brakes, I personally wouldn’t miss the free stroke adjustment screw (with SLX), and otherwise I honestly think you’ll see the same level of performance no matter which you choose. In the past XTR was maybe not quite as good as XT because we were looking for places to save weight. That meant that XT was a little stiffer. But now they are all good. So then it becomes a weight question. But if all you care are about is performance and you want to save some money, then SLX becomes the best option. Appearance is part of this, too. Do you like shiny, or black, or what I’ve been calling blue steel with SLX. I personally really like the look of SLX.

For ultimate performance, XTR rotors are the way to go.

Mtbr: Does that include rotors, too? Or do you mix and match there?
NM: Definitely mix and match. For rotors I would definitely go XT or better because the Freeza makes a significant difference. So if you are building up bike it’s worth spending more there to get the heat dissipation. It’s basically the same as going up a rotor size when you have Freeza. It gets to point where heat is dissipating as fast as you are producing it, so you can just drag your brakes. And then the XTR rotors get heat dissipating paint for even more performance gains.

All three rear derailleurs will get the job done, but there are advantages to the upper tier models.

Mtbr: Ok, that’s brakes. How about the rear derailleur?
NM: It’s all about precision there, and there will be some tiny differences in shifting performance. At the same time we’ve had [pro rider] Bryn Atkinson on SLX doing testing for us and he’s had no issues.

Picking a cassette is strictly a weight consideration. Picture here is the XTR version.

Mtbr: How about the cassette? Which one are you choosing?
NM: That’s tough. It’s really just about weight. You get fancier materials with XTR, but otherwise they all function exactly the same.

Shimano XTR is the call when it comes to cranks.

Mtbr: What about cranks?
NM: For the crank there’s a bigger difference in weight, so XTR gives you the most bang for buck. But there is also the Q-factor and chainline considerations. If you’d prefer a wider Q-factor or have a 157 rear wheel then you have to go XT or SLX, so there are some choices to make there. Along that same line, the chain is another good place to spend money. Shift performance doesn’t change, but you are picking up durability with the chain and that can end up paying for itself.

Nothing wrong with these SLX hubs — and we dig the color.

Mtbr: Last one – hubs. Do you have a preference there?
NM: That’s an interesting one. Weights are actually very similar for all three. They all have aluminum freehub body, which is where most of the weight will be. So the difference is in axle quality. Also XTR has laser scanned bearings so they are all the exact same size. And adjustment is a little easier on XTR. But again this is place where SLX is great value. And man, I really love the blue tint of SLX so that’s probably the one I am picking.

No matter which parts you choose, the best news is that there are now two distinct wide-range mountain bike drivetrain options. Watch out, SRAM.

Mtbr: Ok, drivetrain built. Thanks. One more question, how much pressure has there been on the entire Shimano team to get this whole 12-speed thing figured out and dialed? It’s obviously no secret that you’ve been losing the war to SRAM for a little while.
NM: No doubt there was a lot of pressure. Already there was a a big shakeup in Japan at head office during development at XTR. We needed to let go of some things and acknowledge what the market wanted. Turns out riders are willing to give up some benefits to make the better part of the ride better. But we’d been guilty of improving the worst parts of the riding instead the best parts of the riding. So it was key to get that permission to start fresh and focus on those best parts. HyperGlide+ is such a perfect encapsulation of that. Before we had HyperGlide and that made climbing better, but I think for most people that’s not the best part of the ride. Going down is. So with HyperGlide+ you get the same uphill benefits, but now it also makes the downhills so much better.

The real focus for these groups was getting it into the market and delivering it on time, while at the same time listening to what people have been telling us. We needed to show what we could do that and I think we have. Bringing two new groups to market at the same time was a huge challenge, but I think we’ve pulled it off.

Now here’s that rundown of weights and prices along with a handy comparison chart.

To learn more, read Mtbr’s take on new XTR, XT, and SLX, and head over to mtb.shimano.com.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • Joe says:

    he said laser scanned balls

    • Joe-Schmoe says:

      Actually, Joe, he said BEARINGS, not BALLS.
      Is that a Freudian-slip?
      What would Freud say about your subconscious desires?

  • jwilli says:

    1) So, a new hub is a requirement?
    2) When will the components be available in the US?

  • Sean says:

    I’m a big Shimano fan for drivetrain, always have been. I’ve been running 1×11 speed XT across 4 wheel sets. But I use hubs from Onyx, Chris King and Hope – none of which offer the new freehub body yet. Until Shimano makes this “standard” open they will continue to lag behind in market share in the drive train game.

  • rroonnaann says:

    Here is a consumer mix.
    Brakes : SLX because the free stroke adjustment is not effectful.
    Rotors : XT RT76 because it’s stronger than Ice-Tech.
    Shifter : XT for multi-release.
    Derailleur : XT for price/weight. And you’re gonna smash it.
    Cassette : XTR for weight.
    Crank : XT for price/weight. Half of the weight difference with XTR is in the chainring.
    Chain : SLX because I see no difference with XT and I change it often.

  • Jan Dzacovsky says:

    Is possible use XTR 9100-2 (28-38) with XT 8120 rear deraileour? XT crankset has only 26-36 chainrings.

  • Fred Porter says:

    Nice logical analysis @rroonnaann!

    One of the best attributes of the XTR rear freehub mech is its near silence. Before buying the XTR hub i saw in Shimano docs that the parts were indeed the same as the originally introduced Sylence hubs. For whatever reason Shimano backed away from Sylence but the hubs are still mostly silent. They did develop a creak while pedaling. LBS cleaned them and now they are indeed always silent.

    It’s true… the experience is great on the dirt, in the woods. Tires, dirt, pedaling, breathing is what i hear. No BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

    After my sales pitch, my suggestion is to check out the Shim docs to see if the XT or SLX hubs have the same Sylence parts. Plus the ball & cone setup is better for side loading than sealed bearings but don’t let the races wear.

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