Review: Shimano XTR M9020 Trail hydraulic brakes (2015)

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How do you improve something that’s already top notch? In the case of Shimano’s XTR M9020 brakes, the answer can be found when counting the grams, since this was the way the Japanese manufacturer opted for in terms of improvement. Namely, the replacement for M987 will have smoother curves and will use superior materials, in the quest for shedding some weight, and will further feature in the M9000 cross-country version, and the M9020 trail/all-mountain one.

The top-end model of the world’s largest brake manufacturer seems a mature product at first glance, for the simple reason it combines excellent performance with high-tech looks. On the other hand, it’s kind of akward to expect anything less from a high-end component bearing the Shimano logo, but even so “high-tech” is the best term for describing it.

Also, “high-tech” emerged as one of Shimano’s constant features throught the years. That’s why modulation runs as smooth as it almost always did, and the Servo-Wave technology only aids in this respect, by increasing leverage. The lever itself is built out of carbon, and offers good grip for the one finger you’ll need in order to efficiently actuate the mechanism. All the braking power M9020 is capable of delivering can be gradually released with a simple movement that requires almost no time to getting used to it. Another improvement of this iteration are a set of parts that allows connecting the levers to the shifters, but we didn’t focus on them in this review.

However, the idea of connecting the above-mentioned components belongs to a larger concept put in practice by Shimano, compact size, for as many products as possible, and nowhere is this more clear than in the case of the slim lever, and its cut-away body. The caliper has also been redesigned, getting smaller than its predecessor, and it now features air vents that cool it down faster, while the hose can sit in virtually any position. One doesn’t need oversized pads in order to achieve high braking power, and a definite proof of this can be found by simply using the M9020 brakes, which rely on regular-sized ones, that include a cooling system which requires a very, very long descent to actually be necessary. For further temperature control, you can purchase separately the Freeza rotors, which have an alloy core, and vents placed in various spots that avoid overheating. So, too much heat generated by intense usage is a thing of the past with these brakes that had no problem functioning on trails where Avid’s Elixir started to emit smoke signals.

Tipping the scale at 242 grams/piece, w/o rotor, XTR M9020 can be considered decent as far as weight is concerned, but adding an 180mm rotor takes the gram count to 385, thus falling behind several competitors. Judging from an all-mountain brake point of view, the value is more than acceptable, but then again we don’t think Shimano tried that hard to lose as many grams as possible, simply sticking to shaving off a few. Maybe that’s the reason why the brakes score a lot in terms of durability. However, the cross-country version weighs 193 grams or 311 grams with an 160mm rotor included.

All in all, Shimano’s new XTR brakes are impressive in terms of design and performance, even if they have some catching up to do in what regards grams. Still, this shoudn’t be a concern, since an ultra-light component isn’t exactly the most durable, and for sure it doesn’t show the wallet too much mercy. Without being the most powerful brakes available out there, they offer the braking performance most riders need, doubled by an excellent modulation. Which is nothing new given it comes from an excellent product.

Weight: 385 grams, w/ 180mm rotor

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