Dirt Rag Magazine

Review: Trek Fuel EX 9.8 27plus

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Tester: Eric McKeegan
Age: 42, Height: 5’11, Weight: 155, Inseam: 32 inches
Price: $5,300
Sizes: 15.5, 17.5, 18.5, 19.5 (tested), 21.5
More info: Trek Fuel EX

The previous generation Fuel EX was Trek’s best selling full-suspension bike. With Trek’s move to a more race-focused Top Fuel last year, it came as a surprise to see the new Fuel EX move into the territory staked out for the longer-travel Remedy. This new Fuel EX gets more travel and the long, low, slack treatment. It also dumps the 27.5 option in favor of a chassis that supports 29 or 27plus wheels. How do these massive changes perform when the rubber hits the trail? Let’s find out.

The Bike

Trek started over, clean state style, with an entirely new carbon frame with 130 mm of travel. The full list of Trek’s suspension technology is utilized: ABP rear pivot, Full Floater floating shock mount, Mino Link for geometry adjustment, and the poorly named but excellent-performing Re:Aktiv valve equipped rear shock.

The frame does without the typical bend in the downtube to allow clearance for the fork controls. Instead Trek uses a new headset that pairs with a replaceable tab built into the frame to prevent the fork from rotating far enough for the top caps to contact the frame. The straighter downtube is stiffer and lighter, and overall frame stiffness is greater than the previous Remedy 29.

The parts kit is an interesting blend of Deore XT brakes and 2×11 drivetrain, Reverb dropper, Sun Duroc 40 rims and DT hubs. Bontrager handles the rest of the bits, including Chupacabra 2.8 tires. Fox provides suspension via a 140 mm 34 GRIP damper fork and Float EVOL rear shock.

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The Mino chip can be flipped for high or low settings. I spent the vast majority of my ride time on this bike with the chip in the high setting (on the 27plus tires). The low setting was super stable and shreddy, but pedal strikes were all too common. With 29 inch wheels, both settings are more usable. To be clear, even on the high setting the head angle is 67.2 degrees and the bottom bracket is 13.3 inches, numbers that are pretty low and slack for a 130 mm bike.

The Ride

The previous EX was obviously closely related to Trek’s cross-country race tool, the Top Fuel. The new EX falls more solidly into the trail category. Trek goes as far as to say the Fuel EX effectively replaces the Remedy 29, as that bike is discontinued for 2017. The 27.5 Remedy gets updated to a more shreddy 150 mm chassis; expect a review of that bike soon.

I was a big fan of the old EX bikes, partially for the efficient yet plush suspension, and partially because it was a very easy bike to get along with on tight and twisty trails. I had some trepidation at first that the geometry changes would take away from my love of this bike. Fortunately, while things have changed, this is still a very lovable bike.

Trek continues to impress me with the Re:Aktiv valve shocks. They deliver incredibly plush, controlled suspension. I have to resist the urge to add more air to the suspension, as it often feels too soft on the road while riding to the trailhead or pushing on the seat, but on the trail, it feels seamless and it’s always doing the right things and never bottoming harshly.

For trails that required a lot of body English and standing climbing, I kept the rear end in trail mode, but even in the firmest platform setting, the Re:Aktiv valve would blow-off and absorb a lot more trail chatter than expected.

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Photo: Margus Riga

It is hard to put into words about how well this suspension system works. Once in the woods, the suspension just does its thing with a minimum of fuss. The increased frame stiffness was noticeable, paying dividends when working the bike over rocks or powering up hills. Descents are handled with much more composure; the increased reach, decreased head angle and resulting longer front center put me farther behind the front wheel, making it easier to roll down steep sections with much less chance of going over the bars.

Because the front wheel is farther out in front, like most modern trail bikes, care needs to be taken to load the front end in flat or off-camber turns. Technical climbs need a firmer hand on the front end as well. But that is about the only place I ever thought the slacker geometry was a detriment, and I suspect most riders will adjust pretty quickly.

While this review is technically of the 27plus version of this bike, I also rode the 29er version in Squamish, and swapped out the wheels on this bike to see what the 29er felt like at home. In similar fashion to the Santa Cruz Hightower I reviewed last issue, the 29 inch wheels feel faster almost everywhere, and felt more secure when cornering hard. The 27plus tires erase trail chatter and provide more confidence over slippery roots and rocks.

A few random things that warrant mention. The Reverb remote still doesn’t play well with Shimano brakes. The Shimano brakes are still exhibiting inconstant engagement points, which has plagued all the redesigned brakes we’ve ridden this year. How about some metal pads for those brakes, Mr. Product Manager?

The GRIP damper in the Fox 34 is excellent for a “second-tier” offering, but the air spring could use some spacers, something that I’d like to see included with the bike. The 2×11 drivetrain is starting to feel like a throwback on bikes like this, but it is easier to swap to a single-ring drivetrain than go the other way.

The internal routing is quiet, but trying to swap dropper posts made me want to punch a box of puppies. Someday everyone will listen to me and we’ll see external routing come back, as nature intended.

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Conclusions

Like many other bikes getting updates and redesigns this year, the new Fuel EX bears little resemblance to the previous model (see our review in issue #191). Part of me wants to mourn the loss of one of the few trail bikes left that relied on the “just enough” school of thought, but most of me was having too much fun riding the new bike to worry about it too much. And really, isn’t the idea of buying a new bike to have a new riding experience?

Yes, if you are buying a first new bike in years, the EX will feel foreign at first, but ride it enough to become familiar with the nuances and you’ll find yourself feeling more in control at higher speeds on just about any trail. For those of us with more time on modern bikes, the Fuel EX feels familiar already, a still almost-minimalist trail bike that is more than capable on almost any trail out there without overwhelming the rider with extremely slack geometry or excessive travel.

In other words, the new Fuel EX is a darn good trail bike, in the most modern way possible. If you still really, really want something steeper and snappier, Trek’s Top Fuel might make a better option but really, if you are going to haul around suspension and you aren’t racing, a proper trail bike is a better choice.

While this EX 9 is almost cheap for a carbon bike with full XT, Trek offers a huge range of aluminum- or carbon-framed Fuel EX models starting at $2,200 all the way up to $8,300.

Details

  • Reach: 18.3”
  • Stack: 24.6”
  • Top Tube: 25.8”
  • Head Tube: 67.2°
  • Seat Tube: 74.2°
  • BB Height: 13.3”
  • Chainstays: 17”
  • Weight: 28.3 lbs. w/o pedals
  • Specs based on size tested

 

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