We hammered the top-end Defy Advanced SL over two (surprisingly sunny and warm) days in the Scottish Highlands and came away mostly impressed – not so much with a pillowy ride quality but rather with its fantastic ability to quickly eat up long stretches of rough pavement. Don't you dare just write it off as a 'comfort bike'.
Check out more of our Giant 2015 coverage.
Ride and handling: Fast but composed
Giant proudly touts the new Defy's much improved comfort over its predecessor, citing in-house measurements that supposedly beat all of its main competitors save for Cannondale's superb Synapse Hi-Mod.
Out back, the ride quality was indeed very good, with the long and slim integrated seatmast serving up plenty of well tuned flex to smooth out Scotland's astonishingly coarse pavement.
The new Giant Defy Advanced SL frame is far sleeker and more cohesive in its design than before
The Defy's seatmast may indeed move more than the pivoting setup on the ultra-smooth Trek Domane, like Giant claims, but nonetheless, we found the Defy felt firmer than expected on the road – almost as if the spring rate were more linear, rather than starting out soft and firming up toward the end of its movement range. While riders seeking a particularly isolating feel might be slightly disappointed, more performance-minded types might find this just right – it's still notably more comfortable than most dedicated racers.
Just like the Domane, though, the Defy Advanced SL has a slightly unbalanced personality. Without the benefit of that cantilevered seatmast to cushion the blow, the front end is still reasonably composed but markedly harsher than the rear. We noted several instances where our hands were vibrating almost to the point of numbness – although until we get a long-term sample on familiar roads, it's impossible to say whether this was due to the bike itself or the admittedly questionable road conditions.
While the D-Fuse seatmast seemed effective, there's a disparate ride quality between the front and rear ends
In stock form, the bike comes with 25mm wide rubber but the Giant approves the bike for use with 28s – and at least for now, we'd recommend doing so.
Granted, our impressions may have also been slightly tainted by a persistent rattle from the internally routed rear brake hose, which runs through the down tube without the benefit of any sort of foam padding to quiet things down and served as a consistent distraction.
The internal cable routing is neat and tidy but the rear brake hose could use some foam insulation to keep it from rattling inside the down tube
We had no arguments with Giant's torsional and drivetrain stiffness claims, however, as the Defy is anything but a mushy Sunday cruiser. Mash on the pedals for a town line sprint or a steep section on a climb and the chassis eagerly and instantly responds in kind, with the sort of reflexes we would normally only expect from a road racer. The front triangle feels especially stout with even our strongest tugs on the bars doing little to upset the bike's composure.
Handling is expectedly deliberate and stable given the longer wheelbase and nominally relaxed angles, which are perfect for long days on the road where you might not want to constantly be on edge. But thanks to the fantastic frame rigidity, the Defy Advanced SL is also wonderfully precise in its manners. Once you set your arc, the chassis faithfully sticks to that line and inspires utter confidence at high speed.
The new Giant Defy range retains the previous version's excellent handling manners
All in all, we walked away thinking that the Defy Advanced SL occupied more of a middle ground between classic endurance bikes and traditional road racers. It's faster and edgier than the former but more relaxed and versatile than the latter – and might be just the thing that fast and fit enthusiasts are looking for.
Frame: Sleek and lightweight
The chassis bears little resemblance to the previous Defy Advanced SL aside from a laundry list of Giant's trademark features, such as the extra-oversized 1 1/4 to 1 1/2in tapered OverDrive 2 steerer, the huge MegaDrive down tube, the 86mm-wide PowerCore bottom bracket shell with press-fit bearing cups, and that unmistakable integrated carbon fiber seatmast that Giant says is at the core of the Defy's rear-end comfort characteristics.
Overall, the new Defy bears a generally sleeker and more cohesive appearance with more consistent tubing profiles and smoother transitions than before. Giant has also given the latest Defy D-shaped tubing in the seatmast, seat tube, and top tube – a profile the company claims yields better flex characteristics than more rounded or squared-off sections.
Giant says the D-shaped tubing and offset seat cluster make for a very forgiving rear end – and our test rides mostly support that claim so far
Despite big claimed boosts in stiffness and ride quality, Giant says the new frame is nonetheless about 50g lighter than before with an unpainted medium frame supposedly coming in at less than 730g – a truly astounding figure, especially when you consider that the 2015 Defy Advanced SL (and all carbon Defy models, in fact) are now exclusively equipped with disc brakes.
Equipment: Awesome brakes, fantastic Di2 transmission
It's impossible to discuss the new Defy Advanced SL's componentry without first mentioning the superb Shimano R785 hydraulic disc brakes. Lever action is fluid and light – albeit rather rattly on bumpy roads – and there's tremendous power available from the dual-piston hydraulic calipers despite Giant's use of 140mm-diameter Tektro rotors.
More importantly, we found it extremely easy to control that power – like, for example, when we had to quickly rein things in after unexpectedly encountered an oncoming vehicle in the middle of a blind corner on a fast one-lane road.
Disc brakes are now standard on all carbon fiber Defy models but the bikes still use quick-release dropouts too
On our flagship test model, Giant pairs those stoppers with Shimano's equally fantastic Dura-Ace Di2 electronic transmission, which continues to impress with its quick, precise, and utterly reliable gear changes both front and rear. We still wished for more tactile feedback from the shift buttons but aside from that, there's little to complain about – at least from Shimano, that is.
Giant stuffs the system's internal power source into a recess in the seatmast topper and after inspecting the setup during a saddle height change (which requires spacers and/or a hacksaw, by the way), it's a less-than-elegant arrangement whereby the battery is essentially just wedged into a hole. It's a simple and effective solution in theory but in practice, it rattled loose on a few editors' bikes.
Shift performance of the Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 transmission was fantastic
Coupled with the launch of the new Defy (and women-specific Avail) line was a new collection of Giant-branded disc-compatible road wheels, which were co-developed with DT Swiss. That said, the top-end Defy Advanced SL comes with shallow-profile Zipp 202 Disc carbon clinchers, which, at just over 1,500g, are some of the lightest disc options around – albeit also somes of the narrowest, with an internal width of just 16.25mm.
Nevertheless, it's a good match for the chassis with excellent stiffness and noticeably low inertia so they're quick and easy to accelerate yet handle with precision. That wheelset also helped keep our small-sized test sample down to just 7.3kg (16.1lb) without the pedals or bottle cage.
Even just several years ago, few would have imagined a bike like this could be this light and capable
Rounding things out are a fi'zi:k Aliante saddle and a carbon cockpit from Giant's own house brand. We found the saddle to be a suitable choice for the application given its ample padding and generously wide and supportive profile – just the thing for spending long hours on the road – and the meaty stem is amply stout to match up with the stiff front triangle.
We weren't quite as keen on the bar bend although, in fairness, that's largely a matter of personal preference so we'll let it go.
Bottom line: Very good first impressions
We left Scotland with a generally good feeling about the new Giant Defy Advanced SL. It's wonderfully light and fantastically efficient, it handles well, and the riding position is spot-on for the application. However, those 120 miles of riding still left us with too many questions about the ride quality to draw any firm conclusions but we've got a long-term sample on the way to use on local, familiar roads. Stay tuned.