The Defy has been one of our favourite mid-price machines in recent years, but Giant certainly isn’t taking anything for granted. The 2012 bike gets a completely new frameset and is now lighter, more responsive and gives an even smoother benchmark-setting ride.
Frame and ride quality are superb for the money and, despite the obvious expenditure on the chassis, the components are good enough to let the underlying ride character shine through. If you’ve got cash to splash later on though, there’s plenty of potential still to discover with lighter wheels and other upgrades.
Ride & handling: Superb for the money
A comfortable ride isn’t generally something you can expect from an alloy-framed bike at this price. Then again, the Defy has been raising expectations in its category for several years now and 2012 is certainly no exception. Even with functional rather than fancy finishing kit and wheels, the remarkably ‘floated’ ride sensation of the frame is still very much present. The Defy doesn't rattle, rumble and chatter; it glides smoothly. This smooth, comfortable feel reduces fatigue over longer rides but also makes the bike seem more stable and confident over rough surfaces and this combines to help you maintain a good momentum. Because the bike feels confident so do you and you are prepared to perhaps push just that little more than you otherwise would do.
What’s especially clever about this bike though is that the compliance and comfort doesn’t come at the expense of powertrain stiffness or steering accuracy. While the acceleration isn’t rocket-ship fast it’s not by any means slow and the pace noticeably increases as soon as you apply pressure to the pedals. It’ll handle serious shoulder-to-shoe-sole wrestling when you’re deliberately grinding a big gear out of the saddle too (although the ratios mean that’s rarely necessary).
The fact that you’re not being kicked about or rattled as you apply your power makes it a lot easier to maintain your rhythm and the Defy is easily the match of most low-end carbon frames when it comes to performance. The tapered head tube and fork backed by the big down tube create a precise and punctual feel to any steering input, but again, there’s enough compliance to keep the tips from twanging off-line. Add this to the stickier compound front tyre and the Giant easily maintains a decent pace. New cartridge brake pads would definitely feature early on our upgrade list as we felt the standard ones were not quite strong enough – but then, the Defy frame is so good it’s worth whatever money you can throw at it in terms of lighter wheels and cockpit kit.
Frame: Extensively shaped and lightweight
Giant aren’t just one of the largest and most experienced frame manufacturers in the world, they’re also one of the most advanced. All this is very apparent in the new alloy Defy frame – impressive, given the price. For a start it has a tapered fork and head tube. While Defy bikes are primarily designed with distance and comfort in mind, the head tube isn’t so long you can’t get a reasonably aggressive aerobar-compatible position out of it either. The big tapering rectangular down tube underlines steering and power precision, while a super-thin, leaf-spring top tube adds vertical compliance without sacrificing twist resistance. The same logic explains the ultra thin, flat top to the seatstays while deep ellipse-to-square section chainstays keep your power well channelled.
As a sub-1.5kg frame, it’s already a premium piece for the price, but there’s also a lot of practical detailing on the bike. Gear adjusters on the head tube side mean no cable rub and easy tension tuning. A riveted front mech plate saves the weight of a band and a twin-bolt seat collar adds security. Despite the super thin stays there are still mudguard and rack mounts for the commute to work and Giant produce their own set of low-profile guards specifically designed for the Defy. The carbon leg/alloy crown tapered fork is virtually the same as last year’s, but its weight and ride quality are still more than competitive enough to justify the rollover.
Equipment: Quality parts
It might be £70 more expensive than it was last year but there are big changes in the Defy’s specification for 2012. The transmission set-up has also changed from Shimano Sora to Tiagra in terms of shifting: cue ‘proper’ twin-lever STI shifters rather than a side button system and a 20-speed range. It’s a big range too, as Giant have specced the 30-tooth rear cog option on the cassette. Add the FSA compact chainset and you’re going to have to ride a long way on some very big hills to find an adequate excuse for walking.
The slick-looking chainset benefits from an external bottom bracket and fixed axle too, with an obvious stiffness increase underfoot as a result. The Giant wheels are relatively sturdy, and the use of a stickier compound on the front tyre inspires and rewards increased confidence in slippery autumn/winter conditions. The Giant cockpit and seating gear is all good quality too, with a slim hull saddle completing the high-comfort Defy experience.