SRAM's Guide Ultimate brakes are the most recent addition
to the Guide series, slotting into the top position as the lightest and most full featured option in the lineup. Niceties include carbon lever blades, titanium lever hardware, tool free reach and pad contact adjustments, and a redesigned caliper that's intended to improve the brake's heat management. Compared to the Guide RSC, the Ultimates are 80 grams lighter for the pair, and retail for $288 per wheel, compared to $205 per wheel for the RSC version.
Guide Ultimate Brake Details
• Intended use: all-mountain / trail
• New S4 four piston caliper
• Titanium lever hardware, carbon lever blades
• Weight: 240 grams (actual, front caliper w/pads, hose, and lever)
• DOT 5.1 fluid
• MSRP: $288 USD per wheel
Except for the carbon lever blade and titanium hardware, the Guide Ultimate brake lever body has the same internals as the rest of the Guide series of brakes, relying on a cam activated cup seal and port system
to move the DOT fluid through the system. The caliper is where the true differences lie – SRAM have implemented a number of measures intended to keep the brakes operating temperature as low as possible, and reduce the number of steps necessary to bleed them.
Each caliper is outfitted with four updated aluminum pistons that each have an insulator in their center, and tiny grooves have also been machined on the outside of the pistons to improve improve rollback, the speed that they return to their original position after the lever is released. Along with the revised pistons, a heat sink now sits in front of the brake pads. The horseshoe shaped piece of stainless steel is designed to pull heat away from the pads, and SRAM's in-house testing found that this created a 20°C reduction in running temperature.
The location of the bleed port on each caliper has been moved rearward, a position change that should help make sure that stubborn air bubbles don't remain in the caliper even after the system is bled correctly. There's also no longer a tiny screw to remove before bleeding the caliper - instead, lifting a small rubber cover reveals a hexagon shaped port that an adaptor fits into, and is then turned counter-clockwise to open up the system, allowing fluid to be moved from the caliper and up through the lever body. The Guide Ultimates are the first brakes to feature this design, but it wouldn't be surprising to see it start to trickle down through the rest of the Guide lineup. On the Trail
I spent over three months with the Guide Ultimate brakes, and during that time they saw everything from long top-to-bottom runs in the dry and dusty Whistler Bike Park to a 7,000 vertical foot helicopter shuttle in Rettallack, BC (rough life, I know
). Overall, they've been extremely consistent and reliable, with the benchmark-setting modulation that the Guide series of brakes have become known for. Other than the slightly different tactile feel of the carbon lever versus the aluminum lever found on the lower priced options, the Guide Ultimate brakes feel nearly identical to the other brakes in the Guide series, which is a good thing. There's a smooth buildup of power the harder you squeeze the levers, which makes it possible to creep down steep rock faces without skidding out of control, or to scrub the perfect amount of speed just before entering a loose and dusty turn. Both the lever reach and pad contact point adjustments work well, and make it easy to really fine tune exactly where the lever sits, as well as at what point the pads reach the rotor.
SRAM Guide Ultimate Compared to Shimano XTR M9020
I did end up bleeding the rear brake after a few weeks of riding – it began to pump up slightly on long, extended downhills, which is often a sign of air in the system. Fortunately, the bleed procedure for these brakes is extremely simple, and the new Bleeding Edge adaptor (included) makes life even easier. That one bit of maintenance was all it took to get the brake working flawlessly once again, and I didn't run into any other issues during my time on them. Brake pad wear and piston advancement were all uneventful - the pads wore evenly, and even when they were close to the end of their lifespan there wasn't any drastic change to the feel at the lever.
SRAM and Shimano are the current leaders of the pack when it comes to hydraulic disc brakes, and the performance gap between the two companies top offerings is smaller than ever – it's more of a matter of personal preference, like choosing between chocolate or strawberry ice cream, rather than one drastically outperforming the other. Since the Guide Ultimates are SRAM's top of the line trail brakes, it's worth taking a moment to compare them to Shimano's XTR Trail brakes. Weight
: SRAM has an ever-so-slight edge here, with a front Guide Ultimate brake weighing in at 240 grams, versus 250 grams for the XTR Trail brake. Those are the actual weights of a front caliper, lever, brake line, and pads.Price:
Guide Ultimate: $288 USD per wheel. XTR M9020: $299 USD per wheel. Aesthetics:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I'm going to give this one to Shimano. The sleek, low profile design of the latest XTR trail brakes simply looks more polished and refined than the Guide Ultimate brakes.Power:
Even though the XTR Trail brakes only have two pistons compared to the Guide's four, they feel a touch more powerful - it takes less pressure at the lever to lock up the rear wheel. Modulation:
The Guide Ultimates have a slight edge when it comes to modulation – the XTR Trail's power comes on a little earlier in the stroke, while on the Guides there's more room to feather the brakes and apply just the right amount of pressure to the caliper. Both brakes deliver plenty of usable, easily controllable power, but the Guide brakes have the edge by a narrow margin.Consistency:
Overall, the set of Guide Ultimate brakes used for this review ended up having a more consistent feel than Shimano's XTR Trail brakes. The last few sets of XTR brakes I've been on have been finicky when it comes to getting the lever to feel the same every time it's pulled, even after being bled several times. The point at where the lever stops moving, the moment it hits the pad, seemed like more of a moving target with the XTR brakes, while on the Ultimates, other than the need to bleed them one time early on in the test period, the lever felt exactly the same every time I grabbed it.
* Note: Keep in mind that this comparison is solely between the Guide Ultimate and XTR Trail brakes – I'm currently evaluating a set of the XT M8000 brakes, and so far they've exhibited a much more consistent feel than their more expensive sibling. Pinkbike's Take:
|One of SRAM's mottos is 'incremental enhancement', and that's exactly what the Guide Ultimate brakes are. By taking a successful design, trimming the fat and adding in a few new features, SRAM have created a brake that deserves its place as the creme de la creme of the Guide brake line, a light and powerful brake that can handle everything from trail riding to long, steep downhill runs. That being said, despite the revised caliper, there's not a drastic difference in performance between the Ultimate brakes and the lower priced options in the line, which means that riders who don't mind carrying around a few extra grams can get nearly all of the benefits without the associated cost. - Mike Kazimer|