The Felt Z3 was comfortably at home on the rough roads north of Boulder, Colorado.
More than just a straightforward comparison of bikes, the RoadBikeReview $3,000 Endurance Bike Shootout was a case study in brand attitude and awareness. Early on, testers were given a choice of which bike they wanted to ride. Invariably the more well-known brands (Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale) were the ones that rolled out of the parking lot. Often the Felt Z3 remained on the roof rack.
Perhaps this was just a measure of familiarity. You don’t see a lot of Felts on the roads around Boulder, Colorado. But there is also no denying that the southern California-based company has always been more product driven than marketing driven.
Their bike’s don’t have sexy names like Roubaix, Domane or Synapse. Instead they use a simple letter-number ID system. F bikes are more racy, Z more comfortable. The number 1 means a higher level of spec than the number 3 a little lower down the component food chain. Not much wow factor there. But once testers got aboard our Felt Z3 test bike, all that changed.
Branded as the company’s most versatile road bike family, the Z series has gran fondo roots and race day acumen. Indeed, it’s designed to meld top-tier handling with all-day ride capability. It was also one of the top bikes in the test for charging hard on dirt roads.
“I intentionally drove this bike into the rutted dirt washboards and it remarkably didn’t chatter me off the bike,” said one tester, who gave the Z3 a 5-out-of-5 score for rough road performance. “Of all the bikes I ride, it did the best in this kind of terrain.”
“I wouldn’t say it was super nimble,” said another tester. “But it was really stable and smooth, more like my grandpa’s old Cadillac than a racy sports car.”
Chalk some of that up to the Z3’s wheelbase, which at 102.2cm for a size 58cm, was second longest in the test. Felt also uses what it calls a ControlTaper head tube with 1-1/8” upper bearings and 1-1/2” lower bearings, which they say improves front-end stiffness without adding weight to the frameset.
Ride quality is further enhanced by a compliant 27.2mm seat post. But Felt will tell you the bike’s smooth ride comes primarily from the frame design itself, where thinned seatstays with a lower attachment point help improve vertical compliance and dampen road vibration.
Ride quality is enhanced via seatstays that attach lower down the seattube cluster and a vibration damping 27.2mm seatpost.
It’s a fairly straightforward approach when contrasted with some of the more radical designs on other bikes in this test, which includes Zertz inserts, decouplers, and seatstays so thin the brake bridge had to be removed.
“I appreciate the fact that Felt has relied on more traditional design and still managed to create a bike that can handle the rough stuff,” said one tester. “It has the most classic look in the group, which really appealed to me.”
From the inside out
While other bikes in this test feature bump-absorbing devices visible to the naked eye, Felt claims the highlight feature of its frame is on the inside. The bike is constructed using what Felt calls its InsideOut molding process, which is claimed to eliminate excess material, and therefore lower weight.
Felt does this by placing polyurethane inserts inside the frame during the molding process, specifically at the bottom bracket and head tube area. It’s obviously hard to pass judgment on any of this without seeing the process in action or cutting open the frame. But the Z3 was certainly competitive in terms of weight. Here’s a look at how it stacked up against the other bikes in the test in terms of price and weights.
The Z3 also passed our wide tire test, where we replaced the stock Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Slick 25s with a set of 27c Challenge Paris Roubaixs that actually measured closer to 30mm. Clearance was no issue whatsoever with the FSA Energy dual pivot brakes, but we’d prefer to see the Shimano Ultegra 11-speed group carried through the entire bike. And while braking performance was decent, there was noticeable difference between the Felt and other bikes with the Ultegra brake calipers.
The Felt Z3 had no trouble with our wide tire test, where a 27c Challenge Paris Roubaix was swapped into place.
Cable routing is internal and Di2 compatible, and the Felt Z3 comes stock with an FSA Energy Hollow Forged 50-34 crankset, which is necessitated by the BB30 bottom bracket since Shimano doesn’t make cranks that will fit. Alas, while there was no major shifting issues during our month long test session, we wish there was a way to see the Shimano Ultegra group carried throughout both for performance and aesthetic reasons.
“The FSA crankset is decent,” said one tester who is also a former WorldTour team mechanic. “But long term, I think it could be one of the weaknesses of that bike.”
In case you’re wondering, the Z3 offering continues essentially unchanged for 2015, but Felt is also adding a $2500 disc brake-equipped version (the Z4) that will come stock with a SRAM Rival 22 Hydro group and Mavic Aksium ONE Disc wheels. Our 2014 test bike was spec’d with Shimano RS 11 wheels.
“You’d always rather see a non-house brand wheel because you get some trickle down tech from a major wheel maker,” said one tester. It’s always nice to see a name you recognize.”
The 11-speed Shimano Ultegra drivetrain is broken up with a set of FSA brakes and FSA compact crankset.
We were also impressed with Felt’s innovative two-bolt seat binder clamp, which was a nod to function over form. The taller clamp adds a tiny bit of weight, but its pair of slots on opposite sides of the seat tube reduce the force being placed on the composite material.
X’s and O’s
Turning an eye to frame geometry, the Z3 has a sloping top tube for increased stand over clearance, and like all the bikes in this test, the frames utilizes a slightly taller head tube than their race bikes. Our size 58cm test rig’s measured 20cm, 4cm taller than a similarly priced and spec’d Felt F4 race bike.
“This bike put me up a bit higher than I’d like and on the hoods it felt as if the bike needed to be really tugged into corners,” reported one tester. “In the drops it was a bit better, but my arm position and center of gravity still felt a little too high.”
Here’s a look at key geometry measures for all the bikes in this test using a 56cm frame as baseline for comparison.
Generally speaking, our test team was impressed by the ride of the Felt Z3, especially on rough roads and paved flats. It has a classic, clean look, and delivers solid vibration damping performance without need for radical frame designs or add-ons. But some testers wished it had a slightly shorter head tube, and others felt its climbing performance wasn’t quite on par with some of the other bikes in this test, which felt stiffer. The Z3 also loses points for the broken Shimano Ultegra groupset.