This is an analysis and review of the best direct drive smart trainers for cycling.
But what might prove more helpful than descriptions and opinions (worthwhile as they are) is a data-based visualisation based on their specs.
In addition to accurately comparing the turbos, it is a guide to what you can get for your money.
To make things easy, I’ve broken it down into various sub-topics like what you need in a direct drive trainer and the different ones.
Check it out:
Direct drive trainers – although more expensive – allow greater accuracy. It can also simulate a more realistic bike feeling.
Other advantages include a quieter performance and it allows the bike to be fixed directly on. Wheel-on trainers deflate your tyre and have a negative impact on the hub.
Perhaps most importantly though, any decent direct drive trainer will come with a power metre, which as we know is essential for any Zwift action.
So, we’ve picked out our top Zwift-ready direct drive trainers. This takes in the actual numbers, ran modelling and data analysis to compare them.
Ultimately, though there is more to a trainer than incline and power. There are other factors such as road feel, noise and power.
Here is the list – in a (sort of) order of priority.
- ANT+ FE-C BlueTooth connectivity (most have this as standard but you need to make sure)
- Resistance control (power)
- Max gradient (because we all want to ride up hills, right?)
- Freewheel downhill simulation (only the best)
- Overall road feel (probably the hardest to judge)
- Noise. Keep the neighbours onside. These things can bang out a lot of sound
The other things to be aware of is ERG mode (short for ergometer). It basically controls your resistance to ensure you produce a certain amount of power. It is connected with the above data points like accuracy and incline.
We punched in the numbers for each of the trainers, ran them against each other using Python and outputted them with some data visualisation.
In this case a scatterplot.
It basically runs each trainer’s attributes, such as incline, accuracy, power etc. It compares them to the prices and, based on this, works out what the average should be.
This average is represented by the blue line. While the lighter blue area around it defines a second area where the trainers should fall – based on their collective data.
Anything outside of the light blue area is an outlier.
For example, our data shows that an £800 ($932)* trainer should be capable simulating an incline of 20%.
The prices are based on what is available at Wiggle (as of March 2020). Unsurprisingly, these tend to break up into a top end and a slightly elongated low-mid range.
Incline – who comes out top?
Here the best incline simulation come from the Elite Drivo II. While the Wahoo Kickr Smart 2018 and the Wahoo Kickr Core seem to underperform slightly. Although these have the benefit of being compatible with the Kickr Climb.
But, looking at value and where it fits against the others, you have to go with the Saris H3.
- Winner – Saris H3
- Runner up – Drivo II
In terms of value, it’s worth mentioning the Saris H3. It has a decent amount of power and a 20% incline for a good price. Great if you want to climb Alpe du Zwift.
Power – good for training
In terms of power, the Elite Drivo II comes out as one of the top smart trainers. But sister model, the Directo take top slot.
- Winner – Elite Direto X
- Runner up – Elite Drivo II
Accuracy – getting as close to the road as you can
It is difficult to pull these apart. Many trainers fall around the 1.5% to 2.5%(+/-) range.
However, Elite comes out well here with the only two products falling into the outlier territory. The Direto X does well at 1.5% accuracy. But the overall prize has to go to the Elite Drivo II.
- Winner – Elite Drivo II
- Runner Up – Elite Direto X
Weight – portability is an issue for some
How important weight is, depends on if you are going to take the trainer anywhere. Here, the more powerful turbo trainers are more likely to weigh more. Again Elite seems to fare well here.
- Winner – Elite Direto X
- Runner up – Drivo II
Elite’s Drivo II came out in 2018. As you can probably tell from the name, it’s an upgrade on the Italian company’s previous top of the range trainer.
The original Drivo had a great reputation as Elite’s top-end model.
Probably the biggest standout on the Drivo II is the power accuracy. The Italian manufacturer claims its power accuracy is to within 0.5%. At the time of writing, it is the most accurate on the market.
Moreover, the Drivo II is able to simulate hills rather nicely. It’s beefed up braking force means it can simulate climbs of up to 24%, which is just about as big as it’s going to get unless you’re training to ride up a wall.
In fact, we asked Zwift what the top percentage gradient out of all five worlds was. It said that the top gradient (including Harrogate) is 19%. And that is in New York.
It’s when you plug the other numbers in that the Drivo II stands out. Because when you compare both the top gradient and accuracy with price, the Elite trainer is almost an outlier. Only the Tacx Neo came close.
So yes, the Drivo II is at the top end of the market. But when you line it up against the other $1000+ machines, it has a lot going for it.
Cycleops brought out the Hammer 3 last year and it is almost a direct competitor in terms of spec to the Tacx Neo and the Wahoo Kickr Smart.
But it’s a cheaper machine.
It has what you would expect from a trainer in this price range, ANT+ and FE-C (Fitness equipment control), transmits power data, and controls resistance.
As you would expect but a trainer is about more than that.
The H2’s legs are on adjustable spring-loaded mounts, which is helpful if your floor is uneven. But at 20 pounds it’s a little heavier than competitors like Wahoo’s Kickr (16 pounds). One thing though, when you see it in the flesh you realise it’s a solid piece of kit.
In terms of noise, it’s at 60 decibels. This is supposed to be what the Kickr is rated at, so it probably wins on keeping the neighbours happy.
The ride is exactly what you would expect from a high-end bike trainer. Many have said the ERG (simulation) is smooth. But there have been some comments about the calibration of the machine and its pinpoint accuracy when it comes to putting the hammer down (no pun intended).
In terms of hitting the hills, the H3 can simulate 20% gradients. Good value for a trainer in this price range.
Another benefit, the axel support goes all the way from 130mm to 148mm meaning you can put a mountain bike on there if you’re that way inclined.
Does it compare to the Wahoo Kickr or the Tacx Neo though? Well at around £650, it is slightly cheaper than those two machines. While it’s 20% top gradient is more than adequate for Zwift.
The accuracy is around 2% and compared to other trainers that is about fair.
Overall, it’s a very good competitor to the Wahoo Kickr Core.
Tacx Neo 2
First off, the Tacx Neo is another high-end machine. Currently coming in over the $1000 mark.
But there are a couple of things to get out of the way on this one with regards to that price. The Tacx Neo is able to simulate going over rough ground and cobbles, thanks to powerful magnets in its flywheel. For the same reason, the machine is incredibly quiet.
The Neo also wins on incline simulation. It goes all the way up to a knee-crunching 25%, which is about a high as you’re going to need re. Zwift, etc, or any other virtual training environment or app.
Where it loses out against the competition is accuracy and price. Its accuracy is down as 3%, which is an outlier in this price point. Possibly this is down to that virtual flywheel.
Overall, the Tacx Neo is a solid trainer with some fine features thrown in. It’s just a shame Tacx wasn’t able to do better on the accuracy.
For an in-depth review of the Tacx Neo 2T go here.
Elite Direto XR
Launched last year, the Elite Directo smart trainer comes in at the mid-market point in terms of price. It is a revamp of the original Direto, which came out two years ago.
This iteration includes, among other changes, an increase in the power and reduction of the noise (by a claimed 50%).
The top gradient simulation comes in at just below that crucial 19% point, at 18%. So you’ll be able to do just about every hill on Zwift. Second, the accuracy is well above what you would expect for this price at 1.5%. So in terms of value, this machine is right up there.
In terms of accuracy, it is the third-best in the sample beating three others that are more expensive. Conversely, it is quite light and has one of the lighter flywheels here meaning the ride could be affected. On the plus side, it can manage hit a max power of 2200w.
For an in-depth review of the Elite Direto X go here.
Kinetic R1 – above £1000
Like the Tacx Neo 2, the Kinetic R1 direct drive trainer has a special feature. The ability to offer lateral movement is something none of the other machines offers. And, although technically listed as over £1000, it can be found for under £700.
The sideways movement comes from where the trainer is fitted to a plate, which literally allows the bike to move side to side. Nothing technical there. As opposed to the Tacx Neo’s cobble simulation, this will not be linked to Zwift.
It is also Kinetic’s first direct-drive machine and one to feature both Bluetooth and Ant+. And it can also be used outside without power!
So, how does it fare against the competition?
Cons – in terms of accuracy it is one of the poorer performers and hits a 3% accuracy threshold.
Pros – but in terms of the incline, you won’t need anything else. It’s one of the best trainers at around the 19% zone. While the flywheel weighs in at 7.25kg, about the same as the Kickr. So provides a decent ride.
Most importantly, it comes with a built-in rockerplate.
Wahoo Kickr Smart and the Wahoo Kickr Core
Looking at the data, the two Wahoo’s might not have come out too well.
Sometimes though the data doesn’t tell the whole story. In this case, it misses out that these are two seriously solid trainers with good overall ability and ride feel.
Probably most importantly though, they can be hooked up with a range of Wahoo kit. The most important of these is the Wahoo Kickr Core – probably the best thing there is in terms of simulating road climbs.
Tacx Flux 2 Smart and Elite Suito
Both of these products fall within the same range. From a trainer perspective, these are relatively high-end when compared against some of the mag trainers.
In direct drive terms, these could best be described as solid entry-level machines.
While the Tacx Flux S is probably a little too basic in terms of incline and power, the Flux 2 Smart is a solid low maintenance trainer.
These trainers are all good solid solutions. Ultimately, it comes down to your ambitions as a rider and how much you have to spend.
As stated above, the price range breaks out into a top-end (Tacx Neo 2 and Wahoo Kickr Smart 2018) and a mid-range.
What do you want? If you are looking at quality simulation on Zwift, then incline is important. While Trainerroad will probably be best on ERG or power. While accuracy has an effect on both.
Whatever you decide, remember one thing. These are just tools to make you a stronger rider or provide a riding experience.
You do not become better because they are.