Friday, August 21, 2020

New Balance FuelCell Propel v2 Multi Tester Review: At $100 a Genuinely Fine Trainer. Firmer & Faster but Still Fun?

Article by Jacob Brady, Peter Stuart, and Michael Ellenberger

New Balance Fuel Cell Propel v2 ($100)


Introduction

Jacob: The Propel v1, released last year alongside the Rebel and 5280, was part of the first set of running-focused shoes from New Balance using their FuelCell midsole foam with each midsole tuned for different ride feel and purposes.There has been a lot of innovation since then from all brands, including New Balance, and the FuelCell line has grown, now including the spectacular carbon-plated FuelCell TC. 


The Propel is the low-cost, general-purpose trainer in the line. When I tested the Propel v1 last summer, it quickly became one of my most worn shoes. It was very comfortable (soft and slipper-like), smooth riding, easy-going, yet not mushy or slow. The Propel v1 is characterized by a unique, very flexible and soft, almost hard to control feel. I chose it mostly for recovery runs and random easy-to-endurance runs and even as I retired it from my rotation, I still wear it for walking around.

The Propel v2 is a dramatic change with a completely different look and feel. Up top, the heel flare is toned down, the tongue thinned and shortened, and the aesthetics simplified. 

RIght: Propel v2    Left: Propel v1

Underfoot, the ground-contact platform is much narrower with more outsole rubber coverage, less rubber segmentation in the forefoot, a slight wrap of the outsole around the midsole in a few sections, and some forefoot rocker. It also drops $10 in price!


Michael: I absolutely loved the Propel v1 - super soft, to be sure, but a very runnable shoe when you wanted substantial cushioning without weight, and a superb upper, especially in the heel. So, it’s only natural that with the v2, New Balance has taken all those things you liked and done… the opposite? That’s right, the Propel v2 is no longer defined by an overly-soft (nearing mushy) midsole, but instead by a lively, smooth ride with some legitimate rocker sensation. And, that upper? Well, it’s gone, too, with a totally revamped look and feel. 


And guess what? The Propel v2 is great - and at $100, it’s tremendous. Yes, even as someone who loved last year’s version, and then lost essentially everything I appreciated in v1 with the v2  update… I’ve still found plenty to love with the v2. It’s not perfect - we’ll get to that - but it’s really, really good, in all the ways you might not expect. There’s nothing overly flashy here to be found, but at this price point, it’s a damn good option.


Peter: Sounds like we’re all on a similar page here. I was a big fan of the original Propel. It wasn’t the flashiest shoe, but there was a great, smooth utilitarian vibe to it that made me pull it out and run in it way more than I would have thought I would. It was smooth and soft and easy on the feet. I’ve had to re-orient this review to think about the Propel 2 less as a second iteration of the excellent Propel 1, but an entirely new shoe. When I think about it that way, I like it. Do I love it? Hmm, not sure yet. 

Pros:

Jacob: Smooth, stable, versatile ride (even on light trail)

Jacob, Michael: Runs well and is easy-to-run at a variety of paces

Jacob: Great value as a do-it-all daily trainer for $100

Michael, Jacob: Lively ride with a distinct rocker sensation

Michael: Blown rubber outsole won’t readily wear down - and for $100!

Peter: Looks better than the first version

Peter: Firm and efficient ride without being harsh


Cons:

Jacob: Thin tongue with sharp top edge—some lace bite issues and rubbing of the tongue on the ankle

Jacob: Weight gain

Jacob: Not at all like the soft, flexible, and slipper-like Propel v1, so fans of v1 (like me) will be disappointed in that regard

Michael: It’s sort of ugly, and clunkier than last year’s model.

Michael: The upper (while better than it looks!) is a definite step backwards. 

Peter: Yup, a little clunky

Peter: Doesn’t have the magical Fuel Cell qualities of the TC or the first version


Tester Profiles

Jacob runs a mix of roads and trails in the Portland, Maine area. He has been running every day for over two years and averages 50-60 miles per week. Jacob has run several marathons and shorter (≤ 50km) ultras and mountain races in the past two seasons, with a PR of 2:51 in the marathon. In addition to running, he surfs, rides (mountain/gravel/road), and nordic skis. He is 25 years old, 6 ft / 182 cm tall and about 155 lbs / 70 kg.

Peter lives in Austin, Texas and has been a sub 3 hour marathoner as well as a 1:25 half marathoner in recent years

Michael is a 2019 graduate of Northwestern University Law School in Chicago, with an interest in patent and intellectual property law. Prior to law school, he competed collegiately at Washington University in St. Louis (10,000m PR of 30:21). He recently finished 2nd at the Chicago Half-Marathon in a PR of 67:43, and was the top Illinois finisher in the 2017 Boston Marathon (2:33:03, 82nd overall). He recently secured a 2:31 marathon PR at the Austin Marathon. 


Stats

Weight:: men's 9.3 oz / 263g (US9)  /  women's 8.1 oz / 230g (US8)  

  Samples: 316g / 11.1oz US M12

Stack Height: 27mm heel, 21mm forefoot, 6mm drop

Available now including Running Warehouse here  $100


First Impressions and Fit

Jacob: I hadn’t seen an image of the Propel v2 before unboxing and was impressed by the unique and modern but understated styling as well as by the lack of any resemblance to the also distinctive Propel v1. The Propel v2 ’N’ is as much an abstract design as it is the New Balance logo and the all-lowercase, repeated “new balance” flies under the radar—it’s a somewhat odd and childish but polished look.

I hoped the Propel v2’s increased amount of outsole rubber underfoot, less rubber segmentation, and wrap of outsole around the midsole would help tame the somewhat out-of-control high flexibility of the FuelCell midsole, as the carbon plate does in the ultra-soft TC. Flexing in-hand the Propel v2 has a smooth and long flex before hitting the somewhat undefined “breakpoint” and not much lateral flex—a great start in resolving the hard-to-run nature of v1.


Underfoot, the feel is cushioned and there is a bit of sink-in, but it is somewhat firm—the outsole is definitely a contributor to the firmness. The feel is firmer than the Propel v1 and much firmer than the TC. It has some notable forefoot rocker as well, just standing around, whereas the v1 was flat and too flexible for a rocker to do anything anyway. From this part of the update, I was pumped as it seemed like my biggest issue with the v1, the hard-to-run softness/flexibility combination, had been resolved. 

The comfort/feel of the upper on the foot, however, is a decisive step down from the 10/10 comfort in the v1 (which I thought was its best attribute), with the v2 having a thinner tongue that can dig into the ankle with low socks and is prone to lace-bite at the top lace, a harder to dial-in fit, and an overall stiffer feel. It’s not a bad fit—the sizing is spot on with good lock-in and enough toe box space—though it is a bit unrefined-feeling and unfortunate compared to the v1.

Michael: Perhaps I’m in the minority on this, but I was distinctly disappointed by the look of the Propel v2. The v1 had such a distinctly cool look, with slick patterning along the lateral side and a somewhat aggressive stance (which, to be fair, was a little deceiving). To me, the black/red/grey colorway looks like a children’s shoe or something you find at Dick’s Sporting Goods… but hey! If it works, it works, and I wasn’t going to let any aesthetic choices stop me from trying the update to one of 2019’s best.


Like Jacob, I had some issues navigating the new upper, particularly with regards to lacing. I can appreciate why New Balance may have wanted to mix up the midsole from the previous iterations, but any changes to that upper sort of baffle me - they had really nailed it! 


Peter: I’m a fan of the way the shoe looks, and it fits and runs fine, but there are some real issues with the upper. I’ll get into them in the next section, but it’s a bit of a head scratcher. I was very excited to get a new shoe with that awesome Fuel Cell ride, so I liked the Propel 2 much more before I ran in it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine--but it’s not a ‘new and improved’ version of the Propel


Upper


Jacob: The Propel v2 upper uses a medium-thickness engineered mesh upper that is seamless and fits well overall with good foothold. There is a moderate heel structure but no heel counter and a slightly flared heel collar which fits securely and comfortably. The rear to midfoot of the shoe is supported by overlays and the bootie-tongue so it looks like there is a lot of material there, though it’s unobtrusive on the foot. There are no major issues with the upper and it’s comfortable and out-of-the-way on any length run, but it doesn’t have any remarkable positive features and is far from the 10/10 slipper-like comfort of the Propel v1. 

The Propel v2 mesh is somewhat breathable but I have noticed it soaking up sweat. The tongue has a lot of padding which is nice (though a bit warm) except at the top, which is slightly sharp—this is not noticeable on the foot with taller socks but I have to place the tongue well with no-show socks to avoid discomfort. The tongue is a bit short overall as well, and because the padding stops early, I have experienced lace bit on the top lace, but again can avoid it by taking a bit more time when lacing up. The tongue also migrates easily. If I make sure I don’t lace the top lace too tightly, none of these cons are an issue once on the run and the upper stays out of the way and holds the foot well.

Michael: New Balance has packed in an engineered mesh upper with bootie construction and, to put it succinctly, it does fit well. I didn’t have any issues with rubbing or chafing (even at the tongue, unlike Jacob), and generally found the material sufficiently breathable on some really nasty summer mornings here in the midwest. There really isn’t anything to dislike here on the v2, but… I can’t help but think it’s a definite step backwards from the Propel v1.

Version 1 not only had this funky and fun design (pictured above), it also checked a lot of boxes - that knit-like heel collar was entirely seamless and comfortable, and (with the mild exception of the toe cap, which I could have done without), each element was well-considered and placed. Even the lacing on the v1 - with individualized “loop” eyelets - is a little more refined and “premium” than on the v2. It may be cost-cutting (a $100 price point is a sight for sore eyes, to be sure!), but 2019’s Propel was $110, and I would gladly fork up the extra $10 for the higher-shelf build.

Peter: While I like the aesthetics of the Propel 2, there are some significant issues with the upper. On the positive side, I’ll take mesh over knit any day. In the heat and humidity, the propel 2 takes on less water than the original. There’s an overall weirdness to the fit of the upper for me. 

The laces seem to end at a weird place. They either tie too high on the foot (towards the ankle) or too low if you skip the higher eyelet. I’ve never had this issue on a NB shoe, so it’s weird. The other very weird thing about this upper is that it seems almost like there’s not enough upper and the laces are doing too much work. It’s hard to explain, but imagine that your foot is super, super wide and stretches the material of the shoe way out to the sides--then you have to use the laces to hold it all together. Now, the shoe doesn’t feel narrow, it just feels like the proportions are off. This doesn’t particularly affect the way it holds the foot, it just doesn’t look right. Once I run it all seems fine, but I don’t like lacing them up, and I also think the tongue is too short. 


Midsole

Jacob: The Propel v2 is part of New Balance’s FuelCell collection, all shoes employing New Balance’s FuelCell midsole foam.  The durometer and feel of the FuelCell midsole differs throughout the FuelCell line but in both the FuelCell shoes I’ve run in before, the Propel v1 and the TC, the foam has a characteristic softness, flexibility, and fun feel, at the expense of stability. In the Propel v2 the FuelCell midsole is for sure firmer than the Propel v1 and TC, sliding right in at a moderate softness, pretty average even. It has a light sink-in sensation and a bottomless cushion feel in the heel while on the run, but has more of a muted, dampened feel than a sink-and-rebound. There is good stability and notable forefoot rocker which along with the thicker, high-coverage outsole actually holds the platform’s shape and leads to a smooth, easier toe-off. This is dramatically different than in the Propel v1 which was super-soft and very flexible, which made it somewhat hard to run.

Michael: Okay, ready for the twist? The conclusion to my 2019 review of the Propel v1 reads, “the Propel is an enjoyable, if slightly mushy, daily trainer that should check a lot of boxes for a lot of runners, and I look forward to seeing a lot of these out on the roads!” That’s darn near how I’m feeling about the v2, except that “mushy” can be swapped out for “firm.” Seriously - I’ve never had a shoe go from apples to oranges in just a single generation. Look at some of the other language from last year’s review: Jacob said the v1 had, “ super-soft foam and minimal structure;” Peter called it “soft,” and Hope, “super soft.” 

To be clear, the v2 is not the firmest shoe I’ve ever tested - not by a country mile - but in comparison to last year’s offering, it is a genuine difference. And to its credit, I think the v2 actually uses its newfound firmness and rigidity to improve the overall ride (more on that below, of course). There’s some real forward momentum in the v2, which was not necessarily the case in the muddled ride of the v1. 


Peter: Ha ha, Michael--I couldn’t agree more. I loved the Propel, but thought they were just a hair mushy. Total over-correction here and I think the Propel 2 is a bit too firm. It’s not harsh, but it’s just firm enough to feel clunky--and make me not want to run in it nearly as much as some other shoes. 


Outsole

Jacob: The Propel v2 outsole uses three pieces of moderately thick blown rubber which provide nearly full coverage. The rubber wraps up around the midsole slightly on the medial heel and lateral forefoot, to provide more stability. The substantial outsole leads to a smooth, controlled flex and helps give shape to the forefoot rocker. The outsole design is a core contributor to the updated, firmer, stable ride of the Propel v2 (and likely the 0.3 oz US 9 increased weight as well). 

Left: Propel v2             Right  Propel v1

The Propel v1 had less coverage and more segmentation, which led to the flexibility getting a bit out of hand (though it had a high fun factor!).


Traction is solid on all surfaces including dirt and wear appears average. There is a lot of rubber to wear though, so longevity should be solid.

Michael: A genuinely thick (thicc) outsole here, and one that I don’t see wearing down anytime soon. Seriously, I think NB could use maybe half as much rubber here and still get away with it… but, to their credit, instead of just blasting it across the entire outsole, they segmented it in a way that could save them a few grams, and lends a little flexibility. Rubber is stiff, though, and I think the shaping of the outsole elements here - with that flexibille middle segment - does provide some of that spring-sensation by allowing a stiffer toe-off when turning over. Just a hypothesis - there’s some midsole in action there, too, to be sure - but ultimately I think it’s a functional (and undoubtedly durable) outsole.


Peter: There’s a whole lotta rubber going on here. It’s flexible enough--if a little stiff feeling. It will last forever. I haven’t had any issues with wear or traction. It’s good, but probably adds a bit to the clunk of it all. 


Ride

Jacob: The Propel v2 has a very nice do-it-all trainer ride. It is amply-cushioned and medium-soft underfoot, with a smooth, stable, and consistent feel from landing to toe-off. It has a soft bounce on toe off and moves along easily, but it’s not a dramatically soft or bouncy ride. The stiff outsole and geometry have a strong effect in controlling and directing the FuelCell midsole in a similar way to what the carbon plate does in the TC though much less strikingly so. Though the ride is not exciting and a bit muted, it is quite functional, providing protection over long miles, an easy-to-run, forget-about-the-shoe feel at a wide variety of paces, and notable spring off the toe at speed.


Michael: From mush to push? I don’t know how quite to write it up, but the Propel v2 is a genuinely different (and ultimately I think more useful) ride. It’s firm, to be sure, but lively enough to handle a bunch of different runs. Curiously, where I wouldn’t use the Propel v2 necessarily is exactly where the v1 thrived - long, slow, pure recovery runs. 


But at anything beyond a trot, it’s worth your consideration - the full-length FuelCell midsole here (which NB claims delivers the “highest energy return of [NB’s] performance foams currently on the market,” is sufficiently springy for even up-tempo running. The midsole compound still has some give on impact - really the only thing that ties it to the v1! - but rebounds extremely well. It’s an enjoyable, peppy ride - and entirely unlike last year’s.


Peter: The ride of the Propel V2 is solid, if a bit firm. It’s not the most fun shoe I’ve run in, but it has moments of greatness. Sometimes in the middle of a run I’ll think, ‘man this is a fun shoe’, and then I’ll think, ‘nah, kind of clunky’. Overall I’d say it rides like a really nice version of a more traditional foam trainer like the 880. It’s solid, feels decent and rides well, it just doesn’t have that X factor. It’s very stable. 


Conclusions and Recommendations

Jacob: Though not flashy or unique, the Propel v2 is a versatile trainer at a great price that performs well for most types of runs: easy runs, long runs, uptempo blocks, and just cruising around. I don’t find it to be a great choice for speed work or racing where the trainer-class weight and lack of a quick snap (it’s far from a plated shoe) becomes noticeable, but otherwise it provides a balanced, smooth, and stable ride. Durability is solid as well. I think it could be a good choice as an easy/endurance workhorse shoe for those with any size quiver, or a single-shoe-quiver for the beginning or infrequent runner. Both fit and ride are accessible and don’t have any aspects that are dramatic enough to easily dislike.


Like Peter and Micheal, the things I liked about the Propel v1 such as its unique softness, bounce, and flexibility combination and very comfortable feel are gone in the Propel v2. However, the negatives of v1, the hard-to-control, borderline too soft/flexibility generally slow ride have been remedied. In its price and weight class as a daily trainer, it’s a top choice.

Jacob’s Score: 8.3 / 10

Ride: 8 (50%) Fit: 8 (30%) Value: 10 (15%) Style 8 (5%)


Michael: New Balance has taken one of my favorite offerings from 2019, changed seemingly every aspect of it, and still made a shoe I quite enjoy in 2020. It’s not flashy (in fact, I think its looks are one of its few weak points), but it’s an impressive bit of running shoe - especially for $99. It’s clear from their branding that New Balance is targeting new runners here, and they’re right to - someone who is just getting their foot in the door (no pun intended!) to running can pick up a genuinely well-done, durable, and honestly quite fun trainer for sub-$100. 


Of course, this space isn’t devoid of competition - Atreyu has an option well under $100, Brooks’s Launch 7 is a perennial entry-level contender, ASICS has their RoadHawk FF for under $100, and Saucony’s Kinvara is right there at $110. But, New Balance is an established brand, with a (now) established trainer, and I think a lot of runners - just like I predicted last year! - will flock to the Propel v2. It’s not fancy, but it gets the job done.

Michael’s Score: 8.8/10


Peter: There’s definitely a place for the NB Propel 2. I think it’s a little more fun than the 880 or the 860 and isn’t totally dissimilar to the 1080. That said it doesn’t have the pop and excitement of some of the other FuelCell shoes. I LOVE LOVE the FuelCell TC and really enjoyed the original Propel. This is a fine shoe, but lacks the wow factor that some others have. 

Peter’s Score 7/10 

Totally fine, but not exciting, some fit and lacing issues. 


Comparisons Index to all RTR reviews: HERE


New Balance FuelCell Propel v2 vs. Propel v1  (RTR Propel 1 Review)

Peter: While I like the new upper, I think the original Propel was a much more enjoyable shoe overall. There was a nice cushy ride that felt great on longer runs in the original that is just missing from this update. I prefer the Propel v1.


Michael: I vastly prefer the upper on the v1 to the v2, but I think the ride comparison between the two is just too hard to make - if you like soft, go v1, if you don’t, go v2. Ultimately, I don’t know how much cross-shopping there will be between these (though I have seen last year’s model floating around cheap online), but I think I slightly prefer the v1 to the v2.


Jacob: I agree with Micheal in regards to preferring the v1 upper and which shoe you choose depends if you want soft/flexible (v1)  or firmer/stable (v2). The v2 is a more versatile shoe that is easier to cruise in and a better do-it-all trainer, but the v1 has top-of-the-line comfort and a more fun easy-day ride. For my large rotation, I prefer the v1 and use it for easy/no-plan days only, but would recommend the v2 if using it as a daily driver.


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. New Balance FuelCell Prism (RTR Review)

Michael: The Prism looks the part, but I found the ride uninspiring and (sort of in the vein of the v1 Propel), a little mushy and flat. The Prism does have some well-done stability, so if you need a posting, you should go that route - otherwise, I prefer the Propel v2. 


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. New Balance Beacon 3 (RTR Review)

Peter: The Beacon 3 wins hands down. The Beacon 3 is currently my favorite every day shoe and it has a ride that is more similar to the original Propel than this new Propel does. The upper on the Beacon 3 works better for my foot too. Beacon 3--easy.


Michael: Agreed with Peter. The Beacon 3 is a significantly better shoe - more lively, with a better-fitting upper (despite a little extra length in the toebox) and with a bouncier ride. My only potential concern would be durability, but I don’t think it’s enough to stop the Beacon from being the move. 


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. New Balance 880 V9  (RTR Review)

Peter: I’ll give the Propel 2 a win here. It’s a little more fun for me than the 880. Both can feel a little clunky at times, but the Propel 2 is a better ride for me. 


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. ASICS Novablast (RTR Review)

Michael: Novablast is bouncier and more fun, albeit a lot softer. I think overall it’d be the shoe I would choose, though (as with the comparison with the original Propel), there's a lot of runner preference here - the Propel 2 and Novablast are basically at opposite ends of the underfoot feel spectrum. For faster running, I also like the Novablast and its energy return (though it does become wobbly when really moving!).


Jacob: The Novablast is a dramatically bouncy, super-fun, soft blaster! In comparison the lightly bouncy Propel v2 feels pedestrian. The Novablast runs better faster, is lighter, and is a joy to run in, though it is more polarizing in feel. The fit is also much harder to dial (really the biggest negative of the great Novablast for me). Unless you don’t want a soft, bouncy ride, the Novablast would be my pick for all types of runs.


New Balance FuelCell Propel v2 vs. Saucony Freedom 3 (RTR Review)

Jacob: The Freedom 3 was a close comparison to the Propel v1, both shoes defined by their softness, bounce, and flexibility. The Propel v2 has a similar level of cushion to the Freedom 3 but is firmer underfoot with significantly less flexibility and bounce. The soft upper and thick, stretchy laces of the Freedom 3 give it a level of comfort that blows away the Propel v2--it is a higher quality feel overall as well, is lighter, though also $50 more. I prefer the Freedom 3 in all ways for all run types—it is a joy to run in. However the rocker and firmness of the Propel v2 may be preferred by those looking for a less dramatic or more controlled ride. Also the Propel v2 is better value as it is as competent a trainer for $50 less.


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. Hoka Rincon 2 (RTR Review)

Peter: The Hoka is lighter, more fun and has a cooler upper. No contest. 


Michael: Short and sweet! The Rincon 2 is more fun. As with the Beacon, the outsole on the Rincon is a little questionable (fellow RTR tester Jamie Hershfang retired hers around 350 miles), but I still think it’s a more compelling choice. So with the Rincon.


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2  vs. Saucony Ride 13 (RTR Review)

Peter: The Ride 13 is a lovely shoe. It has many of the qualities I was hoping to find on the Propel 2. The Ride is also a little firm, but it has a smoother transition and more luxurious upper than the Propel 2. 


New Balance FuelCell Propel 2 vs. Nike Pegasus 37 (RTR Review)

Michael: Tough call! The Pegasus 37 didn’t wow me (and is in some ways a step backwards from the 36), but it’s undoubtedly a durable and firm everyday trainer. I like the upper on the Peg 37 more, and find the ride slightly better at faster paces than the Propel v2. From Sam’s A/B testing, it seems like the women’s variant of the Pegasus - with softer Zoom Air units - is the best bet of the 3; between the men’s Pegs and Propel, I think I’d take the Nike (but only barely!). 


Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no charge for testing. The opinions herein are the authors'.
Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
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5 comments:

kevin said...

How does it compare to the Fuelcell Rebel v1? Would it make a good slower day complement to rotate with the rebel?

Michael said...

Following now.

I would say it's a good complement, but not replacement, for the Rebel. The Rebel still has that springier toe-off from some sort of internal plating. The Propel is a little duller (comparatively) but still an enjoyable ride.

70's Teen said...

How would you rate it against the Go Run 7+?

Michael said...

70s - I’m taking the Skechers 100%. A little less firm but way more bouncy, and a better-constructed upper.

Terrence said...

The Propel 2 seems like a good comparo vs. the Reebok Forever Floatride Energy 1 / 2, no? Same pricepoint and bouncy (TPU-based?) foams. And the Floatride Energy foam is firmer than its rivals. How do they stack up?