Review: Garmin Varia RTL515 Radar

I have always been a Varia radar skeptic because I doubted its utility in a small city state like Singapore where there are cars passing by every few seconds. After all, I cycle with a mindset that there will always be a car making a close pass at any time. But I decided to give the Varia RTL 515 a go for two reasons – first, a new version was just launched, and second, I had not bought any new outdoor cycling gear for months. I have used the Varia RTL 515 for a few rides and here are my thoughts.

The Good

  1. Early vehicle warning is useful even in cities. I was wrong. Unlike my earlier doubts, the Varia 515 has been actually useful. Think of it as a rear view mirror that actively alerts you (beeping tone/vibration) when vehicles crop up. Just like a rear view mirror, it gauges how far the vehicles are from you by denoting a moving dot along a vertical path on your cycling computer. It is surprisingly accurate in picking up vehicles and gauging their distance. It works in pelotons and does not pick up non-motorised vehicles. So, it gives a layer of assurance when cycling on the road. Nonetheless, it does not remove the need to turn your head and check first hand when making a turn or changing lanes – similar to the limits of a rear view mirror.
  2. Good integration with Garmin, Wahoo and others. It is good that Garmin runs the Varia RTL 515 on a common protocol shared by other cycling brands. The RTL 515 works great with both my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt and my Garmin Fenix 5 Plus. I like how unobtrusive it is even on a small display like the Fenix 5 Plus. Pairing and usage were seamless.

The Bad

  1. Expensive. Would you pay S$295 for a rear view mirror? Sure, it is more elegant and slightly more useful than a literal mirror but it may not justify its price for some. While I think that the Varia RTL 515 is more useful than previously thought, I will not say it is absolutely essential. With safe riding habits, you do not need one. But it gives you a peace of mind. It boils down to whether that peace of mind is worth the rather steep price.
  2. Square mount not great (for me). Earlier versions of the Varia did not come with square mounts. The RTL 515 does but it does not fit my Pinarello Dogma F10 Disk‘s seat post well. It is simply too wide and does not have sufficient depth to allow it to wrap around the seat post. I had to make my own custom mount by using a moulding material called Sugru.
  3. Bulky. The RTL 515 on its own is streamlined and looks good. But there’s no hiding that it is still rather chunky and will affect your bike’s aesthetics and weight. I have tried to manage its bulkiness by mounting it as low as possible on the seat post. Garmin’s guide says that it should sit minimally above the rear wheel of the bike so that the radar’s line of sight is not impeded. Doing so has helped the aesthetics part slightly. But clamping two items on a seat post is never eye pleasing.
  4. Light is not bright enough. The RTL 515 doubles up as a rear light but I am not comfortable with using it as my sole rear light. The light is simply not bright enough when viewed both from the rear or the sides. It is far dimmer than my Cateye Rapid X3 which I still hold as the gold standard for a bright eye-catching rear light. This means I have to mount two devices on my seat post – the RTL 515 and my Rapid X3 rear light. Messy.

Overall, the RTL 515 is a well executed bike radar. Many will find it useful. But not all will be able to accept the several costs that come with it – price, weight and aesthetics. I bought mine from Clever Training US at the aforementioned price of S$320 including shipping.

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