Garmin Varia Radar Review

As I write, the song “Radar Love” by Golden Earring is looping in my mind. That’s because today I’m discussing the pros & cons of the Garmin Varia radar. I’ve had mine for almost a year and cyclists still ask: “Do you like it?” and “Is it worth it?” To answer those questions and many more, I need to share a snippet of my cycling history.

Wake Up Call

When the first version of the Varia came out I wasn’t impressed. My cycling friend, who always had the latest and greatest gizmos, owned one and I knew the radar worked based upon his seemingly mystical ability to hail “car back” without a glance over his shoulder. My beef was with the rear light. It was a row of mini LEDs that weren’t bright. If I had trouble seeing them then drivers did, too. Conclusion: over-priced and not worth it. My wake up call would come months later on a winter solo ride in the country.

For all of my 35-years of cycling, I’ve prided myself on hearing vehicles long before they were on my wheel. Now that I’m in my sixties, my hearing has worsened. On this particular winter day, I was climbing a narrow, hilly road wearing my balaclava, which further muted sound. I was out of the saddle and breathing heavily, more sound dampening, when out of nowhere a car flew past. Shocked by its sudden appearance and infuriated that my Ninja hearing skills had failed me, I knew something had to change. Thus began my research into the Varia.

The Specs

According to Garmin, the battery life is 15-hours when in “blinking mode” and 6 hours when in “solid mode” and can detect vehicles 153 yards (140 meters) away. The new model has a much better and brighter light that, when in “solid mode,” puts out 20 lumens, in “night flash” emits 29 lumens, and in “day flash” pumps out 65.

Garmin Varia light is much brighter

Even if you’re not a tech-wiz, setting up your new Varia is a breeze. Simply:

  1. Fully charge the unit using the included USB cable.
  2. Turn on the Varia by pressing the “on” button for 1 second.
  3. Navigate on your Garmin (this may be different for Wahoo owners) to…

-Settings

-Sensors

-Add Sensor

-Search All

Pairing your Garmin and Varia together

Follow the screen instructions and you’re done! A radar icon appears in the upper right corner to indicate the units are connected.

How It Works

When a car approaches, the Garmin beeps and displays color bars running up both sides of the screen to inform you of the car’s relative speed. Amber signifies it is approaching at a low speed; red signifies faster speeds; green indicates all clear. Simultaneously, a dot representing the car appears on the bottom right side of your screen. As the car nears, the dot moves towards the top of the display and disappears when the car passes. If there is more than one car, multiple dots are displayed and are spaced relative to their position on the road.

Garmin Varia showing the amber warning

I immediately fell in love with my Varia, especially on solo rides, because it warned me long before my Old Man ears could. This allowed me plenty of time to move over or to be extra careful if the road was hazardous or to plan what to do if a turn neared. As a coach on group rides, it gives me one more tool to ensure my riders are safe and aware. The Varia also freed me up from checking my “six” incessantly (more on this in a bit) allowing me to focus on the ride, my riders, and the road. But as amazing as it is, it does have some quirks.

Cost

Let’s cut to the chase: the Varia isn’t cheap. Here in the States, it retails for $199.99 which gets the Anti-Varia Cyclists shouting: “Just get a mirror and a rear light for $30 and be done with it!” True, that is one way to go, but I’m not a mirror guy (don’t judge!) and I’d argue that the Varia is a solid investment over the mirror. For the record, I waited for it to go on sale before pulling out the old wallet.

False Reads

Another quirk of the Varia is false reads. Occasionally I’ll get warned that a car is approaching only to discover, with a glance back, that nothing is there. Most often this is because I turned and the radar picked up a car on the previous road that I can no longer see.

Although Garmin claims that Varia can distinguish between cyclists and vehicles, I’ve found that on occasion, when a rider drops far from the pace group, the radar spots them. If I know the rider can take a joke, I tell them the Varia thinks they’re a truck, or as you Brits say, a lorry. Ahh, fun times with Coach! According to the Garmin Forum, others have experienced this, too. Hopefully, Garmin will make some tweaks to counter this but I’d prefer the unit to be over-sensitive than not.

Many of the country roads I ride in middle Tennessee are hilly and winding. When the Varia spots an approaching car and I round a bend where trees or the hill blocks the view, occasionally the screen clears as if the car isn’t there. As soon as the obstruction is gone, the Varia alerts me of its presence once more. Again, this is a rare situation, and most times the Varia tracks the car perfectly.

Final Words

After a year of using my Varia, here are some tips and advice:

  1. Never assume your rear is clear. No, I’m not talking about after a WC stop! I still make it a habit to check my “six” when making a turn even if the Varia tells me the coast is clear.
  2. Not ideal for urban use. I think the Varia shines when riding in the country where cars aren’t as frequent but in a city, the incessant beep-beep-beep followed by all the colors and the never-ending dots would drive me nuts.
  3. I like using the Varia in the “day flash” mode as I think it gives drivers a better visual warning than the “solid mode” and longer battery life, too.

Even if you have young, Ninja-hearing ears, I think the Varia is a great tool and a sound investment, and if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy some “Radar Love”, too.

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