We previously reviewed the South African developed Backtracker which was bought out by Garmin and reimagined as the Varia system. The Backtracker was an great product - it just lacked integration with other devices such as a GPS head unit. Garmin clearly thought the same and quickly added the Varia to its very polished Garmin ecosystem.


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What is the Varia?


The Garmin Varia has two functions:
  1. The Varia warns the rider of approaching vehicles; and
  2. The Varia tail light increases its blink frequency as a vehicle approaches with the intention of drawing the driver’s attention to the cyclist.


The Varia system is made up of two components: the rear radar and light unit, and the display head unit. The tail light doubles as the radar sensor which sends data to the Varia display unit or Garmin GPS unit. The display unit uses bright LEDs to indicate the proximity and the number of vehicles approaching the rider. Take a look at our demonstration video below:



Mounting


The Varia bundle includes all the required handlebar and seatpost mounts. The devices are held firmly in place by Garmin’s familiar quarter turn mounts. Garmin claim that the tail light mounts will fit on most seatpost configurations.

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Varia Bike Radar Bundle specifications:

  • Dimensions: Radar display unit: 2.4” x 1.3” x 0.7” (6.0 cm x 3.4 cm x 1.9 cm); Tail light: 2.9” x 1.7” x 0.9" (7.3 cm x 4.4 cm x 2.3 cm)
  • Weight: Radar display unit: 1.0 oz (28.5 g); Tail light: 2.2 oz (63.5 g)
  • Modes: solid, flashing
  • Lumens: 16
  • Battery life (high power mode): 5 hours
  • ANT+®: Yes
  • Water rating: IPX7
  • Price: R3,899.00


Varia Tail Light only option

  • Dimensions: 2.9” x 1.7” x 0.9 (7.3 cm x 4.4 cm x 2.3 cm)
  • Weight: 2.2 oz (63.5 g)
  • Modes: Solid, flashing
  • Lumens: 16
  • Battery life (high power mode): 5 hours
  • Charge time: 2 hours
  • ANT+: Yes
  • Water rating: IPX7
  • Price: R2,699.00


If you have a supported Garmin GPS unit (the Edge 25; 520 and 1000), it is possible to buy the rear radar unit without the Varia display unit.


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What’s in the Radar Bundle box?

  • Varia radar display unit
  • Radar tail light
  • Stem mount
  • Seat-post quarter-turn mount
  • Universal seat-post quarter-turn mount
  • microUSB cable
  • Manuals


Out on the road


For our testing, we used the Varia as a complete package with the display unit and without the display unit using a Garmin Edge 520 GPS unit.


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The user experience with the Varia bundle is excellent. Other than mounting the devices on the bike, there is no setup. Simply turn on the tail light and the head unit and go out for your ride. The Varia bundle is relatively compact and, once mounted, remains out of the way during riding.

The LED display is brilliantly simple. When a vehicle is detected a bright LED light appears on the display. As the vehicle approaches the cyclist, it moves up the display in a straight line towards the LED representing the cyclist's position. The display allows the cyclist to quickly ascertain the proximity of the vehicle behind them as well as give an idea of the speed the vehicle is approaching.

Testing the Varia using a Garmin Edge 520 head unit was less eye-catching but just as functional. The sides of the Edge 520 become shaded when a vehicle is detected. The right side mimics the action of the Varia LED display and shows the approaching vehicles as round dots moving up the display towards the cyclist’s position. The Edge 520 lacked the bright colourful LEDs that the Varia display unit uses and I can imagine it being a bit more difficult to see for riders with poor eyesight.

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Watching the Varia in action for the first time is impressive. It picks up vehicles from a surprisingly far distance. The accuracy of the device is generally spot on although not perfect.

On a few occasions it picked up a phantom vehicle and I found that it was sometimes a bit slower than I like to pick up vehicles that coming around corners or bends. The Varia performs best on long straight roads where the claimed 140 metre max detection is a fair possibility. The device does warn you that it is only for guidance purposes and the rider should never rely on it solely. Treat it as such you’ll have a happy relationship with the Varia.

The Varia significantly reduced the time I spent peering back to see when the next car was approaching and more time looking where I was going. In windy conditions, where it was difficult to hear approaching traffic, I found it especially comforting to have an early warning system.

Tail light



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Although not promoted as the devices main function, the rear warning light is a great feature. The LEDs chosen for this task are more than adequate in terms of brightness. But it’s the increased frequency of flashing as a vehicle approaches that makes the tail light unique. The idea is to draw a drivers attention to the cyclist as the flashing rate changes the closer they get. My riding partner was even able to use the varied flashing as an indicator of an approaching vehicle.

In the end


The Garmin Varia works as described on the box. Garmin have done the necessary by integrating the Varia into their device ecosystem, doing away with the necessity of have the dedicated display that the Backtracker required. The Varia is not cheap and the rider will have to make up their own mind on whether the added safety and convenience the Varia provides is something they are willing to pay for. I found myself growing to appreciate the comfort of having the Varia detection system and have caught myself instinctively starring at my Garmin for information about the cars behind.

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