New Balance FuelCell Propel review
I now finally have a shoe that fills the Vomero-sized hole in my shoe rotation.
If you really want to feel like you are running on clouds, get the New Balance Propel. It’s a super soft shoe that doesn’t feel mushy. It offers good protection for long distances.
Initial impression of the New Balance Propel
There are some shoes that you know you will like before you have even tried them on. The FuelCell Propel was one of those shoes for me.
I LOVE soft shoes. In my opinion, soft shoes are the crown jewel. Any brand can do a firm shoe—most budget shoes are firm rides, but few brands can get the soft midsole execution right.
The Nike Vomero line used to be my go-to soft shoe of choice. But, the latest Vomero 14, is no longer the plush, cushioned teddy bear we once knew and loved. This has left a hole in my shoe rotation and my heart.
Earlier this year, I bought two very expensive soft shoes to try to fill the hole: the Pegasus Turbo 2 and the Joyride. The Pegasus Turbo 2’s forefoot bottomed out over long distances while the Joyride was so lumpy that it felt like I was running on popped blisters.
Every running shoe brand has a shoe that they claim feels like you are “running on clouds”, but how many shoes can you honestly say actually feel like that?
The two Asics bestsellers, the Nimbus and the Cumulus, which are named after clouds don’t feel pillowy soft like they should. Even the On Cloud series feels VERY firm.
Enter the FuelCell Propel. New Balance states that FuelCell is propulsive and snappy. The Propel is anything but that. If I had to describe the feeling of running in the Propel, it would be the popular overused simile of “like running on clouds”.
Upper and fit
Trace Fibre is the new term that New Balance has coined for the technology it is using in the Propel’s upper; it sounds much fancier than it actually is.
Trace Fibre is the stitching that you see on the sides of the upper. It doesn’t weigh much and adds structure to a relaxed-fitting upper.
The Trace Fibre stitching is only present on the outside of the shoe. The inside is smooth over the foot.
The synthetic mesh is soft and has large, breathable pores that remind me of spacer mesh—the kind used on the early Nike Bowerman series. There is a smooth inside lining that makes the Propel very comfortable.
Pores in the mesh are large, but breathability is just average.
The gusseted tongue has wide wings, so there is no sideways movement during runs while the heel flares upwards to give the Propel a modern-racing look. My heel doesn’t feel locked down in the Propel, but it also doesn’t slip out.
The bottom half of the tongue is attached to the upper.
New Balance takes a page out of Nike’s book and makes the heel flare upward like the Pegasus 36.
The Propel’s upper fit is true to size and is very comfortable. The toe box is wide, deep, and spacious. The padding combined with the large-volume upper make you feel like you are in a running shoe version of a slipper.
Two things I don’t like about the upper are that there are no last row double eyelets, so you can’t employ heel lock lacing for a more secure fit, and the heel flare rubs your Achilles if you wear short socks.
The heel flare touches the Achilles and may cause uncomfortable rubbing with the wrong socks.
The FuelCell ride
The new FuelCell cushioning material is a super foam made up of a nitrogen-injected TPU foam. The FuelCell midsole looks like regular EVA but is much lighter and much softer.
If I had to compare it to another foam, it would be similar to Nike’s ZoomX in softness but without the lively spring-back sensation.
If you take a close look at the Propel’s midsole, you’ll notice a horizontal line splitting the top and the bottom half. When pressure is applied, the bottom half splays out, and the top half gets compressed into the bottom half like into a crash pad.
The upper half of the midsole sinks into the lower half upon loading.
The reason I crave a super soft shoe is because I only weigh 60 kilograms and other shoes which people claim to be “soft” are just not soft to me because they don’t compress much when I strike my foot down.
The New Balance Propel, on the other hand, is one of the softest shoes I have ever run in. The only shoe I have run in that is softer than the Propel is the Nike Joyride, but the Joyride is energy-sapping and mushy.
I would hate to run a long distance in the Joyride, but in the Propel, I look forward to long weekend runs exceeding 30 kilometres.
The Propel’s ride is very smooth due to the one-piece upper and the full contact rubber outsole.
One thing the Propel is not is bouncy. I don’t feel much energy return with each foot strike, and I hope New Balance can tweak the FuelCell formula for the Propel sequel.
The thick midsole compresses easily when loaded, even for light runners.
The midsole flares out wide on both sides of the foot, making the ride feel very centred and stable. With the extreme softness of the midsole, the foot also sinks into the midsole. Thus, there is some “cupping” of the foot, which adds to the stability.
The midsole “wings” flare out on both sides and act as stabilisers by broadening the base of the shoe.
On the lateral and medial sides towards the rear foot are rails or barriers, which are raised. These help to keep your foot from leaning towards either side.
The raised jagged guide rails help to cup the foot and prevent lean bias.
The Propel is a very flexible shoe due to the cloud-like softness of the midsole. It flexes closer towards the middle than most shoes but not dead centre.
The high flexibility means that the shoe is more suited to long, slow runs rather than short, fast runs where a snappy shoe is needed.
The shoe flexes where the forefoot outsole lugs end at the path of least resistance.
The insole consists of a flimsy, thin material, which provides no cushioning. This ensures a strong connection between the foot and the FuelCell midsole.
There is no step-in plushness—all the softness comes from within the midsole.
The lasting below the thin insole is made of soft fibrous textile which stops the insole from sliding around.
Outsole and wear
The outsole is full coverage N-Durance rubber. This is soft, blown rubber. Hard-wearing heavy-duty rubber can’t be used on this shoe because you would be able to feel the lugs through the soft midsole.
The large, thick lugs are soft and flexible.
Wear shows slightly faster than normal because it is soft, blown rubber. On the lateral heel side of the Propel, I can see wear more towards the centre of the shoe, which is very unusual for my foot strike. I usually see the wear right on the edge of the lateral heel area.
The grip is excellent on dry and wet surfaces.
The outsole is designed in such a way that heel wear occurs closer to the centre of the shoe rather than on the edge.
Final thoughts on the New Balance Propel
The upper disappears on runs which is the best compliment you can give an upper.
The wide midsole base makes the shoe very stable while the soft outsole results in a flexible shoe that shines at slow paces.
On the negative side, heavy runners may find that the FuelCell midsole compresses too easily, and if you have sensitive Achilles heels, the high heel flare may be bothersome.
Tip: see the best running shoes.