When I say "bulked up," it's only become a tiny bit heavier (345 grams in a size 9.0 US), but it's mainly just become so much "more shoe" when compared to its predecessors.
The 996 v3 was not really up to scratch. It was relatively comfortable but fit awkwardly and had an odd piece of rubber in the forefoot, which created folds that could cause blisters. The v4 and 4.5 were huge improvements and became instantly popular amongst players looking for a natural fit in a super comfortable package. Those characteristics have defined the 996, but I always felt that they came at the expense of real top-end stability, lockdown, and durability.
New Balance has certainly done its homework. All of us at Rackets & Runners had the same reaction when we took the v5 out of the box; this shoe is different. Holding it in hand, the new model was stiffer and certainly looked like a much more stable package. Let's see how the New Balance Fuel Cell 996 v5 performs on court.
Re-shaped and WIDE
The 996 v5 is significantly wider than its predecessor. In fact, the shoe fits more like a 2E width, compared to the v4. Widening the shoe this much was a curious decision but makes sense when considering what New Balance is trying achieve with the new model. Because the outsole is wider, the foot sits on a much larger and more stable platform. Other brands sometimes achieve added stability by having the outsole protrude out past the upper, but New Balance has decided that a wider fit is the most effective way, in this case. If you've got a narrow foot, I'd recommend going for a B-width version of the 996 or dropping down a half-size.
There is quite a bit of volume throughout the rest of the shoe. The mid-foot is fairly wide, and the round heel cup doesn't have much padding or additional lockdown tech. Overall, the fit is roomy but doesn't feel sloppy. I find that New Balance does the best job of designing its shoes ergonomically to the shape of the foot, so there is never much blank space.
Big time stability upgrade
New Balance has taken the 996 v5 into another dimension regarding stability and lockdown. There is a ton of added structure to the heel cup — the TPU plastic is stiffer and goes higher up the ankle and farther up the foot. You're instantly locked in, and there is far less lateral play in the heel when moving from side to side. New Balance designed the previous version to be flexible in the heel, but stiffness in that area of a tennis shoe is so important to achieve adequate stability. It was a necessary change and plays a big role in improving the 996.
There is also much less play in the NDure upper without sacrificing the natural flex that was so well-loved on the v4. It's still a breathable mesh material, but the weave is tighter and more robust, which allows for much less rollover during lateral movements.
The whole upper has gotten much better in terms of stability and lockdown. Even the central lacing system is wider, which helps customize the fit and lock the foot into the shoe.
New Balance has put less emphasis on the midsole and outsole to improve stability. This isn't surprising; models in the "natural and lightweight" category are designed to make the shoe disappear on your foot. Too much tech here will make the shoe feel like it's resisting your foot's flex, and you'll lose that "natural" feel.
You get one of the most flexible outsoles on the 996 v5, as there is very little extra cushioning, stack, or laterally stabilizing material. Your foot sits flat in the shoe, and the FuelCell midsole is sturdy without extra bells and whistles.
Made to move super quick
The 996 v5 is one of the lightest shoes on the market. As you can imagine, that makes it feel very quick around the court. We're getting close to running and soccer shoe weights here, which is extremely impressive considering the need for stability on a tennis court. The improved stability and lockdown also make the shoe move more efficiently.
Because the upper on the 996 v5 is so sturdy, the shoe has that super reactive one-to-one response. Again, the stack in the outsole is low, so you get that grounded feel so many players love from these lightweight models. It's also got a very short heel-to-toe drop so that you won't get that "on your toes" sensation, but if you want your foot to get the best feel for the court, it's a sacrifice you'll have to make.
I want to make one little suggestion to New Balance for the future. Sliding is a huge part of the modern game, and neither the LAV nor the 996 have an outsole that feels consistent through the slide. Food for thought on the v6?
Cream of the crop comfort
If you're looking for the most comfortable shoe on the market, this is it. The upper flexes so naturally to the foot's shape, and there are strictly no awkward pressure points. It almost feels like a running shoe. The tongue also has loads of padding, so you'll never have to worry about lace bite. You step into this shoe and instantly feel like it can go out and play. There is no break-in required whatsoever. There's not much else to say about comfort; the v4 and 4.5 were so easy to love, and the v5 will be much the same.
Best Durability in-class?
Some shoe brands tend to "cheat" a little to make their lightweight shoes super comfortable. Take the old Nike Vapor X as an example. That shoe felt extremely natural and comfortable right out of the box, but the materials were so soft that after around 10 hours of play, it became too flexible. New Balance isn't cheating here. With the more robust knit upper and solid NDurance outsole, the shoe will last longer than most other models in this category.
New Balance has also added quite a few rubber elements in the toe box of the 996 v5. They've strategically placed them so they don't negatively affect the flex but also help protect the upper. Durability is way up compared to the previous model and quite remarkable for a shoe in this category.
Who's it for?
The 996 is perfect for a new player who might not like the constrictive feel of traditional tennis shoes. Because it feels so lightweight and naturally flexible, it's a much less stark change from the footwear most people know.
This time, the shoe is a much more viable option for advanced players. The added structure and stability make it perform significantly better during aggressive movement, so it could be the perfect option for high-level players who like a natural and lightweight feel.
The previous version of the 996 was true to the line's DNA in providing a comfortable and natural feel, but it could have done better in important stability and movement metrics. New Balance has improved the v5 in all those aspects, and the shoe now competes with the best in its category. Still, they've left themselves with a margin for improvement, and the line's future will depend on whether New Balance wants to go all out in adding the modern tech that could take it even further. Come and try on the 996 v5 in-store or check them out online.