Merlin Malt 2 £661

Mail-order bargain meets the promise of its top class spec

BikeRadar score 4/5

Merlin’s own-brand Malt hardtails have long been popular with us. There’s no mystery why either: they’re always good value and well specced.

The Malt 2 is made from a collection of modestly oversized and mostly round butted aluminium pipes. The down tube is reinforced with a gusset and there’s a bracing strut to support the non-drive side stays. Beneath its understated finish, it looks quite retro.

But this bike isn’t living in the past, and while it has an external headset because they work well, it also has an external bottom bracket. The 69° head angle and 72ish seat are like those of the Specialized – with which it also shares a shorter reach. Racing snakes will want to go up a frame size.

What’s special about the Malt 2 isn’t the frame, but rather the kit that Merlin has managed to put on it. Like the Boardman, it answers the question: can you have a Recon fork on a sub-£700 bike? And it’s got a full Deore groupset, including a Shadow rear mech, brakes and even hubs.

Mavic XM317 rims are as good as you’ll get at this price and they’re shod with sensible UK all-rounder tyres: the venerable Panaracer Fire XC Pro. Even the Race Face finishing kit, which includes a 660mm oversize riser bar, is good. Chinks in this bike’s spec? Nil.

The feel

The Recon coil fork is lighter than Toras and Darts and offers more nuanced performance, as you’d expect. It thumps and hisses down rocky steps with little loss of composure or line-holding ability. Where it loses out to the few air forks in the test is on the buzzier small stuff, which they ripple over better thanks to calibrated air spring weights.

The big bar, slackish head angle and shorter reach make for confident off-the-saddle descending. The brakes are excellent too, and it’s reassuring to know the tyres will nearly always find traction.

A high bottom bracket means it’ll clear steps and drops that can catch the cranksets of lower slung bikes, and with your weight back it’s easy to loft the front wheel over small stuff. It struggles to match the flat singletrack pace of bikes like the Piranha and the Boardman, but a simple frame upsizing would help narrow the gap.

Summary

The Malt 2 is bargain. While the nominal price is over £700, what you’ll actually pay for this is £660. Like the Core 10 and Orange G2, it’s a kind of have-a-go hardtail that you could tweak either for speed or more technical cross-country – or leave as is to dabble in both. Despite its wizardly name, the Merlin shows there’s no magic in producing a decent hardtail at this kind of price. A straightforward but good quality frame that’s superbly specced will hold its own against any bike.

Strength or stiffness?

The Merlin’s skinnier tubes don’t look as sturdy as big tubes. That’s deceptive. Tubes that are hugely oversized are a lot stiffer, but weight for weight, a skinnier aluminium tube can be more durable than a fat one because the tube walls will be thicker and less likely to Coke-can dent or deform.

Shadow rear mech Shimano’s Shadow derailleurs sit 12mm further inboard than their standard mechs, making rock strikes less likely. They also have a straight cable run to the mech, like SRAM, instead of a looping hairpin of cable outer. This reduces cable friction.

The RockShox Recon shares some features with the Tora and Dart coils, but it isn’t just more responsive, it’s also lighter, saving almost half a pound over the Tora SL and about a pound over the Dart 2.

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