Specialized doesn't do 'cheap', so you won't find any nearly-but-not-quite mountain bikes in the range. Instead, the Hardrock Sport holds up the bottom end of the extensive Specialized family tree with a spec that looks surprisingly conservative. What, no disc brakes? Well, no - and we'll come back to that.
What it may lack in showroom appeal, the baby of the range tries very hard to make up for in sound engineering. The frame design, detail and finish certainly impress, with the same curved downtube as Specialized's higher-end hardtails providing built-in protection from hard impacts up front. The swoopy theme extends to the rear, with stays performing ankle-clearing wiggles on their way from the seat tube to the elegantly curved dropouts. Finished in matt black with contrasting gold decals, it all looks very classy.
The shortish ride position is beginner-friendly; the only significant penalties of the head-up stance are a tendency for frontwheel lift on steep climbs and a very slight low-speed twitchiness to the steering due to the stubby stem.
Overall handling is actually very good despite these niggles, and the combination of the competent Suntour fork and grippy, big-volume tyres means it's easier and more comfortable to skip the Hardrock through the rough stuff at speed rather than plod through slowly, which tends to show up the frame's inherent rigidity. The fork lacks the lockout of the other Suntour-equipped bikes on test, but we didn't miss it.
The main disappointment is the brakes: with a heavy lever feel and noticeably less stopping power than the best of the disc-equipped competition, they're just not as good as they should be. Worse, the lack of disc-compatible hubs means that an upgrade to discs will be neither cheap nor simple.
There's plenty to like about this junior Specialized, from the well thought-out frame to the grininducing handling. But while disc stoppers aren't a necessity for a trail bike, the Hardrock Sport's heavy-feeling rim brakes and lack of disc-compatible hubs make its bigger brother, the £350 Avid disc-equipped Hardrock Comp Disc, look like a better buy.