German manufacturers Focus are fronted by former top cross-country racer Mike Kluge. Their promotional emphasis is still strongly on the speedy XC side of things and, like most of the German brands available in the UK, the value for money is superb.
It's strangely refreshing to find a mid-range bike with Magura hydraulic rim brakes and a flat bar, both fairly normal in the German market. Mail order meisters Wiggle import Focus into the UK and the Northern Lite is in the Sport range. The Trail and Marathon hardtail and full suspension bikes offer more options if you're not into traditional XC hardtails.
The 6061 double-butted aluminium frame is very nicely put together, with lots of standover clearance and some interesting tube shapes emphasising a thoroughly practical build. The fat down tube is butterfly gusseted for extra strength behind the reinforced head tube and bi-axially ovalised for maximum rigidity and weld contact areas at both ends. The top tube morphs into an almost square section at the seat tube end and the curvy seatstays and chainstays are ovalised to the point of being almost flat on the outer edges. There's loads of tyre and heel clearance and the seatstays are stiff enough to support the amazing power of the Magura rim brakes. Full hose routing and fittings mean the frame is ready to take disc brakes too.
The Northern Lite is a little smaller than most Medium frames - it'll fit riders up to around 5ft 11in - but the shortish top tube (22.2in) means speed seekers should look to the next size up for extra length. The Manitou Axel Platinum fork offers 100mm (4in) of well controlled travel, very effective rebound damping control and a lockout switch on top of the right-hand leg.
The Northern Lite is one of those bikes that makes you wonder if it's actually worth spending more. It's light enough (12.5kg) to be fairly lively in terms of handling, climbing and acceleration, and a decent fork with 100mm of travel ensures that it can take a fair amount of rough treatment on the downhills too. High speed singletrack performance is pretty good, but we experienced a couple of scary moments when the pedals hit rocks or roots on the bends. Like many pure XC bikes it has a low bottom bracket - great for stability but not so great for pedalling through corners.
The components on the Northern Lite are excellent for a £600 bike. The Shimano drivetrain mixes an XT rear mech with a Deore front, shifters and OctaLink-axled crankset. The Magura hydraulic rim brakes are more powerful than Vs, slightly lighter than discs and very durable, but hydraulic discs offer more dependable braking and less leaf/ mud blockage potential in crappy conditions. It's a shame the Shimano LX hubs on the Focus aren't disc-ready for those who might want to upgrade, but if you're not bothered about discs, this is a decent wheelset. The hubs are well sealed and the Alex rims are light but tough and they have wear lines in the braking surface to let you know when they need replacing. Continental's Vapor and Leader 2.1in tyre mix is fine for high-speed dry trails but the Leader quickly loses traction in the mud. The 610mm (24in) oversized flat bar and low stem suit the bike well, but we still prefer the pronounced back-sweep of a riser bar for providing maximum control over difficult terrain. The FSA seatpost is long and well made and most riders liked the minimalist Selle Italia X2 saddle.
Obviously, paying more than £600 usually means that the component specification gets better and the weight comes down a little, but the Northern Lite is already the sort of bike that you could race on. The speed gains from here, onwards and upwards, are only slight with each extra hundred quid you choose to spend. If you're on a £600 limit, this is a superb choice.