Giant's £1,250 carbon composite-framed XtC Composite was the bike that grabbed all the attention when the range was launched, but the SX is identically equipped apart from the carbon frame. OK, it weighs a little more, but we reckon a £500 saving is pretty good for half a bag of sugar as ballast! If you can't stretch to the SX, there's a slightly heavier duty SE version, still with hydraulic disc brakes, Shimano Deore gears and a 100mm (4in) travel Marzocchi Race fork for a bargain £500.
As one of the planet's largest and most progressive bike manufacturers, Giant often use frame forming techniques that provide clues about what the rest of the market might be up to in a year or two. The hydroformed tube configuration of the XtC is literally the shape of things to come. The bulge-butted top and down tubes, just behind the head tube, are potent reminders of what hydroformed tubes can offer. Instead of adding strengthening gussetry, hydroforming makes it possible to form tubes of exactly the right shape and thickness to boost strength or reduce weight, or direct shocks away from crucial areas. A manufacturer can simply add visual embellishments, but Giant seem to have focused on the practical aspects.
There's loads of standover room over the top tube and plenty of mud room for big tyres. We like the way the seat clamp faces forward, out of the spray, and the wishbone at the top of the seatstays helps muffle back end shocks. The geometry feels best at full extension of the Manitou Splice fork's 70-100mm range, and the compression lockout lever is useful for climbs and on the way to trails. Travel adjustment is via a dial on top of the left-hand leg.
We're surprised Giant have specced such a low budget Truvativ crankset on a bike like this. It shifts OK, and there's nothing actually wrong with three steel chainrings plus a trouser guard, it just doesn't look the part with a Deore XT rear mech and LX components elsewhere. Still, shifting remained slick and precise throughout the test.
Giant's MPH hydraulic disc brakes are fine as long as you don't do long alpine descents (they suffer a little from pump and fade if you do). They're powerful and we like the way you can use the lever pot adjuster dials to tune lever feel. The wheelset is pretty good too: Deore hubs on Mavic's tough but fairly light X317 rims. The Kenda Nevegal (front) and Blue Groove (rear) treads are good grippy all-rounders with big enough volume to add extra comfort and shock absorption to the ride, but they're not exactly fast rollers.
The seatpost is a tight fit and a little more length would be useful, although it does stretch to riders up to a height of about 5ft 11in on a Medium bike. WTB's Speed V saddle is always a popular choice and the Giant low rise bar is well suited to the bike's character, as are the soft grips and the medium rise stem (which has an inch of washer stack height adjustment).
The XtC SX looks like a casual bike, with its big treads, fairly high front end and clumpy crankset. But a long top tube (23.25in on our 17in Medium test bike) and lively handling make it efficient and surprisingly rapid on the flat and though technical singletrack. The steep (73 degree) seat angle sits you fairly well forward and helps you to really work the fork, which we left at 100mm because we found that shorter settings made the steering start to feel nervous.
You'll start to feel the bike's 12.7kg (28lb) weight when accelerating and on climbs, and the big knobbly tyres, while great for comfort and traction, are also a slowing factor. Those who want pure XC speed would be better served by a bike like the Focus Northern Lite, the Giant is a more relaxed ride - although simply fitting faster tyres would put it in the same speed league as the Focus, and as an all-rounder fun bike it's a better option for most riders. A better crankset would make it excellent value, but with the budget one fitted it loses a point for both value and parts specification.