Bike superstore Halfords has always had a lot of pulling power when it comes to suppliers, simply because of the amount they can sell. This GT isn't even sourced through the normal distributors but comes factory direct for spectacular discount without any obvious downsides.
The i-Drive 5 is GT's best frameset yet, with some interesting reversals of tubing norm to cope with the unique layout of suspension and transmission. The down tube itself is relatively slim though, while the top tube is stouter than most, with both swelling towards the back end for maximum strength where they meet the seat tube. A big 'U section' saddle gusset supports the long extended seat post. A big forged section then connects its base with the down tube, as well as carrying the hollow axle main pivot and the 'i-Drive' linkage.
The front of the swingarm is then formed from one massive forged V section with the bottom bracket swinging independently off the bottom. The plates are then heavily cut away at the top where they mate the shock and neat horseshoe seat stay top either side of the seat tube.
Considering the complexity of the frame, cable/hose routing is relatively tidy, although it's likely to destroy swingarm paintwork very rapidly. While tyre clearance isn't bad, the front mech cable couldn't be placed in a worse position to get covered in crap, so watch for rust. Bottle placement is underbelly only, but a QR seat clamp makes saddle height adjustment easy. The only downside is the fact it only comes in 18 (medium) and 20 (large) inch sizes, so you're stuck if you're on the small side.
Again it's the cockpit that dominates first impressions of the GT, but in the opposite way to the Cube. The skinny, high rise 27in wide bar is bordering on the daft in terms of width, but a few minutes with a hacksaw will trim it to something more reasonable. Then again, the bus driver feel certainly gives masses of power assistance to steering. The short stem handling is eager but well weighted, with a stable head angle stopping things getting lairy at speed. A steep seat angle keeps enough weight on the front wheel for plenty of steering traction in tight and slippery situations, though.
The unique i-Drive action means masses of traction from the rear, too. The rear swingarm is free to pivot back and up as it hits edges and bumps, letting the bike roll over them really easily and smoothly. The 'floating' bottom bracket only moves slightly though, so while there's an almost 'elastic' chain sensation all the time, it never kicks back sharply or distractingly. Even with soft pressures to offset slight initial shock stickiness, it doesn't bob much either, although the soft pedalling feel can sap the morale on long road climbs until you get used to it.
Even at over 33lb the bike doesn't seem to drag too badly, and off-road it certainly feels much lighter - mainly due to the fact that the suspension lets you flow forward over stuff rather than being kicked back. Bags of traction at both ends and the ability to run the shocks soft means you're not constantly throwing your weight around or standing out of the saddle to cope with climbs and descents. Don't worry if this all sounds a bit numb and squishy, because the lively handling will always maintain your interest.
Using all the travel also pays dividends with the RockShox Recon fork. Despite the potential to 'U-Turn' it down to 85mm, the steering is already frisky at full 130mm stretch so we'd leave it there. In fact, you could upgrade to 140mm travel in future without slowing things down too much. Soft spring rate is a great fluid match to the rear end, with adjustable compression damping to firm things up on long climbs.
Hayes double-sided Nine discs are another spec highlight, with bags of power at the lever. Just be gentle as the blunt delivery can easily unstick the relatively slippery Tioga tyres. Their big 2.3in carcass really soaks up the trail's teeth though, and general i-Drive character flatters their basic traction enough to survive all year round.
The XT rear mech is another standout piece of spec, although transmission quality is otherwise average if perfectly workable. Finishing kit is similarly fine, and the seat post even gets a fine adjust thumbwheel.
The current i-Drive 5 is the best all-round suspension bike GT has ever made, and one of the best available anywhere for high traction, high trust riding. We found that it was more than light enough to upgrade to any top line spec you've got your eye on too, which makes this very well equipped entry level version even more of a bargain - if it fits.