If you don't know the name yet, Germany-based Merida are a pipeworking powerhouse that build bikes for many other manufacturers, as well as being the title sponsor of the UK's biggest MTB marathon series and the unstoppable Gunn-Rita Dahle.
As well as being one of the most prolifi c bike builders, Merida are also at the forefront of many frame tweaking technologies, especially hydroforming (pressure shaping of tubes). No surprise then that the AM down tube gets both a swollen head end to support the head tube and a rectangular bell-shaped cross section. Steeply sloped top tube is similarly shaped with a fashionable triangulating brace pipe reinforcing the extended seat tube without compromising your crotch clearance.
The chainstays are offset asymmetrically to clear the chain, while the big rear pivot sits just above the dropouts at the end of slim seatstays. Twin, long curved rocker linkage plates - linked by bolted brace pipes - drive the Fox shock mounted vertically in the mainframe. Two upper shock positions give either 110mm or 130mm of travel, and everything runs on big cartridge bearings for smoothness. Mud clearance is good even with the big 2.3in tyres fitted and top tube disc routing is particularly neat. Merida even hydroform their logo into the top tube just because they can. Check sizing though as even our tall looking 'large' sample was shortish in reach.
The Merida feels homely from the second you're astride. If the Felt (p62) is the greyhound of the pack then Merida is the big soft Labrador. Even with the spacers switched around the bars are high and relatively close to give an upright, confident position. It steers where you want, when you want and with impeccable neutrality. It stays straight on fast, open fire roads but there's still enough speed from the short stem to flick it over hard if the next tight apex corner demands it. Weight balance is spot on too, with both tyres breaking into an easily controlled sideways smear if you get too bossy with them.
The Fox fork and shock work well together as well. Click the fork out to 140mm if there are bigger rocks, high speed sections or step downs ahead, or sit at 120mm for sniffing out singletrack-happy steering and traction. Drop it to 100mm to compensate for the upright position on climbs, and flick the Pro Pedal lever across at the back to cut pedal bob at the same time. Most of the time we just left it fully open in the pillowy soft, long travel position, with only sudden stops from blunt blocks catching the low pivot swingarm out.
However, it's this super comfy, drama-free sensation that's both the joy and the frustration with this bike. While angles and riding position are both spot on, and the mainframe is stiff enough, both back end and fork are distinctly flexy and vague when you try and work an edge with them. Pushing hard through corners, clipping a diagonal root/rock or chasing an off-camber line uphill, it'll curve away rather than carving accurately. The back end is flexy enough to get the chain groaning under hard acceleration and we'd ground the outer edge off the chainring teeth in just a few rides. Overall, there's very little clear traction or terrain feedback from tyre to rider, making the whole Merida AM experience feel vague and woolly.
To be brutally honest you're not going to be buying this Merida for the brand name, even if it's a perfect example of Skoda-style 'no hype, just good engineering and great pricing' approach. No, what you're after is the kit this bike is wearing.
Fox TALAS forks are worth over £500 alone with their easy three-step 100/120/140mm travel adjust tweaking overall bike geometry for every trail challenge. The long stroke (51mm) Fox RP2 rear shock also toggles from plush to pert whenever you want. The AM3000D's loaded Shimano XT too, with front and rear mech, shifters, chainset and brakes all getting the coveted XT stamp of trail toughness. Testers were particularly impressed by the new dual direction Rapidfire shifters which give the best of both Shimano and SRAM shifting ergonomics. The 203/180mm front/rear disc brake rotors mean ample, smoothly controlled stopping power for most situations, while admittedly pedals and cassette are from slightly lower groups but anyone who points that out is just jealous because they got much less on their bike.
The superb quality, fully serviceable XT hubs will outlast any cartridge bearing system several times over given an occasional bit of lube and love, and there are no better QR levers.
Plus DT Swiss rims are establishing an excellent reputation for durability, while Maxxis Ignitor tyres are everywhere this year thanks to a friendly combination of speed and predictable grip/slide in most conditions. And the big, fat nosed NT1 saddle is instantly welcoming with scuff guards to protect its flanks and the oversized FSA cockpit with 'just right' 100mm length stem is perfectly poised for all round control. The tall neck collar on the Aheadset does mean you'll have to flip the stem to get a low bar height though.
It might not have brand name or sharp trail bite appeal, but what the Merida does have is excellent kit value and super comfy, easy going confidence that's fine for just relaxing and rolling happily up hill and down dale all day long