Lancashire-based mail order specialists Merlin Cycles have quietly been doing a busy trade in their own-brand Malt series of aluminium hardtails for well over a decade. They’ve long been a good choice for sharp handling, well built and decently equipped bikes that come at a very fair price.
The range-topping Malt 4 has been around for a while, but still looks sharp next to even the big name competition and boasts a spec list crammed with big brand components – as well as a pricetag that won’t reduce your credit card to a puddle on the floor.
It strikes a balance between pace, comfort and fun that makes it, for our money, a genuinely versatile all-rounder. Racers may want something more focused and big-hitters will feel short-changed, but for most riders most of the time, the Malt 4 is all the bike you'll ever need.
Ride & handling: Strikes the right balance between speed, comfort and agility
It’s not as simple as it used to be to build a general purpose mountain bike. The average Malt 4 buyer is as likely to tackle a couple of 24-hour endurance events in the course of a year as they are to play out in the woods with their mates, line up on the grid every weekend for a winter race series or blast around a trail centre.
Making a bike that’ll be equally at home in all these scenarios is a tall order. So it’s a relief to be able to report that the Malt 4 ticks all the right boxes, despite the daunting design brief. It’s a tad shorter and more upright than an out-and-out racer, but what it lacks in arse-up, head-down grunt it more than makes up for in point-and-squirtability.
Less weight on the front wheel makes it easier to admire the view on gentle cruises and loft the front wheel sideways at the last possible moment when you’re putting the hammer down – the best of both worlds. The light, rigid wishbone rear end translates effort at the pedalling coalface into instant forward progress, but the frame’s careful profiling and thin tube profiles keep harshness effectively at bay.
It’s fair to say we’ve experienced better aluminium hardtails... but not at this price. Is there a downside? Well, purist raceheads may well prefer a longer, lower stance. And for heavy-duty trail riding, the Merlin’s 100mm-travel (3.9in) fork does start to feel stretched. But for most riding, most of the time, the Malt 4 should be near the top of your shopping list.
Frame: One of the best-looking aluminium hardtail frames we’ve seen – at any price
There was a time when the aura of aluminium as a material was enough to persuade riders to part with their cash. But with the aerospace material’s ubiquity in bike building circles, a collection of Coke can tubes welded together just isn’t enough any more. Which is why the Malt 4, built for Merlin by Kinesis, is a tour de force of cutting edge aluminium manufacturing technology.
The base alloy, kinesium, is Kinesis’s modified 6000 series tubing, which is claimed to be 25 percent stronger than plain ol’ 6061 tubing for the same weight. For the Malt 4’s frame, Kinesis have used hydroforming to mould each tube into a structure that’s stiff and strong where it needs to be and pared down to a safe minimum where possible.
A collection of elegant flares and flowing bulges mark out the Malt 4’s shape-shifting main tubes, shaving material from non-critical areas and putting more back to add strength at points where safety is more critical, in a way that’s frankly beautiful.
Equipment: Decent standard spec, with good value upgrade options just a mouse click away
Merlin’s base Malt 4 spec ticks all the right boxes, combining a full Shimano Deore groupset with WTB and Race Face finishing kit. The RockShox Recon Gold RL fork is a reliable coil-driven mid-ranger. One of the good ’uns of its type, it offers decent damping adjustment as well as a lockout.
But, as usual with coil forks, lighter riders are likely to find that the stock spring is too stiff for them. You could change the spring fairly easily or, for easier adjustability and even better fork performance, upgrade to an air-sprung RockShox Reba fork for an extra £155.
Our test bike comes kitted out with wheel, fork and finishing kit upgrades and still leaves change from £1,000, but you can spend more if you like. A full SLX spec will set you back an extra £130 and, if you’re feeling particularly flush, XT is available for £295. The chassis warrants the better kit, making a base spec Malt 4 a great bet for long-term upgrading.