Univega launched their first mountain bike, the Alpina Sport, way back in 1982 at the Long Beach cycle show in California. Specialized launched their first mountain bike, the Stumpjumper, at the same show.
While Specialized got all the brownie points for being the first to come up with a ‘mass market mountain bike’, the Alpina Sport apparently outsold it six-fold.
The Univega brand is now owned by the Derby Corporation, who also own Focus. The economies of scale in their German factory ensure that value for money is still very much to the fore.
Ride & handling: Okay for beginners but not the best choice if you have real off-road ambition
The Univega feels altogether more casual than sportier price rivals like the Gary Fisher Wahoo and Specialized Hardrock. This will suit riders who favour a more relaxed riding feel, and will probably appeal more to beginners.
It's noticeably neutral in handling responses on all types of terrain but less at ease when speeds start to rise, especially on long bumpy downhills where the short-travel fork starts to show its limitations.
The relatively low complete wheel weight of the Univega – just under the 13.6kg (30lb) mark – is noticeably nimbler than most starter bikes on climbs and in acceleration. Overall bike weight is reasonable for the price. The fork was far better controlled than most bikes we’ve tested at this price point too.
Simple weight and fork performance are often the two notable downsides of £400 bikes, so the Univega automatically rises towards the top of its genre on those two factors alone. It’s good value for money too.
But take a look at other bikes in the range – spending a little more money on disc brakes and a better fork pays dividends if you’re looking for more off-road performance.
Chassis: Good quality frame and fork for the price
The HT-500 is an intelligently equipped starter bike that’s based on a very nicely constructed lightweight aluminium frame.
The Mega Dome tubing profiles emphasise massive strength behind a big reinforced head tube and a fat biaxially ovalised down tube for maximum lateral rigidity around the head tube and bottom bracket.
Future-proofing features include brackets and full outer cable guides ready for disc brakes, eyelets for a luggage rack and one set of bottle cage bosses.
The SR Suntour fork is a XCM V2 model with just 80mm (3.1in) of travel. It felt reasonably well controlled in compression and didn’t suffer from the rebound clunk that afflicts some SR Suntour budget forks.
But the right leg-top lock-out lever immediately introduced a rattly feel that was irritating enough to make us actively avoid using it apart from on level road rides.
Equipment: Light wheels with grippy, fast rolling tyres
It’s good to see a Shimano Deore rear mech upgrade on a bike at this price. The rest of the drivetrain kit is pretty standard fare for the price – steel ringed SR Suntour crankset, Altus front mech and pleasingly efficient EZ-Fire shifters. The rim brakes are fine when the trail conditions are good but we always miss discs when the muddy seasons begin.
The white rimmed wheels look fine when new but are hard to keep clean. Still, the wheels are well built – and the lightest of all the bikes on test – and Schwalbe’s Smart Sam tyres offer a good compromise between rapid rolling and decent traction.
As with too many bikes around this price, poor quality inner tubes caused problems – the front one burst at the seam before we’d even ridden. All of Univega’s own-brand finishing kit is decent, with plenty of up-and-down adjustment at the stem and front-to-back adjustment on the saddle rails.