Best mountain bikes under $1,000
By BikeRadar US staff | Friday, May 25, 2012 2.00pm
Despite their similar pricing, we found some dramatic performance differences in this year's crop of sub-US$1,000 mountain bikes James Huang/BikeRadar
Looking for a great mountain bike under $1,000? Then you're in the right place. We tested 10 of the best and lay out our findings below.
A few companies really stepped up their $1,000 bikes since our previous test.
For example, Trek kept the high-quality frame and RockShox fork, but they also add a solid drivetrain and the best brakes in the test (Shimano M446 hydraulic discs). For this, we give the Trek Mamba our BikeRadar gold award.
Diamondback’s Overdrive Comp 29er stood in close contention for best all-round package. They’ve been able to offer the same fork as you get on the Trek Mamba but with a remote lockout and the only 10-speed drivetrain in the test.
Felt's Nine Sport is a very worthy full package, which won our test last year. Scott offer the best frame in the test, but the sub-par suspension fork keeps the Scott Scale Comp one component away from the whole deal.
Video: best mountain bikes under $1000 - the winners
And UK readers should check out our BikeRadar guides to the Best Mountain Bikes Under £1,000 and Best Mountain Bikes Under £500.
The top four mountain bikes under $1000
Trek return to this year’s test with the best frame and fork combination. The modern geometry feels playful at lower speeds yet stable when the pace is hotting up. Ride quality is impressively refined for such an inexpensive chassis, and the fork is stiff, well controlled and reasonably adjustable.
Trek’s product managers have now given the solid foundation a far more competitive parts package, too. It includes an all-Shimano drivetrain (albeit a 3x9 one with a 34T cog out back), silky Shimano hydraulic disc brakes and easily serviceable and fully adjustable Shimano hubs front and rear. Trek only earned minus marks for the Bontrager tires, which were remarkably grippy but way too narrow. Otherwise, this was far and away the most entertaining bike on test.
Standout features: Sorted frame geometry with custom-offset fork, Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, appropriately wide and flat handlebars
Pros: The most complete package overall, with a light and playful feel, genuinely capable fork and virtually flawless Shimano parts
Cons: Narrow tires require more air pressure to prevent pinch flats
Weight: 13.91kg/30.66lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.33kg/11.75lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Scott Scale 29 Comp
Scott put together the most contemporary package in our test. Everything pertaining to the fit and handling of the bike is dialed, not just in terms of this test but in the greater scheme of modern 29ers. This covers the geometry through to the cockpit dimensions. In fact, the Scale Comp shares geometry and frame design with the top Scale 29 RC. Note the chainstay-mounted rear brake, too.
Fit and handling are further aided by the fact that this is the lightest 29er on test. A solid mix of components includes good brakes, great tires and a solid drivetrain with Shimano’s SLX Shadow derailleur. This combination bolsters performance.
Why didn’t the Scale 29 win, then? Well, the 100mm travel Suntour XCR fork has fixed rebound damping that doesn’t do the job on the trail. A new fork would tack on a fair amount to the bike’s price tag, so it’s a tough sell. Scott are one component away from the top slot.
Standout features: Frame geometry and details, drivetrain, Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires
Pros: Best-handling bike on test, apart from the fork
Cons: Poor-suspension fork dampens the experience
Weight: 13.03kg/28.72lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.91kg/10.82lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Felt Nine Sport
Felt’s mostly unchanged Nine Sport brought with it most of the traits that earned it the top spot last year – agile handling, a light and fast feel, a legitimately functional fork with adjustable, hydraulic rebound damping and solid parts.
It might not be the most appealing bike on paper, with its square-taper crank, slightly basic aluminum frame and smaller-diameter RockShox XC 28 fork. But the Nine Sport still scored points where it counts.
Whereas other bikes in the test crashed over rocks and flat-out rode ‘heavy’, the Felt managed to glide over the rough and seem lighter than it is.
Handling was on the quick side but the bigger tires and cushier frame still made for impressive stability at high speed, not to mention a surprising amount of comfort for a hardtail. We were disappointed to see last year’s WTB Prowler tires replaced by faster-rolling but far less grippy Geax AKAs, though.
Standout features: Smooth-riding frame, reasonably capable fork, solid drivetrain, brakes with 180mm front rotor
Pros: A well-balanced package that demonstrates how the whole can be more than the sum of its parts
Cons: Wooden-feeling brakes, square-taper crank, 32T rear cog, sketchy Geax AKA tires
Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.12kg/11.29lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29er
With their first inclusion in our sub-$1,000 bike test, Diamondback bring possibly the most impressive package to our test. They’ve checked just about every box, from solid geometry to best component specification.
We heartily recommend the Overdrive Comp 29er, and believe that it will serve any beginner or budget mountain biker well.
The one place where it lost ground to the Trek Mamba was its trail feel. Most testers commented that it felt heavier and sluggish out on the trail, attributes that can be related to its longer chainstays, wheelbase and the fact it has the heaviest wheelset in the test.
It shares the best fork in the test — the RockShox XC 32 — with the Trek Mamba. It’s also the only bike in the group with 10-speed and a contemporary 36T low cog on the cassette.
Standout features: RockShox’ XC 32, 10-speed SRAM X5 drivetrain with 36T cog
Pros: Good brakes, tires and cockpit components, hung from a frame with adequate geometry
Cons: Heaviest wheelset in the test, sluggish trail feel
Weight: 13.72kg/30.24lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.48kg/12lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
And the rest…
Cannondale Trail SL 3
As the only 26er bike on test, the Cannondale benefited from the nimblest handling feel and quickest acceleration. It was bolstered by the heavily shaped aluminum frame and unusual-at-this-price 1.5in steerer tube.
The RST Deuce Coil fork is well controlled, stiff and sports weight-saving aluminum stanchions. The Shimano drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes were among the best on test, too.
But the 26in wheels and disappointingly narrow tires also made for a sketchy feel at high speed, and a bumpier ride. We’d also like to see the cockpit updated with a wider bar and shorter stem.
Standout features: Lightest bike on test overall, refined aluminum frame, capable RST fork with aluminum stanchions
Pros: Quickest-handling of test bunch, ultra-precise steering, excellent Shimano drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes
Cons: Small-diameter wheels, disappointingly narrow tires
Weight: 12.62kg/27.82lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.54kg/10.01lb (w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Specialized Rockhopper 29
While some bikes in the lower price range tend to feel more like campus or commuter bikes, Specialized have done a great job of trickling down trail-worthy geometry to an entry-level mountain bike.
The manipulated seat tube and shorter chainstays keep the 29in rear wheel closer to both the bike’s and rider’s center of gravity. The head tube angle is relatively steep and the top tube is roomy, too. This yields a legitimate trail-riding position while still producing a fun, responsive bike.
The tighter, quicker-handling geometry will make it easier for BMX or older-generation mountain bikers to adapt to 29in wheels.
[Editor's note: Specialized mistakenly shipped a higher-end US$1,100 Rockhopper Comp 29, not the standard version. Unfortunately, we caught the oversight too late so the more expensive bike is covered here.]
Standout features: Great handling, and components are of good enough quality to get a beginner pointed down the trail
Pros: Grippy tires, smart frame geometry
Cons: Heavy wheels, gearing too tall for entry-level bike
Weight: 13.96kg/30.77lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.44kg/11.99lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
GT Karakoram 2.0
We picked on GT a lot in our blog post on testing these sub-$1,000 bikes. While our points were warranted, the GT is far from the worst bike on test with a mid-pack finish.
Highlights include the RockShox XC 28 fork and Shimano drivetrain. The Tektro Draco Pro brakes are okay but we found the standard Draco model more powerful.
GT lose ground in a couple of specific, important areas. The geometry includes a long rear center mated to what feels like a short front center. This makes for a good climber but notably hampers descending.
The tires also take a significant amount from the package’s performance. The semi-slick Maxxis Aspen rubber is more at home on a pro cross-country race bike than a beginner rig. While tires are consumables, they represent a significant portion of the bike’s cost – figure about 5-10 percent in terms of replacement cost.
Oh, and there’s that razor-sharp headset pre-load cap…
Standout features: Fork, good drivetrain
Pros: Reasonable package that doesn’t go too amiss in any one department
Cons: Off geometry, slippery tires
Weight: 13.83kg/30.49lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.13kg/11.31lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Redline fall mid-pack for the second year in a row. They offer a nice frame, fork, wheels and tires but it’s the supporting components that really pull the package down.
The D610 is one of two bikes on test with mechanical brakes, which are hard to set up and keep running well. They also don’t offer much modulation.
The cockpit is terrible, with its antiquated 110mm stem metric and crimped riser bar. Redline have also skimped on supporting components such as the semi-sealed headset, which is unlikely to last six months in wet regions.
Redline’s idea of a 2x9 drivetrain is cool, and we want to support it. But it’s poorly executed for beginners — the 28-32T low gear simply isn’t low enough for most riders.
Standout features: Nice frame, second-place suspension fork, WTB Prowler tires
Pros: Great fork, SRAM X5 components
Cons: Not a complete package
Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.3kg/11.68lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Giant Talon 29er 1
We expected more from the Giant, with its appealing frame, solid geometry and the company’s well-earned reputation for value. But the Talon missed the mark in several key categories. The largely undamped and flexy fork was difficult to control over bumpy terrain, the tires rode harshly and the cockpit included a bar that was too narrow and tall along with a stem that was too long and severely angled. None of our testers could find a comfortable position.
A few component swaps would move this bike up in the rankings but would cost a lot.
Standout features: Foundations of a well-balanced machine, needs a few tweaks to be a true contender
Pros: Generous tube shaping, good geometry, relatively light wheel-and-tire package, solid Avid hydraulic disc brakes
Cons: Terrible fork, poor cockpit fit, stiff-riding tires
Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.88kg/10.75lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
Jamis Exile Sport
The Exile Sport comes in as the heavyweight in this division — and that’s not a good thing. At a porky 15.12kg it’s the heaviest bike on test, with wheels contributing nearly 5.4kg. What’s worse, the performance embodied many of the early criticisms of the 29in design, with very few of the positives. It’s sluggish, awkward and uninspiring.
It must be noted that this bike is at least US$200 cheaper than most of the others on test. And you get what you pay for, with a ho-hum spec: Hayes MX-5 mechanical disc brakes, Alex DP20 wheels, Shimano Acera 8-speed shifters, Shimano Alivio derailleurs, a coil/hydraulic RST Blaze 29 TNL fork, a coil spring and hydraulic fork.
Jamis could have made up ground on the spec with smart frame geometry and rider positioning, but those areas fall short as well.
Standout features: Modern 29in wheel format
Pros: The least expensive bike on test
Cons: All-round sluggish performance
Weight: 15.12kg/33.33lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.42kg/11.94lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)
The BikeRadar verdict
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We gathered up six riders to test the bikes on short, repeatable loops. This kept things consistent and allowed us to collect as many opinions as possible. After each session, testers had to fill out our standard bike review worksheet, with 51 scores covering everything from handling, stiffness, weight, shift and brake performance, suspension and even aesthetics. Final scores were automatically tabulated to minimize tester subjectivity.
Once again, we learned that the overall package is far more important than individual features or components. All of the top bikes here have nailed the key categories – handling, fit, suspension, tires and basic shifting and braking performance. They’re machines that are fun to ride but also easily controllable in a wide range of conditions and for a diverse collection of skill levels.
Weight plays into the equation but at this price point it’s not nearly as critical a metric as many would like to think. In general, we believe control is key: one bike might be lighter or better on paper than another, but the best option will be the one that most readily allows the owner to safely explore the sport and then develop their skills.
In that respect, we had no problems picking this year’s winner. The Trek Mamba is that elusive complete package we were hoping to find. It offers up a remarkably competent machine for beginners but one that could easily evolve into a much higher-performance machine with some key upgrades.
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