Saracen's budget Mantra hardtail has been a mainstay of the British brand's range for some time, offering affordable long-travel thrills in a package that's robust enough to take a few knocks in its stride.
The big news for 2014 is that the wallet-friendly trail tamer has had a complete makeover, all in the name of running bigger wheels. The long-travel fork, easygoing geometry and rugged frame build are all still here, but now with 650b hoops. Do these mid-size wheels offer the best of both worlds?
Frame and equipment: nice touches that show attention to detail
The long-forked hardtail is a largely British phenomenon – something that's evident in Saracen's thoughtful inclusion of a pair of bosses under the down tube for attaching a Crud Catcher mudguard. It's a nice touch and indicative of the attention to detail that's gone into the rest of the frame.
From the X44 head tube – which allows the widest possible range of aftermarket fork options as well as providing a stiff anchoring point for the rest of the frame – to the dropper-seatpost-friendly seat tube diameter, it's clear that Saracen's designers have put as much thought into the Mantra as into its more expensive counterparts further up the range.
Bolt-on cable guides keep the spaghetti of control cables tucked neatly under the top tube, but there's no room to run a remote dropper cable without zipties, which is a shame. Still, there's a set of rack mounts out back, so you could convert your Mantra to workhorse duties easily.
Suntour's 650b version of their ubiquitous XCM coil fork promises an unusually generous 120mm of travel, with a lockout dial and a preload adjuster to cater for different rider weights and riding styles. It lacks the adjustable rebound damping of RockShox's budget offerings though, and we think that's a mistake.
A wide, wide handlebar and stubby stem mesh well with the Mantra's laidback stance and rock swallowing fork, while a colour-coded WTB saddle and fast rolling Schwalbe tyres add brand-name kudos to the finishing kit. Stop and go duties are handled by a full complement of Shimano kit – and it's here that the only noticeable fly in the equipment ointment shows.
You may already have spotted the modest Acera rear mech, but there's a more significant wrinkle: the Mantra's transmission is just eight-speed, rather than nine- or 10-speed like on most modern mountain bikes. The problem with most eight-speed setups is that they rely on a wide-ratio rear cassette to provide a decent spread of gears, and the big gaps between the sprockets make it difficult to stay smooth on the climbs.
Saracen have avoided this by speccing a relatively close ratio cassette, but the smaller gaps between sprockets come at the expense of low gears. You'll be reaching for the granny ring sooner on this bike and, ultimately, pushing up steeper climbs.
Ride and handling: a good frame held back by its fork
Cheaper bikes obviously mean compromises, but too often that's interpreted by the design team as a compromise in ride position and geometry. Not so in the case of the Mantra.
A roomy top tube gives plenty of space to get stretched out on the climbs, while the stubby stem and wide bar make for a placeable, chuckable front end that's just begging to be muscled through trickier trail sections. It felt right from the moment we turned a pedal and didn't put a tyre knob wrong during our riding.
What about those 650b wheels? Well, they're noticeably quicker to accelerate than the 29er competition, contributing to the Mantra's fun character. On the other hand, we'd hesitate to say that the bigger diameter gives the 2014 bike a noticeable advantage over earlier 26in wheeled versions. It probably rolls a bit more easily over the rough stuff, but are you going to notice it? We doubt it. What you will notice is a fork that promises plenty (in the travel department) but falls well short.
It's the same old story, sadly – a well-sorted beginner bike with great geometry and mostly decent kit is held back by a substandard fork. Even with an aggressive, front-heavy riding style on fast, rocky trails we struggled to extract 50 per cent travel from the Suntour, though it worked reasonably well within its shorter-than-expected travel limits.
The good news is that every time we hauled on the brakes sooner than we wanted, we realised that the frame is capable of more. Much more. The Mantra is one of those relatively rare budget bikes that probably would warrant a fork upgrade in the long term. The spec might ultimately be a limiting factor, but it's still as sorted a trail hardtail, handling-wise, as you're likely to throw a leg over.