Saracen Mantra review£499.99

Evergreen entry-level trail basher from UK brand

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Saracen’s reputation for designing and building affordable, trail-ready bikes – rather than cut-price wannabes – rests on the Mantra. For riders on a limited budget there’s nowhere else to go in the Saracen range, because this is as cheap as a Saracen gets. But that’s good news, because it hints at an uncompromising approach to quality and trailworthiness. Can 2015’s Mantra still cut it?

Frame and equipment: keeping things simple, with some thoughtful touches

Though it won’t win any prizes for innovation or groundbreaking design, the Mantra’s frame has some neat touches that betray its from-the-ground-up Britishness. For starters, there’s a pair of bosses under the thin walled, square bottomed down tube for attaching a Crud Catcher – for our money, still the neatest and best fit-and-forget front mudguard out there. Mud clearance out back is decent thanks to some nifty stay chicanery. And there’s a set of bosses on the seatstays for a rear luggage rack too, in case you need your bike to double up as a weekday commuter.

Top tube mounted cables keep all the control spaghetti in one place and run without slotted stops, the better to keep mud, grit and water away from the gear cable innards. It’s odd, then, that Saracen has chosen to interrupt the rear gear cable’s run down the driveside seatstay and expose the inner cable just where it’s most vulnerable to water ingress. If your Mantra’s gears start misbehaving after a few wet rides, it’ll be that last loop of cable housing that’s the culprit.

There's a good component blend for the price, including a full shimano altus groupset:
There's a good component blend for the price, including a full shimano altus groupset:

There's a good component blend for the price, including a full Shimano Altus groupset

Plugged into the any-fork-will-fit X44 head tube is a 120mm (4.7in) travel, coil sprung Suntour XCM. That much travel coupled with a stubby stem, relaxed head angle and chunky 2.25in wide treads hints at hard riding aspirations, but it’s tough for a budget bump muncher to live up to the image. Though the XCM isn’t a disaster by any means, the extra travel pushes this basic fork design to its absolute limits.

It can be tempting for manufacturers to chop and change components to hit a price point. But to its credit, Saracen has stuck with Shimano’s basic-but-functional Altus components throughout (for more, check our recent buyer's guide to the MTB groupset hierarchy). That means a full complement of Big S equipment, from crankset to hubs. It’s reliable kit that’ll stand up to some reasonably enthusiastic riding, though it’s a shame Saracen couldn’t find room in the budget for a bigger 180mm front rotor to match the longer fork’s supposed potential for greater speed on rough trails. We also found that the combination of short chainstays and pronounced tyre side knobs led to an irritating – and hard to adjust out – buzz of tyre on front derailleur during granny ring climbs.

Ride and handling: tried and trusty – apart from the fork

The Mantra has been propping up the bottom of Saracen's range for a while, and it’s fair to say that it's got the layout pretty thoroughly sussed by now. The short chainstays tuck the rear wheel in under the rider for point-and-squirt immediacy, while the relaxed head angle and long fork contribute to a rangy wheelbase and laidback, intuitive steering.

Throw in a lanky top tube and a wide handlebar with a pronounced lack of backsweep – which forces the rider’s elbows out and weight forwards for a powerful riding position – and you’ve got all the ingredients of a refined, fun and surprisingly capable trail basher.

Saracen’s designers have got the mantra’s geometry absolutely nailed – this is one tidy-handling bike:
Saracen’s designers have got the mantra’s geometry absolutely nailed – this is one tidy-handling bike:

Saracen’s designers have got the Mantra’s geometry absolutely nailed – this is one tidy-handling bike

What’s impressive about the Mantra is that Saracen has successfully walked the tightrope between cross-country mile muncher and woodsy play bike and built a machine that’s equally happy in both roles. There’s enough space to get stretched out over the bike for long climbs and getting the power down, but the wide bar and plantable front end make cut-and-paste line choices on fast singletrack more fun than you’d expect at this price too.

The Mantra’s Achilles heel is the fork, which can’t quite live up to the promise of the frame and other components. At normal speeds it’s fine, but at the kind of headbanging pace that the Saracen feels like it wants to achieve it’s quickly outfaced. A noodly steering feel and occasional harsh bottom-outs on high-speed square-edged trail obstacles simply show that the Suntour XCM can’t cope with 120mm of travel. This shouldn’t condemn the Mantra, because it could be a superb hard-riding trail machine. But that potential will only be realised with a fork upgrade – and that takes a little of the shine off this Saracen’s performance.

This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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