Once again, the fork is the weak point of the Focus Whistler. The fact that it had a little more assembly grease than most around the seals meant it didn’t start stiffening up until part way through the third wet ride, but again it’s a reminder that most bikes at this price need better forks if you ride off road in poor conditions. This is a pity, because everything else about the Focus is good value.
The ride is confident, it’s among the few sub-£500 bikes to have 27 gears rather than 24, the wheels and tyres are better than average, and it has hydraulic disc brakes.
Ride & handling: Good handling and climbing ability offset by bump control
The Whistler instantly felt confident in both handling and on climbs. But its barely controlled fork, especially the bouncy rebound, hinders performance when the terrain starts to get rougher – you slowly learn to shift your weight forwards more on the square-edged bumps in order to help subdue the top-out thunk as it rebounds to full extension.
The grey tyres are more slippery on wet rocks or roots than black Schwalbes, but not enough to become a major problem. The overall handling of the Focus Whistler is excellent and confidence-enhancing, with the wider-than-average gear range plus comfort and generous handlebar and saddle adjustability adding extra appeal for less than expert riders.
There’s no getting away from the fact that cranks with plastic trouser-guards and forks with no rebound damping are almost inevitable cheapening effects on most bikes at this price point – but not all, as the Carrera shows. The Whistler’s fork didn’t get as sticky or suck in water as much as four of the others on this test, but our experience tells us that it’ll still need servicing on a regular basis.
But despite that, this is still a slightly better bike than most that are on offer at this price.
Frame & handling: 27 gears for the price of 24
The Whistler frame build uses relatively straightforward oversized tubes with a fat biaxially ovalised down tube flaring into the bottom bracket shell and at the head tube for maximum weld contact areas, with an open-ended gusset further reinforcing the area behind the head tube.
There’s loads of mud room around the tyres and the rear stays curve in to give extra heel clearance. One set of bottle cage mounts and rack eyelets are included.
It’s worth noting that Focus MTB sizing is generous compared to many other bikes – our large test sample measured 520mm (20.5in) on the seat tube. We’d normally have gone for a size down in such a case, but we wanted the longer (590mm) top tube stretch of the large size.
Top tube reach is generally more relevant to rider comfort than seat tube length, but try before you buy as different brands vary a lot in both seat tube and top tube lengths. Similarly, head tube and bar/stem height/reach can vary a lot – the Focus has a 1in washer stack to fit under or over the stem.
The SR Suntour XCR fork has the same too-quick rebound issue as the XCM forks on most sub-£500, bikes but the compression was slightly smoother, the lockout worked well and the preload dial on top of the left hand leg noticeably stiffened the spring.
Low-budget SR Suntour forks vary enormously though. Expect to pay another £200 or so before most bikes get decent forks with good seals and proper rebound damping.
The Whistler has a canny mix of drivetrain parts, presumably using a Suntour XCR crankset to offset the cost of the Shimano Alivio/Acera 27-speed gearing mix. No complaints at all there. Shifts were slick and the nine-speed cassette means more teeth on the biggest sprocket, which enables you to stay in the middle chainring on most climbs.
The wheels, with unknown-to-us FW rims and own brand Black Comp hubs, are tightly built and shod with Schwalbe Smart Sam treads coloured to match the grey and bright green of the frame – they’re fast-rolling, they rarely block in mud, they’re reasonably grippy in most conditions and their 2.1in profile adds reasonable comfort. Tektro’s hydraulic disc brakes offer a nicely modulated feel, with a 180mm front rotor offering extra slowing power when needed.
The Focus own brand Black Comp bar, stem, grips seatpost and saddle are all decent offerings too.
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.