Felt's Virtue Sport has 130mm of travel at both ends, a through-axle fork and big tyres. This makes it a good choice for more testing terrain, and it pedals well enough to make its 31.5lb (14.3kg) weight less of an issue.
Ride & handling: Confident feel from through-axle fork; supple and effective rear suspension
The Virtue Sport is definitely a solid bit of kit but while it feels sturdy (and hits the scales with quite a thud) it's surprisingly lively on the trail. That's down to the well-controlled Equilink suspension, fast-rolling Continental X-King tyres and reasonable cockpit length.
The weight makes itself felt on longer drags but acceleration is entirely acceptable. As well as remaining stable under power, the back end is pretty fluid over bumps too. It's not that reactive to weight shifts but moves enough to aid front wheel lofts and to settle reassuringly into berms.
The Virtue's geometry is entirely conventional but if you want a more laid-back feel the Equilink system is very tolerant of different setups, so you can run the rear a little softer without it all turning to mush. There's bottom bracket height to spare, too. There's also the option to move the shock to different mount holes on the rocker linkage to drop to 120mm of travel, but in practice the difference is very slight.
The Felt has a full tapered-steerer front end setup and 15mm through-axle on the fork. It makes a difference – you're never in any doubt that the Virtue is going where you point it, and if you find yourself pointing it the wrong way then re-targeting is easy. The Suntour fork's not bad, either – smooth and controlled, reasonably stout and without any of the seepage that's unnerved us on other Suntour units in the past.
While on paper some of the spec is a little low-rent, from the saddle all that you really notice is that the Alivio shifters feel a bit plasticky and the Tektro brakes are somewhat wooden. They're not short of power, but if you like your brakes with a bit of squish you may not take to them.
Frame: Equilink joins upper and lower linkages together to improve pedalling response
The Virtue has been getting gradually stouter with each new incarnation – compared to this year’s bike, the 2007 original looks like it's made of drinking straws. Up front is a short, fat head tube that takes a tapered steerer. This leads to a substantial trapezoidal down tube and flared top tube.
The seat tube is kinked part way down to accommodate a suspension pivot, which limits how far you can drop the saddle. The back end follows the stout theme set by the front. Clearance is merely adequate around the seatstays with the tyres fitted, which aren't as wide as their claimed 2.4in.
At the back is Felt's Equilink suspension system. There's quite a lot going on here, with an upper rocker linkage, a short link down behind the bottom bracket, a pivot on the seatstays near the dropouts and the Equilink itself; a strut that links the upper and lower linkages to force them to move together.
It all adds up to a lot of bearings and bolts, although they're not all as critical as each other – if the Equilink pivots wear or work loose it won't make the back end start waving about. A RockShox Ario shock does the springing and damping.
Equipment: Chainset and shifters a notch below what you'd expect for the money
With a transmission relying on mostly Shimano Alivio parts, a nine- rather than 10-speed cassette, Octalink chainset and Tektro Draco disc brakes, the Virtue isn't a value champion at this pricepoint. But everything on it works, and Felt have clearly devoted a substantial proportion of their budget to the frame.
The Epicon fork has a tapered steerer and a 15mm axle system of Suntour's own design. This is kind of like a RockShox Maxle but doesn't thread into the fork – you just push it through until it stops, adjust the tension on one side and close the lever to lock by way of expanding wedges.
Through-axle forks are unusual on budget bikes but have real benefits. The larger diameter axle and closed fork ends tie the bottom of the fork legs together far more effectively than a normal quick-release, making for a stiffer fork and more confident handling. They're also more secure, minimising the chance of the wheel shifting in the fork.
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine.