The Marlin crams hydraulic discs and a branded fork into a package well under £500, but it's the eager, well balanced handling that really makes it stand out from the crowd.
The aluminium frame uses Gary Fisher's Gold Series Platinum, which employs internal butting in a few places as well as relatively subtle hydroform shaping on the outside. This keeps strength and stiffness up front without the bike's centre being unforgiving. The top tube slopes steeply down to the extended seat tube for good standover clearance, on all sizes, but the backwards-facing seatpost slot is vulnerable to spray.
There's decent mud room inside the tapered A-frame rear stays, with the chainstays kinked inwards for heel clearance. The disc-specific fixtures look tidy, as do the moulded, open-centre dropouts. There are bolts for two bottle cages as well as a rear rack, and the cables/hoses are all tucked neatly under the top tube.
With its functional but inert fork, wooden-feeling brakes and occasionally jumpy transmission, our first impressions of the Marlin weren't exactly ecstatic. The further we took it and the more we challenged it though, the more its potential showed through, building up increasing trust with each technical section it cleaned.
Gary Fisher were the first to mainstream short front and rear ends combined with a long centre section, and this 'Genesis Geometry' creates an excellent balance for technical riding without compromising cockpit space. Wherever we aimed the Marlin, it put its wheels exactly where we wanted, even when threading round switchbacks or lining up single-plank bridges.
Our 19in sample was definitely a large beast - further emphasised by the generous stack of washers under the stem - but that meant plenty of room to breathe deep for climbs. The naturally sure-footed but immediately obedient The Marlin crams hydraulic discs and a branded fork into a package well under £500, but it's the eager, well balanced handling that really makes it stand out from the crowd.
The feel of the bike grows on you the more you ride, too. The mainframe tubing and relatively slim rear end really do seem to reduce harshness and related fatigue. You'll occasionally get a big thump knocking you off line, but it never feels stingingly stiff or very erratic on rock sections.
Up front is a RockShox Dart 2 - a new fork this year which features rudimentary rebound adjustment and lockout for smooth road sections or climbs. We never managed to get more than 85mm (3.3in) of travel despite an advertised 100mm (4in) stroke, but otherwise the coil-sprung guts help to absorb medium to large hits in a numb, but better than nothing, way. The 2.67kg (5.9lb) fork pushes the complete bike weight to 13.9kg (30.6lb) though.
The Hayes Sole hydraulic disc brakes are equally numb in feel, but if you regularly wind the static inside piston in (only the outer side moves hydraulically), they bite predictably enough with only occasional rubbing. The Shimano hubs and Bontrager rims don't do the overall weight any favours but they're certainly durable. Ditto the Bontrager ACX tyres with their 2.2in carcass cushioning, yet they give reasonable rolling speed. Their hard compound tread can be slippery in the wet, though.
Gearing is Shimano Deore while the cranks are Shimano Alivio models with replaceable chainrings, but despite a decent Shimano chain, we suffered intermittent skipping problems at first. The Bontrager contact points like the saddle and handlebar are comfy for beginners; they don't make you achy on longer rides and you get a seatpost quick release for easy adjustment.
It's a well-priced bike, and the component performance reflects that in its effective yet utilitarian character, but the Marlin has a handling character that's nothing to do with cost; it's the result of very well-balanced geometry and a nicely tuned frame feel. The bike might be a little heavy and lacking in travel, but the more we challenged it the more it seemed to enjoy the trails. Its mix of sure-footedness, an impressively steely determination on climbs and forgiving frame feel certainly mark it out for more radical and long-range work than you might initially think.
MBUK'S MECHANIC SAYS...
Geometry trend setter Combining a long centre section with a short rear end and short stem wasn't new when Fisher adopted it, but they certainly popularised it. In fact, very few US and UK bikes now stick with the old 90s long stem, long tail, steera-phobic set-up. The latest Gary Fisher HiFi trail bikes push the snap steering response to a whole new level with G2 Geometry, but whether that will be copied so broadly remains to be seen.