A mid-pack cross-country racer in price, the Giant XTC 2.5's combination of a still frame and high-value parts pick puts it at the front for performance and value.
Giant has long experience of building hardtails for some of the world's top cross country racers. Of course, that's a claim that can be shared by many manufacturers, but what makes Giant's competition hardtail range stand out is that it covers a full gamut of prices designed to appeal to everyone from the spendthrift beginner to hardened racer.
The XTC 2.5 occupies the middle ground in this spectrum, combining the same aluminium chassis as the range-topping 4.5 with a selection of components chosen for a combination of performance and value - RockShox Recon fork, Shimano and Race Face transmission and Giant finishing kit. The only apparent omission is the lack of clipless pedals.
As one of the world's leading bicycle manufacturers - not just for their own range, but for many of the other big names in the business as well - Giant has access to leading-edge frame building technologies. While the XTC 2.5's chassis probably isn't the lightest in its class, it's undeniably one of the best. With a full complement of hydroformed tubes, every inch of the chassis has been honed and shaped in a way that simply can't be achieved with conventionally extruded tubes.
To take one example, the down tube morphs from squashed oval at the bottom bracket, through a rounded triangular section in the middle, to a convoluted profile at the head tube junction that includes an integrated gusset. Deep section chainstays - joined with a particularly minimalist bridge - and chunky, monostay seatstays continue the sculpted look. If you're thinking that all those big sections translate into a stiff structure, you'd be right, as the XTC frame gives every appearance of having been built for efficiency first and comfort second.
Providing the counterpoint to all this overt rigidity is one of the better forks we've seen fitted to a sub-£1000 hardtail - an air-sprung RockShox Recon. With adjustable compression and rebound damping, full lockout and easy setup for different rider weights, this is our benchmark for an entry-level cross country race fork. It's light enough, easily adjustable and sucks up everything we hammered it through, from tiny ripples to washed-out rooty sections in its stride.
Supplying a bike like this without clipless pedals may seem stingy, but given that many aspiring cross country racers will already have their own - and the fact that the fork is so good - it's something we're prepared to overlook. There are, in fact, no serious bum notes in the XTC's spec sheet, and even the saddle - which gives every appearance of being an effective instrument of torture - is surprisingly comfortable for a bike at this price point.
Anyone who's cut their mountain biking teeth on a diet of short top-tubed, short-stemmed trail riding bikes is likely to feel that they're being stretched out on a medieval rack by the Giant. That extra inch or two is easy enough to get used to though, and gives the rider plenty of space to move around over the bike. And despite its initially gangly feel, this is a supremely easy bike to throw around on singletrack, responding instantly to rider body movement at any speed. Giant's designers obviously got their sums right on the geometry front, and a twist-free chassis and supple fork translate skilled input into predictable but inspiring handling.
Those twist-free, chunky tubes have a flipside, of course. A design that emphasises pedalling efficiency over comfort results in a ride that occasionally strays the wrong side of the line that separates 'lively' from 'harsh'. When and where this happens depends on a combination of what sort of a day you're having and the trail conditions, but there's no getting away from the fact that it can feel as though you're on board a hammer drill in fast, choppy sections of trail - and that's despite the fork's best efforts. It's arguably not a problem for a short cross country race, but not ideal for longer enduro events or all-day rides.
So it's fair to say then that this is a bike with two distinct sides to its character. On the one hand it's an easy going and remarkably effective devourer of trails - whether they're pointing up or down, fast or slow, tight or open. On the other hand, the stiff frame sacrifices any pretence at comfort on the altar of ultimate pedalling efficiency - and yes, you really will feel it.
It's hard not to like the XTC 2.5. It boasts a well-built frame, tidy handling, good kit and a fork that knocks spots off most of the competition at this price. But the uncompromising rigidity of the chassis is a reminder that this really is a race bike, not an all-day cruiser.
If you're happy with the single-mindedness of this approach then this is certainly a budget racer that should be on your shortlist. But if you're looking for a bike that'll also double as an all-day trail companion, be warned: this is a bike that'll kick your arse when you're tired or simply having a bad day.