The MATTS TFS 800 is a package that, on paper at least, looks very attractive for budget-minded racers. It sports some neat frame design touches, sound spec highlights - including Hayes Nine hydraulic discs and a Shimano XT rear mech - and even comes with a pair of Shimano's clipless SPD pedals.
Boasting shaped, profiled main tubes and curved, complex cross-section stays plugged into airy, cutaway dropouts, the MATTS TFS 800 looks every inch the modern hardtail. MATTS stands for Merida Aluminium TIG-welding Technology System, which is a rather long-winded way of saying that the frame's welded by some very clever robots. And TFS is short for Techno Forming System, which may sound like a dodgy Euro dance band but is actually a clever variation of the more costly and widely used hydroforming process for producing complex section tubing.
According to Merida, the main difference between the two tube-shaping processes is that hydroforming allows thinner tube walls and therefore lower weight, but the 800's all-up 28lb heft is right on the money and the tube forming process should result in strength and rigidity exactly where it's needed. Neat touches like the bullet-ended cable stops add to the feel of a high quality frame that would certainly warrant long-term upgrading as components succumb to wear and tear.
Holding up the front and trying to point everything in the right direction is this bike's weakest point - a coil-sprung RockShox Tora 302 fork with 100mm travel, adjustable compression and rebound damping. It's just not anywhere near as plush or as adjustable for different rider weights and styles as, for example, its air-sprung Recon stablemate - although budding racers will appreciate the lockout function.
Cross country race hardtails sometimes sacrifice comfort for speed, on the basis that race-hardened athletes will put up with a harsh ride for a couple of hours if it gains them a few crucial seconds towards a podium finish. Thankfully, the MATTS TFS 800 doesn't fall into this category. Racing on a budget doesn't necessarily mean that you want to be ground into a pulp, and it appears that Merida's product designers know this.
While there's nothing about the frame's design that suggests anything but an efficiently rigid chassis, the reasonably thin tube walls and some careful tube shaping make for a ride that's sprightly and enthusiastic without being harsh. Spirited pedal input translates into gratifyingly rapid forward progress, while the fork filters out the worst that the trail has to offer and the rear end follows through with a lithe, skippy gait. That's quite an achievement for an aluminium hardtail at this price, and while the fast-rolling and grippy Maxxis tyres can probably take some of the credit, much of it is down to the sound frame design and construction. We can't help but feel that it would be even better with a plusher fork, though.
Backing up this lively feel is a sensible geometry that steers a middle path between ride-all-day comfort and race-day efficiency. Experienced racers may struggle to achieve their favoured stretched out, flat-back posture, but the rest of you will be just fine. Riders used to bikes aimed at the all-day trail market may baulk at the relatively narrow bars, but there's little doubt that dropping an inch or two from the overall width makes for a bike that's great in tight, tree-lined singletrack.
It's tough to give buyers at this price everything they're likely to want, but Merida has mostly struck the right balance, and the inclusion of clipless pedals is a nice touch. The Hayes Nine brakes offer great gobs of stopping power after a short bedding-in period, and the Maxxis Ranchero tyres are decent dry weather performers.
Gripes are few. The Shimano XT rear mech's rubber sleeve is a (failed) attempt to reduce chainstay clatter in the rough - there'll be no sneaking up behind unsuspecting riders on rocky descent with this bike. On a more positive note, it's good to see a rubber gaiter on the rear mech cable to reduce the ingress of dirt and water, and all the own-brand finishing kit looks good and appears well made.
There's a lot to like about this bike, from the decent spec to the well-built frame and efficiently neutral handling. Budget-minded racers could certainly do a lot worse, but there is a caveat: the MATTS TFS 800's Achilles heel is undoubtedly that relatively low-rent fork. While we've certainly ridden worse, the frame's lively feel and the bike's otherwise excellent showing on the trail both cry out for a better bump eater.
On the other hand, this is a bike that offers decent out-of-the-box performance and excellent long term upgrade potential. If you don't mind living with the fork's limitations in the short term, it's well worth a look.