Hardtail vs full suspension mountain bike: which is best on a budget?

How to choose the right bike for you

If you're a mountain biker on a budget, is it better to get a basic full suspension (AKA dual suspension) ride or a higher-level hardtail for the same money? It’s a common question we get asked from riders looking for a decent bike without breaking the bank, so let's look at the pros and cons of a hardtail mountain bike vs a full suspension.

Put simply, if you look at a full suspension machine and a hardtail at the same price, the added complexity of a rear suspended frame means compromises must be made in terms of components. But will the better components on the hardtail make for a more capable bike, or is the quality trade-off worth the benefits delivered by rear suspension?

To answer this, we go head-to-head in a classic BikeRadar Battle with two bikes from the same brand. Both bikes share equal size wheels, something that we spun along Sydney’s trails to find out where we’d sink our own money.

The bikes we chose are the 2015 Merida One-Twenty 7.500 (AU$1,999) and the Merida Big.Seven 7 XT Edition (AU$1,949). While these bikes aren’t available in some regions (such as the US), they do represent the question at hand well - should you choose a mid-range hardtail or budget dual suspension?

As you'll see, this battle offers a great illustration of how crucial your riding style and personal preferences are when choosing bikes or gear – and how important it is to consider the bigger picture rather than just how individual components compare.

The frames

Having that rear shock is nice, but it sure comes at a cost!
Having that rear shock is nice, but it sure comes at a cost!

Given a full suspension frame needs a rear shock and way to pivot the rear end of the frame in order to activate it, it’s far more complicated and costly to design and manufacture.

The added complexity also comes at the cost of durability, with service-prone components in the way of a rear shock and pivot bearings (or bushings) added to the frame.

In this case, Merida is one of the world’s largest bicycle makers and so both alloy frames on test show a high degree of manufacturing know-how. Built with fluid-forming processes, the tubes are formed into wild shapes using high-pressure oil. Here, the One-Twenty's frame is less manipulated than the Big-Seven's, something that is most obvious when comparing the One-Twenty's TFS level frame with the 'Lite' version found on more expensive models from this full suspension range.

The merida one-twenty 7.500 offers a quality frame, but its straight-steerer head tube is one example of cost cutting that will limit future upgrade possibilities
The merida one-twenty 7.500 offers a quality frame, but its straight-steerer head tube is one example of cost cutting that will limit future upgrade possibilities

At this particular price, you're getting a reasonable quality alloy full suspension frame. Merida has done a good job to provide modern features in both frames; however, an obvious exception is seen in the use of a straight head tube on the full-sus bike, while the hardtail receives a tapered unit – a near standard addition on premium bikes.

Frame summary: The frames are clearly the biggest factor in this whole battle. In pure terms of design complexity and highest tech, the full suspension is the winner. The hardtail gets in a few punches with its low weight, greater manipulation to the frame tubes, its tapered head tube and generally lower maintenance, but it's not enough to overcome the addition of a rear shock.

Frame winner: Full suspension

The components

It’s commonly said that a bike is worth more than the sum of its parts, but to what extent does that hold true?

Both forks share similar features in the way of an air spring, adjustable rebound control and remote lock-outs, however, they are far from equal on the trail with the RockShox offering a more secure and confident hold to the trail
Both forks share similar features in the way of an air spring, adjustable rebound control and remote lock-outs, however, they are far from equal on the trail with the RockShox offering a more secure and confident hold to the trail

Following the frame, the front fork is the most important component on a mountain bike. Here, our Merida Big-Seven has a well-proven RockShox unit. Performance wise this overshadows the more basic SR-Suntour fork of the One-Twenty – the latter does feature an adjustable air spring, rebound damping adjust and remote lock-out like the RockShox, but lacks its chassis-stiffening 15mm thru-axle and tapered steerer.

After the frame and fork, the wheels play the next most important role. In this case, the two bikes share what appear to be similar wheels, but a closer look reveals that the hardtail's hoops have a lighter rim and more durable sealed-bearing hubs.

Once you’ve compared these crucial parts, you can look to the smaller components in the drivetrain and brakes. It’s here where the blatant on-paper differences lie, with the hardtail featuring Shimano XT (with some Deore) components while the full suspension offering drops lower with Shimano Deore (plus some Alivio).

In this case, both bikes feature clutch-equipped rear derailleurs for improved chain security. However, the shifting is marginally smoother and more crisp on the Shimano XT
In this case, both bikes feature clutch-equipped rear derailleurs for improved chain security. However, the shifting is marginally smoother and more crisp on the Shimano XT

Both of these bikes feature 10 gears out back, but up front it’s a different story with the hardtail receiving a lighter and simpler two-ring setup, to the full suspension’s three rings. While the triple offers a wider overall gear range, the double has fewer redundant crossovers. In terms of quality, not only do the hardtail’s XT components offer more consistent and smoother shifting, but will withstand the punishment of off-road abuse for longer, with higher quality, lighter materials throughout. Furthermore, the hardtail uses a more modern external bottom bracket (the bearings between the crank) which is lighter, stronger and easier to service.

It's a similarly unequal tale when it comes to the brakes, with Tektro branded models on the One-Twenty, but well-proven, better controlled and stronger Shimano units on the Big-Seven.

Lastly it's worth looking at the finishing kit such as the tyres, saddle, handlebar, stem, and so on. Here, the two bikes are quite similar with the key difference in name-brand treads on the hardtail, while the full suspension bike gets generic items.

Components summary: With the full suspension putting its cash into the frame, the hardtail is free to pull way, way ahead in the components game. Here the hardtail wins without dispute, offering a vastly better suspension fork, drivetrain, brakes, wheels and even tyres. The cockpit components remain an equal battle – with the full-suspension's wider handlebar actually preferred.

Components winner: Hardtail

Weight

At the top end of the sport where money is no object, the lightest hardtail is commonly 1kg lighter than the lightest full suspension ride.

However, this doesn’t hold true when looking at a set price point. For example, our budget Merida full suspension weighed 13.74kg against the mid-level hardtail's 11.71kg. This is a nearly 15 percent weight difference and one that can be felt climbing, guiding the bike over obstacles or any other time you accelerate or decelerate.

Weight summary: The full-suspension's slightly cheaper tubing construction and the addition of the moving parts come at a significant cost to frame weight. While this accounts for approximately a kilogram difference, the difference in component quality further hinders the full suspension's weight. In every aspect, the hardtail is the winner here.

Weight winner: Hardtail

Water

Wait. What does water have to do with a battle between hardtail and full suspension? Well, if you're riding for more than half an hour then you'll certainly want to carry fluids with you.

Water is something many people don't consider when buying a bike, but you should
Water is something many people don't consider when buying a bike, but you should

Here, most hardtails allow you to carry two sports water bottles on the inside of the frame (smaller sizes are usually limited to one). This can often mean the difference between being able to use water bottles or requiring a hydration pack. Where bottles are a given on hardtails, many cheaper full suspensions often can't even carry a single bottle, forcing that weight to your back. The Merida One-Twenty featured is different, with space (and a cage!) given to carry a single bottle. 

Water summary: We need hydration and having the weight off your back is a nice-to-have. For this, the extra space provided by not having a rear shock allows for more fluids to be carried.

Water winner: Hardtail

Ride style and ambition

We’ve looked at the component specifications and weights, but what really matters is how the bikes perform on the trail. Before we go comparing exact trail situations, it's important to look at your ride style and ambition. Despite being at the same price point, it's clear these bikes aren’t necessarily aimed at the same rider.

The Merida One-Twenty, like many other entry-level dual suspension bikes, is aimed at the trail rider and features slightly increased suspension travel (120mm front and rear) and a relaxed rider position in order to boost control and comfort on technical terrain. Compare that with the hardtail: the position is more forward and aggressive, with a shorter 100mm travel fork on the front to keep the handlebar height a little lower for climbing.

With this, riders looking to hit the trails with their more experienced riding mates will probably have the most fun on the full suspension. Those seeking a more efficient climber or a bike to do some competitive cross country racing will be suited to a hardtail. It's also worth mentioning that hardtails teach you how to ride properly, using your body to absorb shock and not relying on the bike; so if your ambitions are to become a skillful rider, the hardtail may be your best starting point – though you can expect a steeper learning curve.

Ride style and ambition summary: This is the most personal aspect of the battle and the result depends on you. Want to refine your skills and ride fast on cross country trails? Go the hardtail. Want to ride technical terrain and just keep up with your more experienced mates? Go the full suspension.

Ride style winner: Draw

Climbing 

If your rides consist of long, testing climbs, then the low weight and rigid rear end of the hardtail is going to lead to the least amount of wasted energy. Here, it's common to see XC racers go with a hardtail for its ability to stand out of the saddle and pedal without energy lost into the suspension. Sure, full suspension setups have lockouts, but you need to remove to use them – and even then they're never as rock-solid as a hardtail.

When climbs get rough or technical though, then the full suspension starts to fight back as the suspension helps to keep the rear tyre in contact with the ground and allows you to keep cranking with less interruption. Sure, the extra weight will be felt, but sometimes traction is more important. 

Another factor to consider is geometry – the more relaxed 'trail' position of the full suspension tends to wander on steep climbs and requires a little more muscle to point it where desired. The hardtail is a more thoroughbred climber, in that its aggressive position stays pointed to the sky and screams for you to go faster. 

Climbing summary: Smooth and/or extended climbs have the low weight and energy-efficient hardtail storming ahead. As trails get rougher and more technical, the additional traction afforded by the full suspension hits back. But the overall weight and more relaxed position isn't enough to overcome the hardtail's ascending poise. 

Climbing winner: Hardtail

Descending

Finish that climb and hit the descent… now the full suspension is rolling into the lead. That relaxed position and bouncy rear end hurting on the climbs is now a huge positive. The full suspension bike offers a more rearward-biased position that promotes confidence going downhill, especially when it's steep. A longer wheelbase also helps to keep the full suspension balanced and controlled at high speed, while the hardtail can start to feel skittish.

That rear shock makes all the difference when the trail gradient heads downward
That rear shock makes all the difference when the trail gradient heads downward

Hit some rocks or roots and the additional traction afforded by the rear suspension is obvious as the hardtail skips and bounces.

It's not a complete knockout for the full suspension though, as consecutive large knocks and generally rough terrain show the limits of the One-Twenty's cheaper suspension fork. Here, despite the 20mm less suspension travel, the additional stiffness and improved damping of the RockShox fork found on the Big-Seven helps it to regain some ground.

Descending summary: Additional traction, shock absorbing rear suspension and geometry designed to descend, the full suspension wins hands down when the trail heads in a similar direction. That said, a better quality fork, similar to that found on the hardtail, would mean an absolute knock-out win for the full suspension on the descents.

Descending winner: Full suspension

Commuting and road going

If you're looking to do more than just weekend trail rides on this bike, then you need to consider how it rides on the road. Here, the more aggressive position, rigid rear end and lighter weight of the hardtail sees it ride up the road with the full suspension in its dust. 

The full suspension does have lockouts front and rear for these situations, but these just greatly firm up the suspension, and so there is still some give felt. 

Roadie summary: You don't need suspension when you're on the tarmac; for this, the hardtail wins without question. If you're planning to ride the bike mostly on road or smooth rail trails, the simplicity and efficiency of the hardtail is likely to better serve you.

Road Going Winner: Hardtail

Verdict

Despite the lower quality components, the One-Twenty 7.500 and many other budget full suspension bikes are better suited to riders looking to ride and explore trails, having some fun with mates while pushing their comfort zone on technical sections of trail. If you're in this 'general mountain biker' category, and regardless of the 5-2 scoring, we feel the budget full suspension is the better choice. Wherever possible, however, we'd advise spending more to get you past the base model option – it’s money that you’ll likely save in the long run thanks to the more durable components you'll be working with.

The hardtail, with its lower weight and rigid rear end, is more efficient when your ride consists of road or smoother trails and plenty of pedalling. With this in mind, the better quality hardtail would best suit a rider with racing ambitions or someone seeking a well-rounded bike to use for both commuting and weekend trail riding.

As you can see, much of this choice is based on your overall riding environment – so it’s always a good idea to ask riders and stores nearby to you for opinion.

It's a close call and it really depends on what your riding ambitions - but the full suspension is the winner for most trail users
It's a close call and it really depends on what your riding ambitions - but the full suspension is the winner for most trail users

BikeRadar champion: Full suspension

Expanded Full suspension vs hardtail price guide

Following this, below we give a rough guide in price points for where dual suspension bikes should be factored into your purchasing decision.

Under £1,000 / US$1,000 / AU$1,300 

If you’re serious about hitting the trails, then at this price you’ll be best suited with a hardtail. Sure, for this money you may be able to find a used full suspension, but anything new will have far too many compromises for the intended purpose.

If buying new, buy it from a place that specializes in bicycles. Our basic rule of thumb: if they sell toilet paper, it’s not the place to buy a quality bike.

£1,000 / US$1,000 / AU$1,300 up to £1,500 / US $1,500 / AU$1,600

This price has some full suspension bikes trickling in. Many of the big brands that sell through bike stores are unable to offer a competitive option here and it’s best to stick with their hardtail ranges. Some exceptions exist, such as from Giant and Jamis – but they are few and far between.

However, the increase of internet-based direct-buy outlets has meant there are some bargains to be had if the face-to-face service and support is not important to you. Brands such as Polygon, Vitus, Calibre and Fezzari can be considered here.

£1,500 / US$1500 / AU$1600 up to £2,200 / US$2000 / AU$2,200

It’s at this price that we start to see the big brands such as Giant, Merida, Trek and Specialized offering their full suspension frames with lower grade components.

If you’re looking to ride on technical terrain and keep up with your mates on similar (but perhaps more expensive) bikes, these will do the job. Just beware that there are some component compromises, especially in the suspension quality, to an equivalent priced hardtail.

£2,200 / US$2000 / AU$2,200 to £3,000 / US$3000 / AU$3,000

At this price you start to see the full suspension bikes receive a level of componentry that will perform and last without issue. The big brand options start to feature name-brand suspension, including suspension lockouts front and rear.

Here, the bikes are much heavier than the equivalent priced hardtail, but that weight comes with confidence on the trail.

Your decision will depend on if you want to race or not. If cross country racing, a carbon hardtail at this price is going to be more efficient, more reliable and far lighter – for all other forms of riding, the full suspension would be our pick.

£3,000+ / US$3,000+ / AU$3,000 +

Just like the previous pricepoint, you’re now getting into upper-level components. You’d expect carbon if it’s a hardtail, but for those not racing – go the full suspension.

David Rome

Former Editor, Australia
Dave was the editor of BikeRadar Australia until early 2016.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road and cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: Fast and flowing singletrack with the occasional air is the dream. Also happy chasing tarmac bends.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Fuel EX 27.5, SwiftCarbon Detritovore, Salsa Chilli Con Crosso
  • Dream Bike: Custom Independent Fabrications titanium, SRAM Etap and Enve wheels/cockpit
  • Beer of Choice: Gin & tonic
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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