The Best Wallet-Friendly Hardtail Mountain Bikes of 2017
Looking for a mountain bike that suits you and your wallet? We researched 50 and bought 10 of the best — 5 trail hardtails and 5 short-travel full suspension bikes. Seven testers rode hundreds of miles over the course of six weeks to find out where each bike slays and where each falters. Full suspension bikes are smooth on steeper descents and rough terrain, making it less intimidating. Hardtails don't pull punches but force excellent technique, offering newbies a solid foundation and experienced riders a fresh challenge on familiar trails. When it comes to ease of maintenance and durability in the face of adversity, e.g. mud, the simple and hearty hardtails shine. Our five hardtail test bikes are modern machines, with slacker head tubes, longer top tubes and some big fat tires taking the edge off rougher trails. Keep reading to find the right hardtail for you.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
The Specialized Fuse 6Fattie launches jumps, destroys corners, charges descents and forgives mistakes. It's well-balanced geometry, solid build, and endless traction combine to make hardtail mountain bike magic. This rig is so solid that it can feel tankish, and we don't recommend grinding it uphill all day. It's not particularly speedy either, but our testers don't care. They're too busy having a good time. The Fuse is fun, pure and simple. For rolling trails that quickly reward climbs with descents, half-day adventures, or even mellow downhill laps, it is hard to fault. The Fuse is a simple, confident and low maintenance trail bike for the people, regardless of skill level or riding style.
Most fun and most confident bike in the test
Recommended for any rider
Great dropper seatpost
Not a great all-day climber
Serious chain slap
Read Full Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie
Most Playful and Versatile
Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017
The Chameleon is a trail ripping, dirt jumping, cross-country commuting freak show with traction that just won't quit. We like it. But it's Swiss Army knife nature (and lack of a dropper seatpost) keeps its trail skills from cutting as sharply as the award-winning Fuse. It's close though, with the Chameleon going the more nimble, slightly less stable route. The bike is comfortable, quick, and self-assured on descents, but the rigid seatpost makes it tricky to find just the right balance point. On the climbs, the Chameleon makes quick work of switchbacks, but it can be a struggle to keep the front wheel grounded on the steep pitches. Despite a few body positioning challenges, the Chameleon performs nearly as well as the Fuse with more of a punk rock attitude.
Super nimble and playful
Best fork in the test
Nearly too nimble
Not the zippiest pedaler in the test
No dropper post
Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+
Most Innovative and Aggressive
Trek Stache 7 2017
Trek's Stache is guaranteed to make you grin. All that undamped 29 x 3" tire bounce is silly good fun. But, just like an actual stache, some folks love 'em and some don't. Our most aggressive testers dig the Stache's high-speed take on hardtail trail riding. The more finesse focused riders found its heft and the undampened bounce in those balloon tires cartoonish. Either way, there's no denying that the Stache's endless traction and ever increasing momentum equal trail-smashing good times. It's a shockingly efficient pedaler. But it's also a lot of mass to move around, requiring an aggressive approach on downhill turns. Busting up steep climbs can be tiring as well. All-in-all, the Stache is a capable and bemusing bike, but its trail diminishing tires leave you feeling more like a passenger than a pilot.
Holds momentum better than any bike in the test
Heavy and less nimble
Requires more aggressive handling
No dropper post
Read Full Review: Trek Stache 7
Best All-Day Climber
Kona Honzo AL/DL 2017
The Honzo's narrow tires offer a rougher ride than the plus-sized bikes in the test. They also impose less rolling resistance. Combine the quick rolling rubber with efficient pedaling, deft handling, and a cockpit that's all-day comfortable, and you've got a pleasant climbing bicycle. It's not perfect. It has a stout granny gear, a 32-tooth chainring and 42-tooth climbing cog. The Honzo's hub is also slow to engage. Once up to speed though, it spins along efficiently. Making the Honzo our first choice for a long day in the saddle with a lot of vertical ground to cover.
Performs reliably everywhere
Fairly functional dropper post
Uninspiring component spec
On the pricey side
Read Full Review: Kona Honzo AL/DL
Hardtail V Full Suspension
At $2,000 you could get into a bare-bones full suspension rig. For $2,500 to $2,600 you could get one of the impressive 2017 short-travel full suspension trail bikes we tested alongside this crop of hardtail mountain bikes. The downside is a slightly heavier bike and more time and money spent on maintenance. Rear suspension linkage service and shock overhauls can run about $300 a year.
If you want to get into mountain biking but don't want to drop too much coin or deal with increased care and maintenance that full suspension bikes command, a hardtail might be right for you. If you are getting into the sport for the long-haul, and the expense and attention are worth it to you, a full suspension bike offers higher performance and will not limit growth.
Thinking through which kind of mountain biking matches your riding style, skills and MTB dreams? Here's some grist for the mill:
Cross-country Bikes — Relentlessly efficient. These bikes are hardtails or full suspension bikes with about 100mm of travel that are laser-focused on pedaling and climbing speed. Narrow rubber and super low bars decrease descending confidence.
Hardtail Trail Bikes — Simple and effective. These bikes have a rigid rear end but are more relaxed than a cross-country style hardtail, putting riders in a more comfortable position. Well-rounded but not the best on descents.
Short-Travel Trail Bikes — Squishy yet fast. Short-Travel trail bikes feature roughly 110-130mm of rear travel and can attack downhills confidently while retaining excellent climbing abilities. These are comfortable and efficient full suspension rides.
Mid-Travel Trail Bikes — Well rounded and aggressive. Mid-Travel bikes sport roughly 130-150mm of rear travel. These bikes are capable climbers but aim to balance downhill performance and pedal efficiency evenly.
Enduro or Long-Travel Trail Bikes — Aggressive and rowdy. These bikes feature 155-170mm of travel and can attack technical downhill terrain confidently. Enduro bikes can climb but are made to aim downhill.
Hardtail Analysis and Test Results
After testing blingy downhill bashing enduro rigs and aggressive mid-travel trail bikes, we turned our attention to more affordable rides. We bought five short-travel full suspension and five hardtail trail bikes. We tested the hardtails listed here alongside the award-winning Santa Cruz Tallboy 29 D, Specialized Camber Comp 29, Trek Fuel Ex 7 29, Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1, and Giant Anthem 2. See the hardtail rankings in the table below. Read on to find out all the gritty details.
How We Test Hardtails
Four of our bike obsessed testers took these hardtail mountain bikes on every ride they could fit into a six week period. They also completed timed laps for our benchmarking trials. Armed with this data, we ranked the bikes on the fun factor (worth 25% of the final score), downhill, climbing and cornering skills (worth 20% each), and build quality (worth 15%). See the final scores in the table above, find out more about our time trials below.
Adjustable Geometry — We test complete bikes as the manufacturer builds them. This round included three bikes with adjustable dropouts, which let you customize the chainstay length. We completed the majority of testing with the bikes in the setting they arrived in — the Santa Cruz Chameleon in its short setting and the Trek Stache and Salsa Woodsmoke in their long settings.
We busted out hundreds of Sierra mountain miles to find out how these bikes feel. We rode them through short, punchy time trials to get some hard data. It's handy to discover if the bikes that feel speedy, or sluggish, actually are. We ran 128 timed laps to get four climbing and four descending times per rider on each bike. Unfortunately, crazy spring winds kept us from getting reliable results on the downhill time trials. See How We Tested for all the details.
The climbing results are in the Climbing Performance section below. Here's a quick description of the course.
Climbing Section, aka The Bite — The trail is a jagged stack of non-stop hardpack switchbacks. Mostly smooth, it incorporates a short rocky stretch and two technical turns. It takes an average of 2 minutes and 42 seconds to complete. The climb nicely balances the need for precision handling with on-call pedal power and the straightforward climbing speed of the straightaways.
Hardtail Fun Factor
It's no coincidence that the top three hardtails in this test feature plus-sized tires. Hardtail mountain bikes are inherently harsher than full suspension bikes. They can be jarring. When tempered by big tires, hardtails give you a lively trail feel without as much feedback from the rigid rear end. Pretty fun. Since having fun is the goal aboard a bicycle, the fun factor is worth 25% of the final score.
The Fuse offers standout performance on every aspect of the trail. It sends jumps, rails turns, and tackles aggressive descents with more confidence than any other bike in the test. Excellent geometry allows the bike to be stable enough for newbies and playful enough for experienced riders. It's also a comfortable climber. It wins fun. It's 27.5 x 3" tires keep us at ease in corners, but have a blurry feel that our irks our most precision-minded tester. The rest of us just lean the bike over and laugh.
Coming in right behind the Fuse on the fun-o-meter is the Santa Cruz Chameleon. It's excellent 120mm Fox Rhythm 34 fork and perfectly spec'ed Maxxis Rekon 27.5 x 2.8" tires keep it confident on the descents. In it's shortest chainstay mode, the Chameleon is more tossable than any bike we've tested, getting puppy level playful at low speeds. Its compact wheelbase and dirt jumper style geometry demands access to side jumps, and this bike swings around switchbacks like it's tied to a tree.
Unfortunately, some of that tossing is enforced by the bike's lack of balance. If you can't get your weight properly situated over the front wheel on the climbs it starts rising skyward, with the rear tire wanting to loop out. The 415mm chainstays and slack 71.2-degree seat tube are somewhat to blame. It's better when it's chainstays measure more like 430mm. It's also difficult to keep your body in optimal position for descents, largely due to the lack of a dropper seatpost. Slap on one of the new, lower cost droppers (we love the Tranzx dropper on the Fuse) and the Chameleon's fun factor would jump up.
The Fuse's fun factor ranks a 9 of 10 for its confidence, play-ready personality, and excellent performance across the board. The Chameleon is one step behind at an 8. While it prioritizes a good time, it can play the class clown when you'd rather it just keep its head down. The Trek Stache rates a 7 for being a tank, a fast one at that. It's fun is in the insane rollover and friendly squish of those big wheels. The Honzo earns a 6 of 10 for showing you a well-mannered good time on all aspects of the trail. It's a bit like dating a Stepford resident. The Woodsmoke comes in at a 5 for holding down an average bi-wheeled enjoyment level.
The top three hardtails are surprisingly confidence-inspiring when heading downhill. Those slacker frontends and mid-fat tires urge you to push your speed and attack the hits, devils grinning on your shoulder. The back end is the little angel that'll smack you when you hit the limit. These are aggressive, modern hardtail mountain bikes meant to charge on-trail, so we rated their downhill performance at 20% to match their climbing and cornering skills.
The Specialized Fuse blows us away with its assertive downhill nature. A longer wheelbase, measured 67.8-degree head tube angle, and 3-inch tires work to keep you grounded, letting you push your skills and your speed. Its 430mm chainstays are also the longest of any test bike. This geometry equals a balanced and grounded bike. It's no wonder the Fuse is the most stable descender in the test, offering up composure in the rock gardens approaching full suspension levels.
The Chameleon rides like the Fuse's little brother, a little less confident and a lot more playful, attributes that will level out if it grows up to get a dropper post. It's pretty darn good, inspiring a low and aggressive stance. But, at high speeds, it can feel a little squirrely on steep descents, possibly due to its steeper head tube angle and shorter chainstays. We measured them at 68.2-degrees and 415mm respectively. The rigid seatpost also forces you to cantilever your weight further back than you'd prefer. The combination makes the bike challenging to balance for a few of our testers. With our most aggressive tester feeling like he's on the bike rather than in it. If you can stay centered, it's a solid ride. Consider ordering a dropper post immediately if you order this bike.
The Trek Stache is almost overconfident, with those 29 x 3" tires getting you in over your head in a hurry. The big wheel squish stops suddenly when you hit hard enough, giving you a big and often unexpected bounce. This almost ruined two of our testers on a technical rock drop, rebounding with all the finesse of a trampoline and nearly sending them careening off trail. (The Fuse handled the same hit without incident.) We don't recommend this bike for a lot of air time as a result. Its monster wheels are stable and make small work of most rock gardens, but their inertia is hard to interrupt. Good luck course-correcting. And while those big tires can help you get through some ill-advised line choices, this isn't a full suspension rig. There's only so much the bike can do for you.
The Honzo and Woodsmoke are on the other end of the spectrum, largely due to the trail chatter translated by narrow tires. The Honzo keeps it's head under pressure and gives you the benefit of ideal body positioning with its dropper post. Meanwhile, the Woodsmoke is an unbalanced ride without enough tire width or bite to enforce its brakes.
Downhill Cornering and Handling
The Fuse is an ideal trail bike, stable at speed and easy to navigate along your line. It's the best handling test bike at high speeds, but it doesn't have automatic steering. It can feel sluggish and vague due to those 27.5 x 3" tires. Still, it responds well to subtle input. Riders can also get aggressive with the bars, because, man, those tires can take it. They rarely let their grip go, even on off-camber turns. They don't have well-defined cornering knobs though. You can't feel the tires digging into a turn. For this reason, several testers prefer the 27.5 x 2.8" tire size, as found on the Santa Cruz Chameleon. They give you endless traction and the comforting edge of larger and more defined shoulder knobs. In contrast, the Fuse's 3-inch tires have smaller knobs wrapping around a ballooned sidewall.
While the Fuse handles well at slow speeds, the Chameleon is better. It's easy to toss the lizard between lines and around turns, feeling predictable and stable just before you hit full bore. While the front feels aggressive enough to point and shoot, the short rear end doesn't always back it up. When speeds increase, the short chainstays can get jittery. Again, it's handling is so quick it can feel skittish, requiring a lot of moving around to find balance for the descents.
The Stache's tall front end combines with a high bottom bracket, measured at 331mm, to create a lofty feel. This sensation sends testers further back on the bike for descents in an attempt to get low and aggressive. A dropper would help, but either way, it plows through what you point it at. It doesn't require much effort until you need to turn. This bike benefits very little from handling or cornering technique. It's a muscle job.
The Honzo is stable and predictable on descents, requiring minimal input. It doesn't inspire playful side hits though, and the lack of tire traction keeps your guard up. It's a bit "blah," says one tester. In contrast, the twitchy and unstable Woodsmoke requires a lot of movement to find an aggressive attack position on the descent.
Our downhill test course was a little too gradual, short, and wind affected to give us reliable results. Four of our five test bikes got scattered results among testers. What we can confidently say is that the 29+ tires and pedaling efficiency on the Stache make it pretty darn fast. It was the fastest bike for all three time trial testers on the descent.
We rate the Fuse a 10 of 10 for its downhill prowess. It's hard to imagine a trail-oriented hardtail taking on gravity challenges with more composure. It also offers up a playful side as your skill level allows. The Chameleon rolls in at an 8, taking a hit for being slightly less stable and for forcing you to dodge a rigid seatpost to get the most out of the bike's frolicsome nature. We put the Stache in the middle of the pack with a 7. The 6 rated Honzo would undoubtedly rate much higher with wider rubber. The Woodsmoke's narrow rims and tires leave us with more work than we want to get downhill. We gave it a 4.
These hardtails are not the most incredible climbers out there. They don't lose any pedal power to rear suspension linkages but have their weight, plus-sized rolling resistance, and aggressive leaning designs working against them. These bikes don't inspire excitement for long climbs. Some of them are certainly better than others. Climbing counts for 20% of final scores.
The Fuse's balanced geometry and longer chainstays allow you to sit and spin efficiently from the saddle, making it the most likable climber in the test. It feels incredibly lively given the rolling resistance and weight of its 3-inch tires. Unbelievable traction transfers every ounce of your energy to chew up the trail. It's on par with the Chameleon in acceleration and has reasonable engagement in its Specialized sealed bearing hubs. Yet, as the climbs get longer, our enthusiasm for the Fuse wanes. It's a lot of wheel to roll uphill, and the cockpit's measured 426mm reach can start to feel cramped.
The Chameleon's 2.8-inch tires are less of a lactic acid issue on the uphills. It has more of a body positioning problem. Several of our testers have an uncomfortable time scooting far enough forward on the Chameleon's saddle to keep its front tire on the ground and its pedaling efficient. This isn't entirely surprising. As we've mentioned the Chameleon came set up with uber short, 415mm chainstays and has the slackest seat tube in the test, measured at 71.2-degrees.
The Trek Stache wins the inertia award. The weight of its wheels and crappy engagement on it's Bontrager sealed bearing hubs make it a bear of a bike to get going. Once rolling, it builds momentum like crazy, even uphill. One of the steepest seat tube angles in the test, 77.3-degrees, positions you nicely to put the power down. The other bikes demanded more consistent pedaling to keep pace.
The Honzo also suffers from power lost to low-quality hub engagement, this time Shimano Deore hubs. Between poor hubs, uninspiring tread on it's Maxxis Ardent 29 x 2.25" rear tire and a bit of wheel flex, the Honzo can't be mistaken for a race rocket. Still, it's a reasonable pedaler and the lack of rolling resistance make it our first choice for all day climbs. The Woodsmoke pedals nicely but is too easily knocked around on what feel like traction-less tires.
Climbing, Handling, and Cornering
We know how they pedal uphill, but how do they steer? The bikes' aggressive head tube angles are more prone to front wheel wander than we'd like, but it's not overly distracting. While they all have sharp steering, their widely ranging tires can't always enforce it.
The Fuse's front end is easy to guide on the climbs and pick up to place around tight turns. You don't have to work hard to keep it on a line, and can do most of your steering from the saddle. With tires that steamroll over obstacles and keep a reasonable pace on smooth trails, the Fuse is an incredibly beginner friendly climber.
The Chameleon is a little faster in the turns than the Fuse, but it can be challenging to steer and keep the front wheel down. Several testers really have to lean out over the bars on the steep sections, not the coziest of climbing positions. We remedied this by running the bike in it's longer chainstay iteration, which lengthens the stays to 430mm. It helps keep the front tire down and is more comfortable, more stable, and less harsh over rocks. One tester doesn't like it any better though, saying it feels more sluggish than ever on the climb. Another tester — a long-legged ex-cross-country racer — found the Chameleon an easy bike to climb from the saddle no matter the chainstay length.
Two of our XC leaning testers prefer climbing on the Fuse and the Chameleon. One of the more aggressive testers prefers the Trek Stache. None can deny that the Stache is easy to get around tight switchbacks on the climb, even though its front wheel is too planted to lift with ease. It's also a heavy feeling bike at 28 lbs, 8 oz.
The Honzo's front wheel is also planted, and the bike takes up a ton of the trail to get around a switchback. Its tires lack traction, but we appreciate the lighter rolling resistance on long slogs. The Woodsmoke is a precise, if overly sensitive, steering bike, but the rough riding rear end will jostle you off line on occasion.
While it's not the most energizing bike on the climbs due to all that rolling resistance, the Fuse is fairly fast. It won our climbing time trial test. The ever accelerating Stache keeps up, coming in a close second. The lack of traction on the Woodsmoke and Honzo took a toll on their time trial results, but the efficient pedaling of the Salsa came out ahead. The poor engagement of that Honzo hub slowed its acceleration out of the switchbacks. The Chameleon didn't feel that slow on the climbs, but it's slack seat tube keeps the pedal power from translating efficiently.
The Fuse keeps up its best-in-the-test streak by ranking a 9 of 10 in the climbing category. It pedals efficiently and handles more automatically than the rest. We just wouldn't want to push it uphill all day. The Chameleon comes in next with an 8 of 10 for similar skills but an awkward balance point on some pitches. The Stache and Honzo tie at a 7 of 10. The Stache gets props for solid plowing wheel/tire combo but has lots of rolling resistance and low acceleration. The Honzo has comfortable, middle-of-the-road climbing. Suffering from a lack of traction and rough riding, the quick to accelerate Woodsmoke rates a 6.
We discuss the bikes' relative cornering, handling, and body language skills in the climbing and descending sections above. For scoring purposes, we rate cornering separately from uphill and downhill handling to get a sense of the ability of each bike. For this metric the Fuse and Chameleon tie atop the standings with an 8 of 10, both whipping around corners without much thought, preparation or skill. Both bikes have plenty of traction and the quick handling skills to take down any corner with style. The Fuse has a fuzzy, fat-tire feel, while the zippy chainstays and 2.8-inch tires on the Chameleon give you enough edge to keep your steering sharp.
While the Stache is a lot of bike to fit in a switchback, all that traction lets you get aggressive in the corners. Still, the Stache loses time here. Our most aggressive tester pushed for the 7 of 10 ranking on this one. The two more XC guys voted for a 6 to reflect the vague plus-sized tires and the big bike feel that had us using every bit of real estate to turn. Perhaps predictably, the aggressive guy won.
The Honzo is a bit trickier in the turns than the Fuse or Chameleon. It uses up most of the trail to get around a switchback and washes out readily. When we tried it with wider rubber, it was far more capable. We gave it a 6 of 10. The Woodsmoke steers around nearly as sharply as the Honzo but has less traction. It gets a 5.
Manufacturers strive to compliment their frame with a build kit that maximizes performance while minimizing costs. Here we look at how well the build kits work with our test bikes. This metric counts for 15% of the final score.
The Fuse Expert 6Fattie wins the build quality metric. Its 120mm RockShox Reba RL works with the Specialized Purgatory 27.5 x 3" front tire to provide plenty of cushion. The smooth shifting SRAM GX1 drivetrain is one of the nicest in the test with a generous 28x42-tooth climbing gear. One complaint is the extensive chain slap we experienced during testing. The real prize is the 120mm TranzX dropper post, which, despite costing significantly less than most droppers, functioned perfectly throughout testing. The SRAM DB-3 brakes are a step down from the Levels that we would expect at this price range. The Specialized wheelset is serviceable. While the 3-inch tires are solid, below at left, we liked the 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekons on the Santa Cruz better, below on the right.
The Chameleon R1+ build gives you an excellent 120mm Fox 34 Rhythm fork with a plush stroke and stiff chassis. The Maxxis Rekon+ 27.5 x 2.8" tires are tubeless and the best in the test. We like the 760mm handlebar with its sturdy 35mm clamp. The Novatec 711/712 hubs on the wheelset are quick to bite but have a reputation for loosening on their axle frequently. The NX1 drivetrain is fine with a 30x42-tooth climbing gear. The real issue is the lack of a dropper post. Droppers run from $129 to $479. You could step down to a D+ build and add a dropper with the $400 you save. In fact, you will likely have some cash left over. The downside? You lose that killer fork, and the bike will probably lose some spark.
The solid Stache 7 sports an equally solid build. We didn't like the 120mm Manitou Magnum Comp 34 during the parking lot test. But it's indistinguishable from the tire squish on trail. A longer 70mm stem and 750mm bar made for a narrow cockpit. We'd prefer a wider bar closer to the head tube to wrestle all that rubber. The 29 x 3.0" Bontrager Chupacabra tires have more traction than studded truck tires on a rubber road. The 30x42-tooth climbing gear isn't too burly and allows for power on descents, though getting started after a stall is brutal. The groupset works.
We appreciate the Honzo's dropper post, but it's not a very nice one, traveling a paltry 100mm. One of only two spec'ed in the test, it is very slow to climb back up to pedaling position. We don't love the RockShox Yari RC 120mm travel fork. Its 35mm stanchions are stiff, but the fork feels like a pogo stick on small to mid-size hits. The Shimano Deore M618 32h hubs are noticeably slow to engage, annoying several testers. The Maxxis Minion DHF tire up front is nice, but we'd prefer a 2.5-inch to its 2.3-inch version. The Maxxis Ardent out back is just bad. The SRAM NX1 drivetrain is fine, if clunky.
The Salsa Woodsmoke 29 NX1 sold its component soul for a carbon frame. The result is the lightest (27 lbs 11 oz) and poorest performing bike in the test. The 120mm RockShox Recon RC fork is rough. The narrow Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires don't provide proper traction for climbing, cornering or braking. They keep the SRAM Level brakes from doing their job. The SRAM NX drivetrain is functional, as is the handlebar, but the Salsa Backcountry grips are the worst. They don't lock on and slide off the end of the bar throughout the test. The Woodsmoke features an adjustable dropout as well.
What you can't change (Boost Spacing) and what you can (Tires)
Boost — Excepting the Honzo's front wheel, these bikes have Boost axle spacing. Boosted axles measure 110mm up front and 148mm in the rear instead of the old 100/142mm standard. Boost makes room for plus-sized tires, shortened chainstays, and is purported to stiffen wheels and frames.
Tires — The width and tread of tires have a disproportionate impact on performance considering their relatively low cost. We test the bikes with the manufacturers' stock build, but if the rubber dominates our ride experience, we switch it out and ride some more. Adjusting rim width, which affects the profile and function of a tire, is more costly. Tubeless — The Santa Cruz Chameleon is the only test bike that came with tubeless tires, known to increase performance.
We rate the Fuse a 9 of 10 for its performance-focused build. Following with an 8, the Chameleon gets props for its fork and tires, taking a hit for having no dropper post. In the middle of the pack, the sturdy Stache gets a sturdy 7. The Honzo is a pricey bike and we're not sure where the money went with this 6 rated build. The carbon Woodsmoke didn't have enough cash leftover for a solid spec. We give it a 4.
Cockpit and Fit
The Fuse fits all testers well, working flawlessly for a range of body types and riding styles. The Honzo and Woodsmoke are similarly comfortable for all riders, though the lack of a dropper post on the Woodsmoke makes it hard to appreciate. The Honzo's 100mm dropper is short for a few of our testers, who couldn't raise the post (420mm total length) enough to climb comfortably. The slack seat tube, which is exaggerated for the taller testers, and short chainstays on the Santa Cruz Chameleon make it a challenging for some to find a comfy spot for climbs and descents. The balance point on the Chameleon seems to be less of a size issue than a preference issue. This is a good bike to ride before purchasing. The Trek Stache is just tall, with a curved seat tube holding the saddle too high. If you're on the edge of medium sizing, consider sizing down on the green machine.
Find each manufacturer's size recommendations below:
Specialized Fuse — Sizing not available on manufacturer's website
Santa Cruz Chameleon — S (5'0" - 5'5"), M (5'5" - 5'10"), L (5'10" - 6'1"), XL (6'1" - 6'6")
Trek Stache — 15.5" (5'0.5" - 5'4.5"), 17.5" (5'4" - 5'8.5"), 18.5" (5'7.5" - 5'11"), 19.5 (5'10" - 6'2.5"), 21.5 (6'1.5" - 6'5.5")
Kona Honzo — XS/S (4'10" - 5'1"), S/M (5'0" - 5'7"), S/M/L (5'6" - 5'10"), M/L (5'9" - 6'0"), M/L/XL (5'11" - 6'2"), L/XL (6'1" - 6'5")
Salsa Woodsmoke — XS (5'2" - 5'6"), S (5'3" - 5'9"), M (5'8" - 6'0"), L (5'11" - 6'3"), XL (6'2+)
Three hardtails are nearly as aggressive as the short-travel full suspension bikes we tested, but you can't escape the feedback. For advanced riders, this can equal an excitingly sporty trail feel and for beginners it's a less intimidating step into the costly world of maintaining a mountain bike. The Specialized Fuse is stable enough to stoke any newcomer and fun enough for absolutely anyone. It's endless traction and all-around skills charmed even our 3-inch tire hating tester. The Santa Cruz Chameleon isn't far behind with tossable yet confident handling. Its geometry isn't perfectly balanced and it doesn't feel equally amazing for all riders, especially on the climbs. A solid bike that lacks the squish of fat tires, the Kona Honzo is a hardtail 29er that gets it, no frills needed. The Trek Stache and Salsa Woodsmoke are out there on the innovation versus demand teeter totter. In its 29+ guise, the Stache combines laugh-out-loud descending with a solid component spec to gain a lot of love from the testers. The Woodsmoke's narrow 29 x 2.25-inch tires and cut-every-corner-for-carbon build does not.
OutdoorGearLab's professional test riders are bike obsessed. They've spent their lives racing, wrenching, review reading, and riding. While we didn't have an official lady tester on this review, we had a couple of women ride all the bikes and included their feedback.
Paul Tindal, Lead Tester
Give Paul six shots of espresso and put him on a bike and you won't see him for days. He'll come back happy. Starting out as a triathlete and road bike racer, Paul quickly rose through the junior and senior ranks in his native Australia. Then he moved to South Lake Tahoe, CA and picked up a mountain bike. A professional bike mechanic, he's been switching out fat tire rides ever since. While racing in the National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) series shortly after moving here, Paul crosstrained on his road bike. Several years ago he moved on to the pro category of the California Enduro Series and now races in the open class. Paul charges around 100 miles a week on his Specialized Camber 29 and Specialized Enduro 27.5.
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame
Curtis Smith, Collaborating Tester
Curtis "Cardio" Smith's nicklastname might as well be "Strava". He's got KOMs for days. It's no wonder, he grew up as a bike shop kid in southern Cali, then moved to trail-tastic South Lake Tahoe, CA. Curtis made the National podium in the XC MTB, won the Sierra Cup Series and the Pro Open class of the Sacramento Cyclocross Series. While he prefers challenging singletrack MTB trails, he also races road Cat 2. Curtis lives in South Lake with his wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters. He rides his Santa Cruz Bronson, Trek Emonda SLR, or Trek Boone 9 on singletrack around 10 to 30 hours a week.
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame
Robert Braun, Collaborating Tester
Robert's been biking for as long as he can remember, mostly trying to keep up with his five older siblings. He switches between cross-country, cyclocross, road and cruiser bike riding and races in the first three. Robert likes bikes, logging 2,000 miles in the first five months of this year, between one and three hundred miles each week. Robert has a Specialized FSR and a Scott Foil.
Height and Weight: 5'8"lbs and 150lbs, prefers medium frame
— Clark Tate, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Robert Braun, Pat Donahue
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