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Searching for the best budget mountain bike? We researched virtually every wallet-friendly model on the market before buying five to test and compare. Our selection includes 3 hardtails and 2 full-suspension models that all retail around or less than $1,500. Despite the budget-friendly price tags, our team of professional mountain bike testers pushed each model to its limits in an effort to uncover strengths and weaknesses. In the process, we discovered that there are some great affordable options to get you out on the trail if you're working on a super tight budget or just getting into the sport.
The redesigned Giant Stance 29 2 is the best budget-friendly full-suspension mountain bike we've encountered. This bike's all-around performance and versatility exceeded our expectations, especially for the price. The Stance comes with a 130mm fork and 120mm of FlexPoint rear suspension that felt impressively well-balanced. The middle-of-the-road modern geometry felt comfortable and is one of the reasons this bike performed so well in virtually all situations. Testers had a blast riding this bike on everything from rolling, smooth, XC-style terrain to some more steep and rocky descents. The Stance also proved to be an efficient and spirited climber with 29-inch wheels, fast-rolling tires, a wide-range 12-speed drivetrain, and supportive rear suspension.
The easiest thing to complain about within this price range is the components. With that in mind, our testers feel the lack of a dropper seat post is the most glaring issue with the Stance 29 2. Beyond that, if you're looking for an entry-level full-suspension bike or don't want to spend a fortune on a new ride, we think this well-rounded model is the highest-performing and best-looking bike you'll find in this price range.
Wheel Size: 27.5"+ | Weight: 29 lbs 14 oz (tubeless)
REASONS TO BUY
Fun on a wide range of terrain
Modern hardtail geometry
REASONS TO AVOID
Seat post is too short
Big tires can feel sluggish at times
No chainstay protection
The recently redesigned Specialized Fuse 27.5 is easily the best affordable trail riding hardtail in this review. Specialized recently updated the Fuse's geometry, making it longer, slacker, and more capable than ever. This bike can handle a wide range of terrain, and our testers felt just as comfortable riding mellow trails at lower speeds as they did dropping into steep and rocky descents and letting it rip. Like any hardtail, the Fuse is quite efficient on the climbs, and the meaty 2.8" Specialized tires provide excellent climbing traction. Those same tires also help inspire confidence on the descents when pushing hard into corners and braking, especially when compared to the competition.
One the best features of the Fuse are the tires. However, they can feel somewhat sluggish when riding on paved or dirt roads. Our long-legged testers found that the stock 120mm travel dropper seat post was a little too short on our size Large test bike, which taller riders may want to consider. Besides that, we found little to complain about with this well-rounded hardtail, and the price-to-performance ratio is off the charts. If you're looking for a highly capable entry-level hardtail or want to add an affordable hardtail to your quiver, we've found the model for you.
Wheel Size: 27.5" | Weight: 31 lbs 10 oz (tubeless)
REASONS TO BUY
Good all-around performance
REASONS TO AVOID
No dropper seat post
Poor tire specification
We would be remiss not to mention the Marin Hawk Hill 1 in our budget mountain bike award winner section. While it was outperformed slightly in this test, it is still our second highest-rated model and worthy of praise. Recent updates to the Hawk Hill's geometry have made this reasonably priced full-suspension bike more stable and confidence-inspiring on the descents. It gives quite freely of its 120mm of rear suspension, and when paired with a 130mm fork and slacker front end, it was a pleasure to ride on everything from rolling terrain to steep rocky trails. For the price, we feel the Hawk Hill's performance fits the bill.
The Hawk Hill climbs reasonably well, but it was still bested by the more efficient competition. There is quite a bit of pedal bob when seated and standing while climbing. We feel that the build of the Hawk Hill fits the price point and is generally functional out on the trail, although the lack of a dropper seat post and the non-durable tires does detract from this bike's overall fun factor significantly. Otherwise, we feel this is a great option for people just getting into the sport or stepping up to their first full-suspension mountain bike.
Our budget mountain bike test is led by our Senior Mountain Bike Review Editor, Jeremy Benson. Benson has been testing and reviewing mountain bikes and related gear for over two years for OutdoorGearLab. He started riding mountain bikes in the early 1990s as a youth on the east coast before moving to the Lake Tahoe area in 2001. When he's not riding bikes for reviews, he can often be found racing in endurance mountain and gravel bike events throughout northern California. In addition to his work at OutdoorGearLab, Jeremy is the author of two guidebooks, Mountain Bike Tahoe and Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes California, both published by Mountaineers Books.
Benson is joined by South Lake Tahoe native Kyle Smaine for our budget bike testing. Kyle was born and raised ski and riding in the mountains surrounding this beautiful mountain town. He spent the last decade or so competing at the professional level in ski halfpipe and these days he can be found making more powder turns than double corks in the halfpipe. Kyle is a talented year-round athlete and he recently took up mountain bike racing, landing on the podium at the '19 Downieville Classic in the downhill and all-mountain categories in the Expert 18-30 class. In the summer months, he also works as a mechanic at a local bike shop in South Lake Tahoe.
Our team researched the best bikes you can buy that cost between $1,100 and $1,600 and selected five of the most compelling to test and compare side by side. After measuring and weighing each model, we took to the trails and rode these bikes as if they were our own. We pedaled each model for hundreds of miles on familiar trails and test loops while focusing on their key ride characteristics. Each bike was ridden as hard as the next, and sometimes back to back for a direct comparison, to see how each performs in all situations.
Our budget mountain bike testers spent months riding these affordable mountain bikes throughout the Lake Tahoe region. Each model was ridden for hundreds of miles and tens of thousands of vertical feet. We didn't take it easy on them, either. Instead, we pushed each to—and sometimes beyond—their limits while evaluating each on fun factor, downhill performance, climbing performance, and build kit. Our testers were pleasantly surprised and impressed by the performance of these inexpensive mountain bikes. Carry on for a detailed comparative analysis of the models in this test.
All of the models in this test are a good value. In fact, we chose them for this test because they are the best affordable mountain bikes that we could find on the market today. The bikes in this review range in price from $1,100 to $1,600 and all are suitable for getting out and exploring the trails. We feel that a bike like the Specialized Fuse 27.5, however, is one of the best values for its winning combination of low price and well-rounded performance.
In addition to being a great form of exercise, we ride mountain bikes because it's fun. Getting out in the woods and riding trails on just about any bike is more fun than not getting out at all, but some bikes are just more fun to ride than others. We based our fun factor ratings on the size of our tester's smiles at the end of a ride as well as their general assessment of how good of a time they had while riding each bike. Typically, the more well-rounded a bike's overall performance is, the more fun it is to ride. Bikes that climb and descend well and inspire confidence in the rider are far more fun to ride than bikes that are one-dimensional or feel sketchy in certain situations.
The Giant Stance 2 29 truly impressed our testers with its all-around performance, earning a high score in our fun factor rating metric. This full-suspension model climbs very well and has balanced suspension and a moderate modern geometry that was comfortable and confidence-inspiring on the descents. Whether cruising on smooth and fast trails or diving into some steeper sections of trail, this bike was far more capable and fun to ride than we expected at this price. The other full-suspension model, the Marin Hawk Hill 1 also proved to be a super fun ride. It wasn't quite as impressive on the climbs as the Giant, but its plush suspension and slightly slacker geometry gave the confidence to charge a touch harder on the descents. Slap some beefier tires and a dropper post on either the Stance or the Hawk Hill, and we predict their fun factor would go through the roof.
Our testers had a blast riding the Specialized Fuse 27.5. This new hardtail has modern geometry that helped it easily outperform the other hardtail models in this test. It climbs with all the efficiency you'd expect from a hardtail, and when you point it downhill, the slacker head tube, dropper post, and aggressive 2.8" wide tires combine for a very fun experience. Testers were thoroughly impressed with how hard this bike could be ridden. Both the Rocky Mountain Growler 40 and the Salsa Timberjack Deore are fun to ride as long as you stay within their limits. If you're riding mellow trails at moderate speeds, both bikes will be plenty capable and fun in those situations. If you plan to push the envelope at all on the descents, neither of these bikes inspire the confidence, and therefore the fun, of the competition.
So how do these bikes perform on the descents, you ask? All of the bikes in this review will get you down the majority of downhills you'll encounter on everyday mountain bike rides, and a few of them will do it more comfortably and easily than the others. The downhill performance of these bikes is affected by their suspension, geometry, and components, and they are all a little different than the next. These budget-friendly bikes aren't made for super hard-charging downhill riders or smashing down the rowdiest terrain, but a few of these bikes proved to be far more capable on the descents than we expected.
Not surprisingly, the full-suspension models also have the best downhill performance. The Hawk Hill 1 and the Stance 29 both came to the party wearing the same travel numbers with 130mm travel forks and 120mm of rear suspension. This is a great travel length for an entry-level full-suspension bike and is appropriate for the majority of riders and locations. The Hawk Hill 1 pairs that travel with a modern long-ish and slack-ish geometry that gives it good stability at speed and the ability to tackle steep and rough terrain. Its suspension platform is quite active and supple, smoothing over rough terrain but sacrificing a little liveliness as a result. The new Giant Stance has 29-inch wheels and super-balanced suspension front and rear. Its head tube angle is a touch steeper than the Hawk Hill, but it's still plenty capable on most descents, while Giant's suspension platform has a more progressive feel that helps to keep it lively while ripping along rolling XC-style terrain. We thoroughly enjoyed riding both the Giant and the Marin on the descents; however, both bikes would benefit greatly from more aggressive tires and dropper seat posts.
Once again, the Specialized Fuse 27.5 walked away from the other hardtail competition on the descents. This bike is in another league than the Salsa and Rocky Mountain thanks to its longer wheelbase and reach, slacker head tube, and burly 2.8" Specialized tires. The Fuse was capable and comfortable tackling just about everything and limited only by its lack of rear suspension. The modern geometry inspired the confidence to get into steep and rough terrain and open it up and let it rip on the straightaways. The 2.8" Specialized Butcher/Slaughter tire combination provided heaps of traction in corners and in loose conditions, especially when compared to the low-profile tires on the other hardtails. The Rocky Mountain Growler 40 was pretty good on the descents, but it had a narrower range of terrain where it was fun compared to the Fuse. If you ride primarily smooth trails, packed dirt, and prefer a more upright body position, the Growler is a fine option; it just wouldn't be our first choice for riding steeper or chunkier trails. Likewise, the Salsa Timberjack Deore has a similar feel to the Growler with a lower-end fork that narrowed its downhill bandwidth even further. Both the Salsa and Rocky Mountain share the same WTB Ranger 2.8" tires that have a rounder profile and less aggressive tread that don't provide the best cornering or braking traction.
All of the models in this test performed relatively well on the climbs. They all weigh around 30 pounds, give or take a pound, and they all come with 1x drivetrains that offer adequate range for most uphill scenarios. You'd never confuse any of these bikes with super lightweight and efficient XC race bikes, but they all do a pretty reasonable job of getting you up to the top of the hill, regardless.
The standout performer on the climbs was the Giant Stance 29. On the very first test ride, one of our testers snagged numerous uphill Strava KOMs on this bike. It wasn't expected, but it quickly became apparent that the Stance is fast-rolling, comfortable, and very efficient when pointed uphill. The FlexPoint suspension design is active enough to enhance traction, yet supportive enough to provide an excellent pedaling platform. The components are also more dialed than the competition, with a wide range SRAM SX 12-speed drivetrain offering an impressively easy climbing gear. The Hawk Hill 1 climbs relatively well but couldn't quite match the climbing prowess of the Stance. The Hawk Hill's rear suspension was noticeably more active and bobbed a fair mount when climbing. It's not a crippling problem by any means, but it felt less efficient than the Stance. That said, it has a comfortable seated pedaling position and a roomy cockpit that was easy to settle into for long grinds uphill.
It came as no surprise that all of the hardtails in this test performed admirably on the climbs. Hardtails are known for their direct power transfer and climbing efficiency, and all three of these budget-friendly models fit that mold. The Specialized Fuse 27.5 edges out both of the other hardtails here just slightly on the climbs thanks to the grippier and more aggressive rear tire specification that provides more climbing traction in most conditions. The seated pedaling position was comfortable and roomy, and this bike was at home grinding up fire roads and singletrack alike. Testers also found that tackling technical terrain was easier on the Fuse despite the longer reach and wheelbase, and it felt more composed and less twitchy all the way around. The Salsa and the Growler are no slouches on the climbs either. Their lower profile WTB Ranger tires roll a little faster on smooth and packed surfaces, though they don't quite claw into the loose stuff or over rocks and roots the same way the Fuse can. Both bikes scoot uphill with intention, and there is no wasted energy, though they feel a bit more cramped with shorter reach measurements. The geometry of the Growler, in particular, seems like it may lend itself well to riders who might prefer a more upright position or have issues with lingering back injuries.
These bikes are all on the low end of the price spectrum, and their builds, or component specifications, reflect that. None of these mountain bikes boasts especially flashy components, but all of the builds are serviceable and get the job done out on the trail. Several of the bikes in this test share similar builds, though a few have notable high and low points that set them apart. In general, all of the bikes have similar brakes, handlebars and stems, and drivetrains. There are a few exceptions, and we'll go over them below.
The top-rated Giant Stance 29 has the nicest build of all the models we tested. This is the only model in this price range that comes with SRAM's new SX 12-speed drivetrain. Not only does the 12-speed drivetrain offer a greater range and easier climbing gear, but the jumps between gears are smaller and therefore somewhat smoother than the 10-speed drivetrains on the other models. The Stance also comes with tubeless-ready wheels and tires, although the 2.35" Maxxis Forekaster tires are more at home on smooth trails and packed dirt. The Stance 29 2 we tested does not come with a dropper post, though adding one would take its fun factor and downhill performance through the roof. The Marin Hawk Hill 1 also doesn't come with a dropper seat post, and like the Stance, it would be a dramatic improvement. It is also worth noting that we had issues with the tires that come stock on the Hawk Hill, and anyone riding rough or rocky terrain should probably replace them with something more durable.
The Specialized Fuse 27.5 sets itself apart from the other hardtails in this review with its quality tire specification. Not only are these 2.8" tires big, but they have an aggressive tread pattern that provides far better cornering, braking, and pedaling traction than the tires on the Salsa or the Rocky Mountain. These tires alone are one of the main reasons the Fuse outperformed the competition, and it's great to have a bike come with tires you actually want on it. Beyond that, all of the hardtails came with roughly the same 10-speed Shimano Deore drivetrain, similar brakes, and dropper seat posts. Other than the tires, the differences in performance between the hardtails is geometry related.
Sure, you can spend upwards of $10,000 on a brand-new mountain bike, but you can also spend a fraction of that and still get out on some trails and have a great time. Whether you're looking for your first mountain bike, upgrading from an older model, or stepping up to your first full-suspension bike, there are more quality affordable options on the market than ever before. It can be overwhelming with the number of options on the market these days, and when buying a budget model of anything, you want to make sure you're still getting something good. We hope that this review helps narrow down your choices and helps you with your purchasing decision. Your next mountain bike is out there, and we hope this helps you find it.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.