Our professional mountain bike testers rode the bikes in this review over the course of several months on the vast and varied terrain of the greater Lake Tahoe area. Despite the budget price tags, testers rode these bikes as hard as they'd ride their own expensive super-bikes. Test laps included varied terrain, trail surfaces, and difficulty levels ranging from mellow to "you probably shouldn't do that". We rated each model on fun factor, downhill performance, climbing performance, and the quality of the build kit. Additionally, we measured and weighed each bike at the OutdoorGearLab for consistency and to eliminate any variables in the measurement process.
It might seem somewhat complicated to evaluate the fun factor of any particular mountain bike, but it's actually quite easy. Sure, pretty much every mountain bike is more fun to ride than not riding at all, but some are very clearly more fun than others. If you're white-knuckled and hanging on for dear life while riding a bike it won't score as high in this metric as the bike that had you grinning from ear to ear at the end of your ride. Smiles and stoke are obvious signs of a good time. Well-rounded bikes that promote comfort and confidence as you ride tend to be the most fun out on the trail.
The only way to evaluate the downhill performance of a bike is to ride it downhill, so that's precisely what we did. We made sure that our test laps included a little bit of everything, from smooth and flowing trails to excessively aggressive steep sustained rock gardens. Fortunately, the Tahoe region has a wealth of trails with varying terrain and difficulties that allowed us to search for and find the limits of each model in this review. All the while, our analytical testers paid close attention to each bike's performance and considered how geometry and components play a role on the descents.
Similar to testing downhill performance, evaluating climbing performance means a lot of time in the saddle grinding away the vertical. Since you spend the vast majority of your time on a bicycle riding up the hill, we had ample opportunity to evaluate the uphill capabilities of each model. Our testers pedaled up paved and dirt roads, smooth moderate singletrack, and granny gear steep technical sections of trail. While climbing, they focused on each bike's climbing efficiency, handling, and comfort while considering how each model's geometry and components affect its performance.
We considered the build of each bike in this review because components make a huge difference in the way each model performs out on the trail. In this price range, bikes tend to come with relatively similar components attached to them, though some brands do a better job of spec-ing a few key items that can make a world of difference when riding. Our testers are quite familiar with bikes and their related componentry, but we don't make this assessment based on perceived quality. Instead, they focus on the performance of a bike and its components in real-world riding. In our experience, some of the things that make the most difference in a bike's performance are the tires, suspension, and a dropper seat post, especially at the budget/ entry-level price points.