We are constantly on the lookout for the most compelling hardtail mountain bikes. We have our fingers to the pulse of the industry and we buy the most intriguing models. We rode these simple and easy-to-maintain bicycles as hard as we can to find the perfect hardtail mountain bike for you. Yes, hardtails lack the top-end performance of a full suspension mountain bike, but the lower price tag and decreased amounts of maintenance can be very attractive. If you want to ride hard on a wider variety of trails, head on over to the ultra-thorough trail bike review. Still interested in the idea of a hardtail? Continue reading to determine which bicycle is perfect for you, your trails, and your budget.
The Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes of 2018
Best Hardtail Mountain Bike
Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
The Specialized Fuse is a wonderful balance of climbing and descending performance. The middle-of-the-road geometry works well with the copious amounts of traction provided by the 3.0-inch tires. The additional volume in these wide tires serves as a small bit of undampened suspension. The thin tubing on the rear triangle makes for a compliant and more comfortable ride compared to our other hardtail mountain bikes. Our test bike has an impressive component specification that includes a dropper post and a SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain.
The Fuse isn't perfect. The 3-inch tires produce a bit of drag that can become tiresome on longer rides. When you are in higher gears, the chain has a tendency to slap against the chainstay causing quite the ruckus. Regardless, this is an extraordinarily well-rounded bike at a superb price.
Read review: Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018
Best Aggressive Hardtail
Commencal Meta HT AM Essential 2019
The Commencal Meta HT AM is a hard-charging hardtail with an aggressive personality. This bicycle has enduro-inspired geometry that really delivers on the trail. The Commencal is our most aggressive hardtail and you can drive this bike surprisingly hard. This playful bike has a clear appetite for descending but holds its own on the ascent. The Meta AM HT offers a stellar build kit that is highlighted by a 160mm RockShox Yari.
The Commencal isn't perfect and there are a few build kit items that heavily detract from on-trail performance. First, the Vee Tires are flimsy and weak. We experienced frequent flat tires and punctured these tires easily. In addition, there is no dropper post. No dropper post = less fun.
Read review: Commencal Meta HT AM 2019
Best Playful Hardtail Bike
Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017
The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a playful bike that offers sharp handling and a dirt jump inspired feel. This bike has 2.8-inch tires and a short feel to allow riders to rip through corners with ease. The Chameleon is at its best when it is pumping through rolls and railing berms. Some of the components that stood out as impressive were the 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekon tires and the plush Fox 34 Rhythm fork.
The Chameleon's climbing performance is underwhelming. The short rear end caused testers to loop out relatively easily and proved harsh on rough trails. The lack of a dropper post is a serious offense in 2018. Still, this bike is incredibly playful and fun on the right terrain.
Read review: Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017
Best Hardtail For Buff Terrain and Long Distances
Trek Stache 9.7 2019
The Trek Stache 9.7 is an excellent bike for long days in the saddle and covering ground. This bike has upright, cross-country focused geometry that prioritizes efficiency. As a result, this bike steers quickly and reacts well at all speeds. The 29+ wheels roll extremely fast and are frighteningly quick on smooth and buff trails. The light frame, big wheels, and upright geometry deliver swift and efficient climbing. Downhill performance is excellent of fast and flowy trails.
The downside? The Stache 9.7 only performs well on a narrow range of trails. Performance is extremely uncomfortable on rough or chattery trails. The upright geometry detracts from confidence and the ride is brutally jarring. In addition, these wheels can be a handful in tight corners. These cumbersome wheels can be especially problematic for shorter riders. The Stache 9.7 has a nice build kit but the cross country theme persists. The 125mm dropper post is short, the 750mm bars are narrow, and the Bontrager XR2 tires lack braking bite and cornering abilities.
Read review: Trek Stache 9.7 2019
Is a Hardtail Mountain Bike Right for You?
There is no denying mountain biking is an expensive sport. Modern bicycles are packed full of cutting-edge technologies, and their price tags reflect this.
Hardtails can be very appealing. The price tag is the first thing that will grab your attention. The lack of a rear suspension linkage and shock make these bikes less expensive to produce and easier to maintain. Hardtails are a fantastic way for newer riders to build skills as they force proper form and soft knees/elbows over rough terrain. In addition, these can be excellent second bikes for full suspension owners who want a simple, hearty bike for wet and sloppy conditions. It's not all wonderful, hardtails have a far narrower range of trails they can comfortably ride. In addition, they provide a much less forgiving ride by translating the trail surface to the rider's body more directly.
A bare-bones full suspension bike generally sells for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000. Well-equipped bikes will usually start above $3,000. All of the bearings and pivots on these full suspension require maintenance to keep them running smoothly and quietly. This maintenance will likely run you a few hundred dollars a year. The enormous upside to full suspension bikes is they offer far superior performance in every area of the trail compared to hardtails. Superior climbing traction, far more aggressive descending abilities, and all-day comfort are all benefits of full-squish rigs. Riders who intend on getting into mountain biking for the long-haul will undoubtedly benefit from dropping the extra coin.
Which is right for you? It is important to take a look at your goals.
If you are looking to head out on a relaxing ride once a week on mellow terrain with minimal amounts of chop, a hardtail is a solid choice. Beginners looking to build their skills are also candidates for these bikes. If you're in this camp, just know that mountain biking is much, much more fun on a full suspension bike. Riders who want to ride a wide range of trails should strongly consider a full suspension bike. If you want to ride multiple times a week and push your skill set, a full suspension bike is the best option.
If the price tag associated with a quality mountain bike has you choking, look no further! We compiled the performance scores of each hardtail bike in our test and mapped them out in relation to their list price. Check out the interactive graph below to see how each contender measured up in terms of value. Bikes that land further right and lower, such as the Marin Pine Mountain 1 2018 and Specialized Fuse Comp 6Fattie 2018 represent what we believe to be an excellent value.
Modern hardtails typically have one of four common wheel sizes. Each wheel size has its own strengths and weaknesses
- 27.5 — Great for those who want a nimble and playful ride. These are the smallest diameter wheels that are still widely produced. As a result, you sacrifice rolling speed and momentum in favor of superb cornering abilities and a high fun-factor.
- 29 — Best for those who want to ride fast. Wagon wheels smooth over some of the trail surfaces. It is harder to disturb the momentum of these big wheels. You sacrifice a bit of agility compared to 27.5-inch wheels, but they roll faster and take a bit of the inherent harshness out of a hardtail.
- 27.5+ — 27.5+ wheels feature tires that are either 2.8 or 3.0-inches wide. The extra rubber creates a larger diameter that is similar to a 29er. Most importantly, the wide rubber provides exceptional traction and creates a bit of cushion/dampening. This is very beneficial on a hardtail.
- 29 + — This is a less common wheel size that uses a 29 x 3.0-inch tire. The 29+ is a very large wheel that provides an exceptionally stable and fast rolling ride at speed. In addition, it makes trail obstacles feel far smaller in scale than any of the other wheel sizes. The downfall? These enormous wheels can be a handful in the corners, feel sluggish on climbs, and they are far from playful.
Note: Tire choice can make a huge difference within a wheel size. For example, a 29 x 2.3-inch tire ride very differently than a 29 x 2.6-inch tire. Adding a bit of width can make for a more aggressive feel and provide a bit of damping.
Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum vs. Steel
Frame material is important. Each frame material has inherent strengths and weaknesses that can have an enormous effect on performance and price. Your budget will dictate frame material to a large extent, but here is a brief rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of each material
- Carbon Fiber — The lightest, stiffest, and strongest option. It's also one of the more expensive materials. Carbon fiber transmits your power and body movements most effectively. The stiff ride is responsive and the lower weight is a huge bonus. Carbon fiber ages well, meaning it retains its integrity better than aluminum that weakens over the years. It is also the strongest of the frame materials. The catch, while carbon fiber is extremely strong, it doesn't stand up well to being crashed into rocks. In addition, it isn't eco-friendly as it has no way of being recycled.
- Aluminum — This reliable metal is less expensive and doesn't age as well as carbon fiber. While aluminum is not as strong as carbon fiber, it responds better to getting dropped in rocks. In addition, it isn't quite as stiff as carbon fiber, which results in minor amounts of frame flex. No big deal. This flex can actually work in your favor by softening the harsh feel of a hardtail. This material is easily recyclable.
- Steel — Some hardtail bikes, particularly from smaller manufacturers, are built with steel. Steel is less stiff than carbon fiber and aluminum resulting a bit of frame flex. The upside? It provides a more damp ride than the other materials. In addition, steel can be repaired if a weld fails.
Our Women's Full-Suspension Trail Bike Review revealed some interesting information regarding female-friendly bikes. There were some critical takeaways from this review.
- Shock Tune — Women weight about 30 pounds less than men of the same height, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention data and studies conducted by women's MTB brand, Juliana. As a result, lighter suspension tunes are important for female riders. Having a lighter fork tune on your hardtail lets lighter riders get the most out of their suspension. While you can certainly ride a bike with a stiffer tune, it will be far more difficult to set up suspension that is designed for a rider who is 30 lbs heavier. When searching for a hardtail, ask about a female-friendly fork tune. At a sub-$3,000 price point, this may be challenging.
- Contact Points — Female-friendly contact points are important. A women's-specific saddle is critical, but a low-end women's saddle that comes stock on a bike is unlikely to be very comfortable. It's worth putting the time and research in to find a saddle that works for you. Narrower bars and smaller grips can also be helpful. They're also a relatively cheap aftermarket fix.
- Women's Specific Geometry — Female-specific frame geometry is becoming less popular as manufacturers find that men and women want pretty similar ride characteristics. Oftentimes, women-specific geometry leans towards a cross-country style and more upright cockpit. This is often comfortable on mellow trails but can hold you back when trying to push your limits.
There you have it. These hardtails can be a fantastic way to get out on the trails without breaking the bank. They can also be a really fun and simple second bike to add to your quiver for the sloppy months. Indeed, seasoned veterans and beginners alike can enjoy these superbly simple bikes. The Specialized Fuse continues to be a clear winner thanks to its well-rounded performance and low cost of entry. The Santa Cruz Chameleon is tremendously fun and has a dirt-jump/BMX feel. The Trek Stache 9.7 is the best option for racking up miles and covering huge distances with minimal effort. Want to get radical? The Commencal Meta AM HT is the best tool for high speeds and rough trails.
— Pat Donahue, Kyle Smaine, Paul Tindal, Joshua Hutchens