The Best Hardtail Mountain Bikes of 2017-2018
Who doesn't love the idea of a simple, low-maintenance mountain bike. We've got your 2017-2018 hardtail roundup here. We implemented our in-depth testing procedures and hammered these bikes over one thousand miles to find the right hardtail for you. What these rigs lack in top-end performance compared to their full suspension brethren, they make up for with simplicity and cost-effectiveness. With no suspension linkage and touchy bearings to maintain or rear shocks to rebuild, hardtails offer a more wallet-friendly alternative for your mountain bike needs. If you want to push your limits or fancy rougher and tougher terrain, check out our all-encompassing trail bike review.
Read the full review below >
Analysis and Award Winners
Best Hardtail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Compliant rear end reduces harsh feel of hardtail design
Excellent balance between climbing and descending performance
3.0-inch tires produce drag
Poor fork specification
The Specialized Fuse beautifully balances climbing and descending performance. The middle-of-the-road geometry pairs nicely the 3.0-inch tires. The additional volume in these wide tires serve 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 hardtails. On the ascent, the wide footprint provides an exceptional amount of grip even though they do produce some drag. An impressive component specification that includes a dropper post and a SRAM GX 1x11 drivetrain highlight this build.
Read review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Best Playful Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017
Lackluster climbing abilities
No dropper post
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. Climbing performance is underwhelming. The short rear end caused testers to loop out relatively easily. The build kit on our test bike featured a couple highlights and lowlights. The Fox Rhythm fork was smooth and plush and the SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain was reliable. Our biggest criticism is the lack of a dropper post.
Read review: Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017
Best Value Playful Hardtail Bike
Kona Big Honzo 2018
Playful attitude on flow trails
Poor tire and brake specification
Components can't quite match semi-aggressive angles
The Kona Big Honzo is a reasonably well-equipped and affordable hardtail with sharp handling. This playful bike has a short and stout right end that makes cornering and manualing a blast. The Big Honzo is at its best pumping rollers and railing corners on flow trails. The 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekon tires are responsive and allow riders to change direction in a hurry. This bike is a reasonably comfortable and effective climber. The downside? The ultra-stiff rear triangle translates bumpy and rocky trails surfaces directly to the rider. This bike has the ability to physically beat you up compared to some other bikes like the Specialized Fuse and Devinci Kobain. The best part? This bike carries a $1799 price tag and comes with a dropper post, a component not always found on a sub-$2000 bike.
Read review: Kona Big Honzo 2018
Is a Hardtail 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.
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.
Hardtail mountain bikes can be a great way to break into the sport. In addition, the simple and low-maintenance design can be appealing to seasoned veterans. The Specialized Fuse is a clear winner. The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a fantastic option for the rider who wants a fun loving bike. Those on a tight budget will appreciate the strong value of the Devinci Kobain.
— Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens, Clark Tate
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