Not everyone needs a high-end mountain bike that breaks the bank. If you are new to the sport or don’t plan to ride that often, it’s a good idea to buy a relatively inexpensive bike and upgrade down the road if you are enjoying yourself. Or perhaps your riding consists of easier trails with few major obstacles—in this case cheaper bikes offer more than enough performance for many riders. Following a significant industry shift in wheel sizes from 26-inch to 29 and then to 27.5, most budget bikes share a common formula: 27.5-inch or 29-inch wheels, suspension up front, and aluminum frame. We cover the remaining important considerations in our comparison table and buying advice. There are plenty of suitable options in the sub-$1,000 price range, and below are our favorites for 2017.
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 2 x 10
What we like: Excellent component groupset, responsive ride.
What we don’t: Maxes out the $1k budget.
Most inexpensive mountain bikes reveal the compromises of keeping costs down—the components are a mishmash of quality, always sacrificing somewhere. Impressively, Diamondback’s Overdrive Comp, which squeaks in at just under $1,000, comes darn close to avoiding that paradigm altogether. The shifters and drivetrain all come from the mid-range and dependable Shimano Deore line, and the brakes are a proven hydraulic set from Shimano. This is also one of the few bikes in the sub $1,000 price range to feature an upgraded 10-speed rear cassette (many have budget-friendly 8 or 9 speeds). A 2 x 10 drivetrain allows Diamondback to ditch one of the chain rings on the front, which not only drops a little weight, but also makes it far simpler to find the proper gear.
It’s all a waste if the nice components are bolted to a crummy frame, but the Overdrive is a proven aluminum design that’s comfortable all over the mountain. Diamondback also has a 27.5-inch wheel option for 2017, but we prefer the more versatile 2 x 10 drivetrain that you get with the 29er (the 27.5-inch has a 1 x 11). As a fast-moving cross-country steed, and with the best all-around components on this list, the Overdrive Comp gets the nod as our favorite bike under $1k.
See the Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.25 in.
Gears: 3 x 10
What we like: Fantastic value for a solid XC hardtail.
What we don’t: We’d prefer a stiffer 15mm front thru-axle.
Like the Diamondback Overdrive above, the GT Karakoram Elite packs a lot of value into a XC hardtail design. This bike features a smooth SR Suntour fork, quality Shimano Deore shifters and derailleurs, and hydraulic disc brakes for well under $1,000. The GT has the stable feel you expect from a 29er, and its 2.25-inch wide Schwalbe Rapid Rob tires offer up enough traction for dirt, rock, and a little mud.
What are the downsides of the GT Karakoram Elite? Some riders may find the 30 gears in the 3 x 10 set-up excessive, and for most trail riding the 20-speed Diamondback above is sufficient and saves you a little weight. The good news is that the Shimano Deore drivetrain is known for smooth action and a good lifespan. We also do prefer the stiffer 15mm thru-axle on the Overdrive (the Karakoram has a 9mm quick release) for riders that are pushing their limits or hitting modest jumps. As a result, we give the slight edge to the Diamondback, but the GT Karakoram Elite is our favorite mountain bike under $900.
See the GT Karakoram Elite
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 3 x 9
What we like: Great price and decent all-around performance.
What we don’t: Lower quality components than the top picks.
REI’s Novara brand is now Co-op Cycles, and they’ve done a full revamp of their lineup for 2017. What hasn’t changed is the budget-friendly prices and good feature sets. Unfortunately for the sake of our list, there isn’t a Co-op Cycles mountain bike option just under $1,000 (the DRT 1.3 is $1,099), but their mid-range $799 DRT 1.2 is still a good choice. With 27.5-inch wheels and a solid 120mm front suspension from SR Suntour, the bike is plenty capable on moderate-level trails. The DRT 1.2 also has modern geometry and internal cable routing, which give it a comfortable fit and clean look.
At over 31 pounds and with a 3 x 9 drivetrain, this isn’t as nimble or as capable of a bike as the Diamondback or GT above. And the majority of the components are a step down in quality, although you are saving a little money compared to our top picks. As a first “real” mountain bike, the DRT 1.2 certainly does the trick and comes with the security of REI’s excellent warranty. If you’re willing to stretch your budget just a little, we highly recommend the aforementioned DRT 1.3, which is noticeably lighter and more capable on the trail.
See the Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2 See the Women's Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2W
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 3 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
What we like: Plus bike stability on a budget.
What we don’t: Wide tires add weight and aren’t as nimble.
Wheel and tire size has arguably been the fastest changing mountain bike technology in recent years, and the newest design is the plus-sized tire. Approximately 3 inches in width, they split the difference between a standard mountain bike tire (typically between 2 and 2.5 inches) and a 4 to 5-inch fat bike tire. Most plus bikes will run you well over $1,000, but Cannondale’s Cujo 3 is an all-new budget-friendly option at $980.
The biggest question in looking at the Cujo is whether or not the plus-sized tires are a benefit to you. The biggest upsides of the design are that the bike feels more stable and is easier to handle over rough terrain, as the wide tires absorb impacts and roll over difficult obstacles better than a traditional mountain bike. On the other hand, plus bikes—particularly an affordable option like the Cujo—are heavier and not as fun on the trail as a typical XC hardtail. If stability outweighs playfulness for you, however, the Cujo 3 is worth a look.
See the Cannondale Cujo 3
Suspension: 80 or 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.1 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
What we like: Good build quality and brand reputation.
What we don’t: Not a great value.
Specialized has a stellar reputation in the biking world, with a full catalog of high-end downhill, enduro, and race-oriented XC models. Their Rockhopper line of hardtail bikes ranges from $500 to $1,400, and at the middle is the $850 Rockhopper Comp. This bike has the high-level build quality and well-executed design that we expect from Specialized, with clean lines and a comfortable geometry. Its 80 or 100mm of travel (depending on the frame size) and 2.1-inch tires are tuned for moderate trails, but the Rockhopper is still a lot of fun on the downhill.
From a value perspective, the Rockhopper Comp does fall a little short of our top picks. Its $850 full retail price is a match to the GT Karakoram, but the components are a step down almost across the board. In particularly, the 2 x 9 gearing isn’t up to the standards of the GT bike. Realistically, there are plenty of people willing to pay a little extra for the security that comes with the Specialized name, but we think the GT Karakoram is the better overall option.
See the Specialized Rockhopper Comp 29
Suspension: 100mm (front and rear)
Tires: 29 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 3 x 9
What we like: Full suspension comfort for $1k.
What we don’t: Heavy and a step down in overall quality.
As the only full-suspension bike on our list, the Diamondback Recoil brings a cushy ride at a fantastic price. But right off the bat, it’s important to understand that there are a number of compromises in getting this mountain bike so cheaply. For one, the bike weighs quite a bit more than a comparable hardtail and feels it on the trail, particularly on steep and long climbs. More, you get a downgrade in components to Shimano Altus, and the 3x9 drivetrain isn’t as precise or reliable as the Shimano Deore that comes with our top picks.
While we typically don’t recommend considering a full suspension bike until about the $1,500 price point, the Recoil does have its benefits. For one, the RockShox rear suspension is great through bumpy sections, and it’s a higher quality unit than we’d expect for the price. And despite the cheaper component set, the Recoil does have hydraulic disc brakes, and the 4-inches of travel at the front and rear is a great match for modest downhill use.
See the Diamondback Recoil Comp 29
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 1 x 9
What we like: Capable on the downhills; great price.
What we don’t: Low on gears.
The Raleigh Tokul 2 is spec’d to impress, with a modern, low-slung geometry that’s very comfortable in the steeps. To start, the Tokul sports a burly 15mm thru-axle at a very budget-friendly price of $700. Thru-axles have become a standard on mid and high-end mountain bikes for their improved stiffness and better handling, so to get one on a bike this affordable is big win. Tack on a 120mm fork and hydraulic brakes from Tektro, and the Tokul 2 has a strong appeal for aspiring aggressive riders on a budget.
Why has the Tokul 2 dropped towards the bottom of our list? In creating this modern but wallet-friendly machine, Raleigh omitted the front derailleur. While this is becoming commonplace for lightweight and expensive bikes, we think it’s a bit of a stretch here: the 1 x 9 drivetrain requires decent fitness and is a little too widespread. As an all-around trail bike or for cross-country use, we still give the edge to the Diamondback Overdrive Comp. But the Raleigh Tokul, along with its sibling Diamondback Line (Raleigh and Diamondback share ownership) have serious performance potential with their modern, tough builds.
See the Raleigh Tokul 2
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2 in.
Gears: 3 x 9
What we like: All-around quality ride, upgraded tires.
What we don’t: You pay extra for the brand name.
Getting a budget bike from a reputable company like Cannondale is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Trail 4 is a quality build from a company that knows a thing or two about designing a race-ready machine. But normally there is a higher price of entry, hence the slip down this price-specific list. The Diamondback and GT above cost the same, yet the only mid-range Shimano Deore component on the Trail 4 is its rear derailleur (the Overdrive Comp, for one, has the complete groupset). On the Cannondale, the rest are downgraded Shimano Alivo, which means you get the less user-friendly 3 x 9 crankset.
There’s still a lot to like with the Trail 4, however. The RockShox XC30 is a proven option here for relatively smooth singletrack, and the 100mm of travel is plenty for the non-aggressive rider. WTB’s Nine Line tires are fast rolling and great for XC rides, although we would prefer something a little wider than 2 inches. In all, there are other bikes on this list that we would choose over the Trail 4, but it’s still a solid bike from a beloved brand.
See the Cannondale Trail 4 See the Women's Cannondale Tango 1
Tires: 26 x 4 in.
Gears: 3 x 8
What we like: Amazing traction and rolls over just about anything.
What we don’t: Heavy and slow to respond.
If you’ve never ridden a fat bike, we can’t recommend it enough. They’re a wholly unique mountain biking experience, with their float-over-everything personality. At $799, the Diamondback El Oso de Acero falls in the mid-range of price for these beasts, although it’s the base model of the El Oso line. And unlike the El Oso Grande that made our under $2,000 list, the Acero swaps out the aluminum frame and fork for steel (acero means steel in Spanish). The benefit is a smooth, less rigid ride, but weight is negatively impacted.
The Acero also uses budget-friendly Shimano Alivio components, but they’re plenty competent for the casual riding most folks will be doing. As fat bikes go, the 4-inch tires are on the narrow end, but they remain an excellent choice for snow, mud, and rough trails. As an affordable way to get into the fun of fat biking, we highly recommend the El Oso de Acero.
See the Diamondback El Oso de Acero
|Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29||$999||100mm (front)||29 x 2.2 in.||2 x 10||Aluminum|
|GT Karakoram Elite||$850||100mm (front)||29 x 2.25 in.||3 x 10||Aluminum|
|Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2||$799||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.2 in.||3 x 9||Aluminum|
|Cannondale Cujo 3||$980||120mm (front)||27.5 x 3 in.||2 x 9||Aluminum|
|Specialized Rockhopper Comp 29||$850||80 or 100mm (front)||29 x 2.1 in.||2 x 9||Aluminum|
|Diamondback Recoil Comp||$999||100mm (front and rear)||29 x 2.2 in.||3 x 9||Aluminum|
|Raleigh Tokul 2||$700||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.2 in.||1 x 9||Aluminum|
|Cannondale Trail 4||$980||100mm (front)||27.5 x 2 in.||3 x 9||Aluminum|
|Diamondback El Oso de Acero||$799||None||26 x 4 in.||3 x 8||Steel|
- Tires and Wheel Size
- How Many Gears is Best?
- What About Fat Bikes?
- What Do You Get by Spending More?
Most bikes under $1,000 are not designed to tackle really technical and rough terrain, so they don’t have all that much suspension travel (the amount the suspension fork can compress). As such, differences between models are relatively small: most often it’s a front suspension-only design with travel that ranges from 80mm to 120mm. A 120mm fork is the more capable option in the bumps and off of small drops. Having less suspension travel helps keep weight down, which reflects these bike’s cross-country focus.
SR Suntour is the largest selling bike suspension brand in the world, and their budget-friendly designs are featured heavily on this list. Rockshox makes a few mid-range models that you’ll find here, including the XC30 on the Cannondale Trail 4 and Recon Silver on the Diamondback Overdrive Comp, but most are a little too pricey. If you come down in price closer to $500, expect an off-brand or more basic Suntour design along with less travel.
If you’re considering a full-suspension bike, we recommend giving it some serious thought—or consider upping your budget. The single full-suspension bike on this list, the Diamondback Recoil, has a few of the key compromises: extra weight and downgraded brakes and shifters. For the rear shock itself, the options at this price are very basic, with relatively poor rebound control and sluggish pedaling response.
The old mountain bike standard, the 26-inch wheel and tire combo, has gone from being commonplace to a rarity in only a few short years. For budget bikes, the transition started with the large 29-inch wheels and has since moved to 27.5-inch. This wholesale shift in the industry can be traced to the improvement in rollover, traction, and stability that these larger tires provide.
For 2017, we seem to have stabilized with a mix of 29, 27.5, and the all-new 27.5+ options. Our list for this year includes four 29ers, three 27.5s, one 27.5+, and one 26-inch fat bike. Far and away, the most popular choices are the 29 and 27.5-inch bikes, which are a good set-up for uphill and downhill fun. The 29er remains a dirt dominating option when you can keep the weight in check (like our top pick, the Diamondback Overdrive Comp). And the same bike with 27.5-inch wheels will be a little easier to turn quickly without giving up too much in terms of rollover ability. Smaller bikers may prefer the geometry of the 27.5-inch design, and the opposite goes for tall folks on a 29er. As long as you get a proper size, we think both styles are a great match at this $1,000 price point.
If you’re wanting a nimble and lightweight bike for under $1,000, we recommend keeping it simple: an aluminum frame, front suspension fork, and 27.5-inch or 29-inch wheels. The closer you get to $1,000 with this setup, the lighter weight and more responsive the bike will be. On average, these aluminum hardtails will hover around the 30-pound mark. As long as your expectations are reasonable (don’t expect a twitchy, feathery light carbon race bike experience), you can have a whole lot of fun with a mid-range hardtail.
If you’re trying to pin down an exact weight to compare bikes like-for-like, we’re here to warn you it can be a challenge. Some manufacturers don’t list the information at all, while others will provide a weight but few other details—such as what frame size is being weighed or whether or not pedals are on the bike. REI does provide a median weight for some bikes in their online specs, but it’s still not consistently reported to really use as a basis for comparison. It’s important to understand that within a narrow price range like $900 to $1,000, bikes with similar frame designs, suspension and components will not vary by more than a couple pounds.
As the price goes down, the weight of the bike inevitably will go up. Everything from the crankset and drivetrain to handlebar and seat post gets heavier. And if you elect for a full-suspension bike at this price point, you can expect a pretty hefty bike. While it will undoubtedly be lighter than a bike made 5 to 10 years ago, the rear shock and linkage all add precious pounds to the bottom line.
At first glance, it may appear that having more gears is a good thing—27 is better than 20, right? But that 27-gear (3 in the front, 9 in the rear) ride is actually far less intuitive to use. On the trail you need crisp changes to react to ascents and descents, and swapping from the big to small chain ring in the front is a real time killer—not to mention a lot of excess weight and complexity. If you can find a 2 x 10 bike for under $1,000, that’s a great fit for all-mountain riding, which is why we’re so excited about the Diamondback Overdrive Comp.
The occasional budget bike will have a 1X drivetrain, and an entry-level 1 x 9 or 1 x 10 set-up can work. But 9 or 10 gears, even with a decently large spread, won’t cut it for longer rides with reasonably steep climbs and descents. Eventually, we may kiss the front derailleur goodbye (high-end bikes with 12-speed drivetrains already are), but we predict that technology will take a while to completely takeover the sub-$1,000 bike market.
When they were released to the mass market, few could have predicted the rise of the super wide tire bike. At a time when your typical mountain bike tire was around 2 inches wide, these 4 to 5-inch wide balloons looked downright hilarious. What was even more surprising was how fun the bikes were on the trail. The large tires had seemingly endless amounts of grip and absorbed rough trails with ease. More, they opened up snowy paths for year-round fun, which has made them extremely popular throughout the country, and in the Midwest in particular.
If you’re looking for a casual mountain bike to ride around on occasion and aren’t interested in the absolute fastest thing around, a fat bike like the Diamondback El Oso de Acero is a fun option. But as our only mountain bike, we’re less inclined to say it’s the be-all and end-all answer. The large tires are heavy and dampen some of the enjoyment we get when charging down a stretch of singletrack on a more nimble bike, and it’s the same story lugging a fat bike up a long climb. But fat bikes are unmatched whenever extra flotation or grip is the priority, and particularly when the terrain isn’t too steep.
As a first bike or if you’re unsure about how committed you are to the sport, a bike under $1,000 makes a whole lot of sense. But if you’re thinking about making a long-term purchase or live in an area that is low on smooth and easy trails—such as the rocky, muddy and root-filled Seattle area—it may be worth stretching the budget a little to get a more capable steed.
As we cover in our mountain bikes under $2,000 review, spending that extra $500 to $1,000 does bring a good bump in quality and performance. For one, you get a much wider selection of full-suspension bikes, which are great for tackling technical terrain at speed. More, weight is less of an issue, although you still aren’t seeing anything made with lightweight carbon fiber just yet. And finally, all components are of a higher quality, which translates to not just increased trail performance but also durability and lifespan.
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