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 2019.
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.25 in.
Gears: 1 x 10
What we like: Quality components and a fun ride.
What we don't: Some may wish for a wider gear range.
Kona has built its reputation on bikes that are fun to ride and have smart component choices, all while hitting acceptable price points. For 2019, their Mahuna is about as good as it gets in the under $1,000 category. You get a fairly modern 1 x 10 Shimano drivetrain, meaty 29-inch wheels and 2.25-inch WTB tires, and a grin-inducing geometry. Its relatively relaxed head tube angle (68 degrees) inspires confidence when the trail points down, but is not so slack that low-speed trails become a chore. Top it all off with a 100-millimeter RockShox air fork, and the Mahuna has all the ingredients for a fun and fast hardtail.
One of the great things about the Kona Mahuna is that it will grow with you as your riding improves. In fact, one of our more experienced riders reported, “this is one of the few mountain bikes at this price point that I would actually want to ride on a trail.” The smart spec choices and modern geometry should keep you happy for many miles, and Kona’s lifetime frame warranty inspires confidence for the $999 investment. All in all, if you’re looking for a singletrack-worthy mountain bike at a reasonable price point, it’s hard to beat the Kona Mahuna.
See the Kona Mahuna
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
What we like: Great value and impressive components.
What we don't: Slightly outdated geometry; limited suspension.
As with Kona above, we’ve found that Giant consistently produces quality bikes at very competitive prices, and their Talon 29 2 is a standout example. To start, the Talon features a Shimano 2 x 9 —something few bikes, if any, are able to accomplish at a $720 price point. And finding quality tires on such an affordable bike is a struggle, but the Talon features the very popular, durable, and versatile Maxxis Ikons. Tack on the 100-millimeter travel fork and hydraulic disc brakes from Tektro, and the Giant Talon 29 2 has a strong appeal for aspiring XC riders on a budget.
So why do we rank the Talon 29 below the Mahuna? Simply put, the Kona is a more modern hardtail with higher quality components. The current trend for mountain bikes has been to get longer and slacker, and the Mahuna follows suit while the Talon is a bit dated with a shorter reach. Further, the Mahuna features a RockShox air fork, which offers almost infinite adjustability for all sizes of riders, while the Talon features a less adjustable coil spring that takes a “one size fits most” approach. We give the edge to the Kona as an all-around singletrack-worthy bike, but for $279 less, the Giant is a great option for more XC-oriented riders.
See the Giant Talon 29 2
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.25 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
What we like: Modern geometry and mixed wheel sizes for smaller riders.
What we don't: Less impressive components, but $100 more than the Talon above.
The big news from Cannondale for 2019 is their revamped full-suspension Habit, but there’s a lot to like with their budget-friendly Trail line. The new mid-range 6 comes in at $825 and has been thoroughly modernized with a longer and slacker geometry. Outfitted with a 2 x 9 Shimano Acera derailleur, trusty Shimano MT200 hydraulic disc brakes, and sharp looks, and you have a strong all-around machine. Additionally, the size small frame comes with 27.5-inch wheels rather than 29-inch wheels, making the Trail 6 a viable option for shorter riders. It’s not as capable as the Mahuna above, but the Trail 6 is an excellent option for recreational riders or those just starting out.
At its full $825 MSRP, the Trail 6 falls a bit short in terms of value compared with the Talon above. The Giant features a very good Shimano Deore rear derailleur and Acera shifters, whereas the Trail 6 drivetrain is made up of downgraded Shimano Acera and Alivio components. All in all, it’s over $100 more but with less impressive parts. And while the Talon might not have quite as modern of geometry, we think its superior Shimano drivetrain offers an impressive value for discerning buyers. Despite the complaints, Cannondale has made big strides in appealing to a wider audience with the thoroughly modern Trail 6, earning it one of our top spots for 2019.
See the Cannondale Trail 6
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 3 x 9
What we like: Great price and convenient REI warranty.
What we don’t: Not as skillful on the trail as the models above.
REI’s Co-op Cycles (formerly Novara) offers a pretty complete line-up of hardtail mountain bikes with wallet-friendly prices and good feature sets, and the DRT 1.2 is our favorite model under $1,000. The bike’s maneuverable 27.5-inch wheels and solid 120-millimeters of front suspension (20mm more than the options above) easily navigate over and around small roots and rocks that litter the trail, making this a great option for beginner and intermediate level riders. And for those that spend time on smooth gravel roads or bike paths, the remote fork lockout is a nice touch. Adding to the value equation, the DRT 1.2 includes premium features like internal cable routing for a clean look, and it’s set up to accommodate a dropper post (not included, but you can add one later on).
At over 31 pounds and with a 3 x 9 drivetrain, the DRT 1.2 isn’t as nimble or as capable of a bike as the Kona or Giant above. Plus, the majority of the components are a step down in quality, for a relatively small difference in price. If you’re on the hunt for your first “real” mountain bike, the DRT 1.2 certainly does the trick and also comes with the security of REI’s excellent warranty. But if you’re willing to stretch your budget a little, we highly recommend the Kona Mahuna above, which is noticeably more capable on the trail.
See the Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2 See the Women's Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2W
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 3 x 7
What we like: Versatile feature set for XC riding, bike paths, and commuting.
What we don't: Heavy and budget components.
With its sleek-looking frame and clean internal cable routing, we think Trek’s Marlin 5 is one of the better-looking bikes here. And while appearances can only get you so far, Trek backed up the bike’s good looks with a number of worthy features. If you use your rig for commuting or touring, the Marlin 5 features rear rack mounts—an uncommon sight among mountain bikes. And while the Shimano 3 x 7 drivetrain isn’t very modern, it will reliably get you from point A to B without issues. Add it all up, and the Trek Marlin 5 makes for a great mixed-use trail bike or burly commuter.
What do you give up with the budget-friendly Marlin 5? Despite its simple and XC-race-inspired design, the hefty 32-pound weight ensures you won’t be getting to the top of the hill all too quickly. Additionally, its cheap component mix is outdated, and the 3 x 7 drivetrain has a relatively small gear range. All told, the Marlin 5 is great for gravel paths and fun bike commutes, but you’ll need to stretch the budget a little more to get something truly trail worthy.
See the Trek Marlin 5
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.3 in.
Gears: 1 x 9
What we like: Tough build and comfortable, wide handlebars.
What we don’t: 1 x 9 drivetrain requires good fitness.
The Diamondback Line 27.5 is spec’d to impress, with a modern, low-slung geometry that’s comfortable in the steeps. We particularly like the bike’s sturdy aluminum frame that’s built to take a beating, and the inclusion of wide, 750-millimeter bars help get you into a comfortable position for both climbing and descending. Tack on a 120-millimeter Suntour fork and hydraulic brakes from Shimano, and the Line has a strong appeal for aspiring aggressive riders on a budget.
The Line has taken a drop in our rankings for 2019, however, because of a couple significant downgrades to the build. For one, Diamondback ditched the stiff thru-axle that we loved on the old version and replaced it with less burly, quick-release hubs. Further, the new Vee brand tires can’t match the overall quality and grip from the aggressive WTB rubber on the 2018 bike. Finally, while the omission of a front derailleur is commonplace for lightweight and expensive designs, we think it’s a bit of a stretch here: the 1 x 9 drivetrain requires decent fitness and its gear ratio is too small. As an all-around trail bike or for cross-country use, we still give the edge to the Kona Mahuna above, but the Diamondback Line offers a compelling mix of toughness and price.
See the Diamondback Line 27.5
Suspension: 75mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.25 in.
Gears: 3 x 7
What we like: Surprisingly good build for the price.
What we don't: Heavy and ponderous on the trail.
Stepping down in price and performance from the Trail 6 above is Cannondale’s Catalyst 3. This simple bike is nicely-tuned for gravel paths and light trail work with a 3 x 7 Shimano drivetrain, mechanical disc brakes, and a Suntour front fork. The components are a notable downgrade from our top picks, but the bike has a solid feel overall that you don’t expect for the price. And nice touches like attachment points for fenders or a rack and a total of four size options to get a good fit make the Catalyst our favorite mountain bike under $500.
Considering the cost, it’s not surprising there are a fair number of compromises with the Catalyst. First off, you get the least amount of suspension travel on our list at 75 millimeters (excluding the rigid Diamondback below), and the Suntour coil fork isn’t very adjustable or refined in general. Another thing that sticks out is the sheer heft of the bike—cheap components are very heavy, and they contribute to a sluggish personality on the trail. That said, the Catalyst checks the right boxes for casual riders that want a dependable bike from an established brand.
See the Cannondale Catalyst 3
Suspension: 80, 90, or 100mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.1 in.
Gears: 3 x 8
What we like: Great versatility for both XC and downhill.
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 legendary Rockhopper line of hardtail bikes ranges from $560 to $1,300, and at the lower end is the $710 Rockhopper Sport. 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, 90, or 100 millimeters of travel (depending on the frame size) and 2.1-inch rear tire are tuned for moderate XC trails, but the Rockhopper is still a lot of fun when moving fast.
From a value perspective, the Rockhopper Sport does fall a short of our top picks. Its $710 full retail price is a near match to the Giant Talon 29 2, but the components are a step down across the board. In particular, the 3 x 8 gearing isn’t up to the standards of either the Talon or the Cannondale Trail 6. 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 Giant Talon is the better buy.
See the Specialized Rockhopper Sport
Tires: 26 x 4 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
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 $750, the Diamondback El Oso Uno falls in the mid-range of price for these beasts, although it’s the base model of the El Oso line. And unlike the upgraded El Oso Dos, the Uno swaps out the aluminum frame and fork for steel. The benefit is a smooth, less rigid ride, but weight is negatively impacted.
In addition to its heavy frame, the Uno uses budget-friendly Shimano Acera 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 a solid choice for hardpack snow, mud, and bumpy trails. Overall, the El Oso isn't a standout in terms of performance, but it serves as a quality and affordable way to get into the fun of fat biking.
See the Diamondback El Oso Uno
|Kona Mahuna||$999||100mm (front)||29 x 2.25 in.||1 x 10||Aluminum|
|Giant Talon 29 2||$720||100mm (front)||29 x 2.2 in.||2 x 9||Aluminum|
|Cannondale Trail 6||$825||100mm (front)||29 x 2.25 in.||2 x 9||Aluminum|
|Co-op Cycles DRT 1.2||$799||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.2 in.||3 x 9||Aluminum|
|Trek Marlin 5||$540||100mm (front)||29 x 2.2 in.||3 x 7||Aluminum|
|Diamondback Line 27.5||$750||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.3 in.||1 x 9||Aluminum|
|Cannondale Catalyst 3||$460||75mm (front)||27.5 x 2.25 in.||3 x 7||Aluminum|
|Specialized Rockhopper Sport||$710||80, 90, 100mm (front)||29 x 2.1 in.||3 x 8||Aluminum|
|Diamondback El Oso Uno||$750||None||26 x 4 in.||2 x 9||Steel|
- Tires and Wheel Size
- How Many Gears is Best?
- What About Fat Bikes?
- What Do You Get by Spending More?
- Buying a Mountain Bike Online
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. Manitou and RockShox make a few mid-range models that you’ll find here, including the 30 Silver TK on the Kona Mahuna, but most are a little too pricey. If you come down in price closer to $500, such as the Cannondale Catalyst 3 above, expect an off-brand or more basic Suntour design and less travel.
If you’re thinking about a full-suspension bike, we recommend giving it some serious thought—or consider upping your budget. There are significant compromises with adding a rear shock at this price point, including 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 2019, we seem to have stabilized with a mix of 29, 27.5, and the new 27.5+ options. Our list for this year includes five 29ers, three 27.5s, 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 Kona Mahuna). 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 riders may prefer the fit 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 $800 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 shifts 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 1 x 11 or 1 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 Kona Mahuna.
The occasional budget bike will have a 1X drivetrain with 8 or 9 gears, which is certainly functional for a lot of uses. But that few gears, even with a decently large spread, won’t cut it for longer rides with reasonably steep climbs and descents. In those cases, we prefer a 2 x 9 for more versatility. Eventually, we may kiss the front derailleur goodbye (high-end bikes with 11 and 12-speed drivetrains have the past few years), but we predict that technology will take a while to completely takeover the sub-$1,000 bike market.
One of the most notable improvements for bikes in the sub $1,000 price range in recent years is the inclusion of disc brakes. As technology has trickled down from more high-level products and manufacturing processes have been simplified, mechanically-operated rim brakes are becoming a thing of the past. Disc brakes offer considerably more stopping power, especially important when riding in muddy and wet conditions. There’s nothing worse than grabbing a handful of brake on technical singletrack only to find yourself squealing to a slow stop. But this isn’t just handy for those “oh crap” situations—in general, disc brakes require less effort to use, allowing riders to focus on the trail ahead instead of the brakes themselves. You’ll still find rim brakes on some inexpensive low-quality hardtails, but Cannondale’s $460 Catalyst 3 proves disc brakes can come standard on even the most budget models.
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. Further, 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 Uno 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, an option 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 Pacific Northwest—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. Additionally, 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.
If you’ve been paying attention to the bike industry for the last couple of years you’ll have noticed a shift in how bikes are being sold. Many big brands like Diamondback, Trek, and Giant now offer online checkout options, and large retailers like REI and Backcountry provide similar services for myriad other brands. While we love the idea of buying a bike online for its low-pressure atmosphere and convenience, we think it’s important to consider a number of factors first. For example: does the bike come assembled? Will I have to pay an oversize shipping fee? What happens if something is broken? And most importantly, how do I know if the bike fits me?
One of the first hurdles to buying online is getting the correct size. While nothing beats throwing a leg over a bike in person, companies almost always provide a size chart online that can be pretty reliable for nailing the right fit. Competitive Cyclist takes it one step further with their online fit calculator, which can be an invaluable resource. And if you currently own a bike, take note of how it fits and use that information for your next purchase. All told, the resources are there for you to get a well-sized bike without “trying it on.”
Once you receive the bike on your doorstep, it will require some assembly out of the box. The majority of companies include a few basic tools, but you still need a fair bit of skill and knowledge to safely put your new toy together. If DIY isn’t your forté, many bike shops offer build services, and online programs like Diamondback’s Ready Ride provide stellar customer service and tutorials. And at the other end of the spectrum are companies like REI, which allow you to purchase online and pick up in store—this may be the best of both worlds as you can ensure a proper fit before taking the bike home. All in all, buying online is not as nerve-wracking as it might seem—just make sure you take the time to do the research, find the right fit, and finally, hedge your bets by purchasing from a reputable retailer with a good return policy.
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