Mountain biking can be a very expensive sport: there are hundreds of excellent bikes available for $4,000 to $6,000 and those aren’t even at the highest end of the price spectrum. Fortunately for those not ready to drop that kind of coin on something without a motor, there are plenty of great bikes available in 2018 for under or around $2,000, and much of the technology that has pushed the sport year over year has trickled down into this category. If mountain biking is a new sport or you don’t anticipate getting out every week, this is a great place to start looking. For background information, check out our comprison table and buying advice found below the picks. And for those sticking to a stricter budget, see our article on the best mountain bikes under $1,000.
Suspension: 150mm (front) 130mm (rear)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.3 in.
Gears: 1 x 10
What we like: Capable full-suspension design at a great price.
What we don’t: You may want to eventually upgrade some components.
Diamondback has a knack for designing wallet-friendly but impressively capable bikes, and one of their best products yet is the Release. This full-suspension design is a nearly ideal entry-level build for getting into the all-mountain and enduro scene. The geometry puts you in a comfortable position for climbing and descending, the combination of a 150mm front fork and 130mm rear shock provide a lot of confidence on rough trails, and trusty Shimano hydraulic brakes keep speed in check. The components in general are on the budget end, but the Release’s high-end frame is an excellent blank canvas for future upgrades.
What are the downsides of the Release 1? First off, weight is on the heavy side for long slogs at over 32 pounds. Additionally, the Suntour Aion fork is a notable downgrade from the Rockshox Pike that you get on the $500 more expensive Release 2. And finally, serious riders will likely want to add a dropper post, but you can still keep your all-in price under $2,000 (before tax) by picking up a quality design like the $199 X Fusion Manic.
See the Diamondback Release 1 27.5
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 29 x 2.3 in.
Gears: 1 x 11
What we like: Great blend of proven and new technology.
What we don’t: You pay extra for the Santa Cruz brand.
One of our all-time favorite mountain biking brands, Santa Cruz simply never disappoints. The Chameleon is their entry-level ride, and is as fast and trail capable of a bike as you will find in this price range. And the componentry isn’t half bad either. You get a user-friendly RockShox Recon front fork that’s a strong performer in this field, and a 1 x 11 crankset that’s equally adept at long climbs or rolling XC trails. There’s nothing breakthrough in the design, and the derailleurs and shifters are a slight step down compared with some others on this list, but it’s a proven build that’s good, honest fun.
Who should opt for the Santa Cruz Chameleon? Its strong downhill performance and simple setup and maintenance make it a great choice for serious riders needing a winter steed. And the comfortable geometry and 27-pound weight make it a fine choice for covering serious miles. It’s not the screaming deal like some of the other bikes on this list, but we can’t help but love the overall design and solid performance of the Chameleon.
See the Santa Cruz Chameleon
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.8 in.
Gears: 1 x 11
What we like: Solid all-around plus-size hardtail design.
What we don’t: We'd upgrade the tires and brakes.
At just over $1,000, Salsa’s Timberjack NX1 is the least expensive model to make our list. But it still packs a serious punch: The new Timberjack frame is thoroughly modern and feels very quick on the trail, the plus-sized 2.8-inch tires are extremely confidence inspiring in the steeps, and 1 x 11 gearing is a great match for hilly rides. And as with many Salsa bikes, the Timberjack is set up to be easily converted for bikepacking with attachment points for a rear rack and customizable drivetrain.
Unsurprisingly, the Salsa’s affordable price tag comes with a few compromises. In this field, the Rockshox Judy fork doesn’t feel as plush, the Tektro hydraulics don’t offer as much bite, and the WTB Ranger tires prioritize fast rolling over all-out grip. Upgrading to the Timberjack SLX addresses most of these issues, but that comes with a hefty $600 increase in price.
See the Salsa Timberjack NX1 27.5+
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.8 in.
Gears: 1 x 11
What we like: Quality components throughout.
What we don’t: Less aggressive stance than other hardtails on this list.
Last year, REI completely revamped their biking lineup under a new name: Co-op Cycles. Sitting at the top of their current mountain bike collection is the DRT 2.1. As with REI’s previous bike designs, you get a lot of bang for your buck with the 2.1. The $1,599 2.1 model includes Shimano’s high quality SLX component group, a supple 120mm X Fusion front fork, and mid-fat 27.5 x 2.8-inch tires. About the only thing missing is a dropper post, but the DRT 2.1 has the internal routing necessary to add one down the road.
The DRT 2.1’s quality components and comfortable stance are a great pairing for XC use, but aggressive riders will be left wanting. The 120mm hardtail design can’t keep up on the downhill with the longer and slacker Diamondback Mason below. And springing for the full-suspension DB Release 1 above sets you up better for the long term. But if you want a well-equipped hardtail that’s ready to roll right out of the box, the DRT 2.1 is a great option.
See the Co-op Cycles DRT 2.1
Tires: 26 x 3.8 in.
Gears: 1 x 11
What we like: Lightweight fat bike design.
What we don’t: No suspension is limiting on rough terrain.
Carbon fiber is typically reserved for bikes costing $3,000 and up, but Salsa’s Beargrease Carbon slips onto our list at $1,999. We’ll start with the bad news: the fully rigid fat bike build means this will not be your one-quiver mountain steed. But the Beargrease’s stiff carbon frame and fork, aggressive 3.8-inch wide tires, and comfortable cockpit make it an excellent pairing for long adventure rides in all 4 seasons.
The Beargrease’s lightweight frame and modestly wide tires—for a fat bike—give it a very nimble feel. That said, there are still limitations on rough descents with the rigid fork, and you’ll feel the tire’s extra weight on a sustained climb. Additionally, the SRAM NX1 drivetrain is the same setup that you get with the $1,000 cheaper Salsa Timberjack NX1. But if you want fat bike capabilities at a very light weight, the Beargrease deserves a look.
See the Salsa Beargrease Carbon NX1
Suspension: 120mm (front)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.8 in.
Gears: 1 x 11
What we like: Aggressive stance and impressive performance.
What we don’t: Not as adept on the uphill.
Proving that a hardtail doesn’t have to be demoted to easy rolling singletrack, the Diamondback Mason is built with big-time descents in mind. With a slack geometry and big 27.5-inch plus wheels, the Mason is a supremely confident handler. Bolstering its year-round performance are 2.8-inch Maxxis Minion tires, which, while a bit heavier than traditional 2 to 2.3-inch rubber, offer a wide contact patch for improved grip. Mid-range shifters are solid performers, and although the SRAM disc brakes aren’t our favorite—we prefer Shimano hydraulics in this category—they still have a consistently good bite.
One thing to keep in mind is that the laid back geometry does make the Mason a bit of a grinder on long climbs, but once everything turns downhill, it’s easy to forgive and forget. We loved the previous Mason, which ran on big 29er wheels, and the switch to 27.5+ only ups its fun factor. A price that’s under $1,400 sure doesn’t hurt.
See the Diamondback Mason 2 27.5+
Suspension: 130mm (front) 130mm (rear)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.2 in.
Gears: 2 x 10
What we like: Affordable and soft-riding full-suspension design.
What we don’t: Notable downgrade in performance compared with the DB Release.
Ghost is a German bike company that is only just getting its feet wet in the US market, and we’re happy to have them, thanks to a great bang for the buck. Case in point: the 2018 Kato FS 2.7 27.5. For a very competitive $1,699, you get a solid first-timers full suspension setup. With disc brakes, reliable components, and enough suspension travel to tackle all but the most technical stuff out there it’s the real deal.
Outside of the Kato’s 130mm front and rear suspension, there isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking about the design. But it all works well and has a light and nimble feel. And getting a 10-speed rear cassette is a nice bonus when many full-suspension bikes at this price point are 9-speed. Our only real complaint is the quick release front skewer. Compared with 15mm thru axles, which are well on their way to becoming the industry standard, the quick-release setups aren’t as stiff—something you can feel when riding aggressively over rough terrain. But considering the price, this is an expected compromise and does little to temper our enthusiasm for a good budget full-suspension bike.
See the Ghost Kato FS 2.7 27.5
Suspension: 100mm (front)
Tires: 26 x 4.5 in.
Gears: 2 x 10
What we like: Fat bike fun with front suspension.
What we don’t: Heavy and ponderous handling.
Fat bikes took the industry by storm with their phenomenal grip and cartoonish looks. The 4 to 5-inch wide tires take you comfortably over and through previously unheard of trail obstacles, floating over sand, snow and rocks with relative ease. Diamondback’s El Oso is a nicely appointed fat bike that’s built to thrive in rough Midwestern winters and still be fun when things thaw out. The frame has been stiffened for trail (ab)use, you get a 100mm front fork, and Shimano 180mm disc brakes front and rear are confidence inspiring.
Let’s be clear, however, as your daily driver mountain bike, fat bikes aren’t for everyone. While the roll-over-anything personality is its own kind of fun, it’s not as huck-able or playful as a traditional mountain bike. And the tires still aren’t a complete replacement for a quality full suspension that absorbs techy trail sections. But if you aren’t out to set a PR and just want to have a good time in the sand, snow, and muck the El Oso is a winner.
See the Diamondback El Oso
Suspension: 120mm (front) 120mm (rear)
Tires: 27.5 x 2.4 in.
Gears: 2 x 9
What we like: Great price for a full-suspension bike.
What we don’t: Significant downgrade in components.
We rarely recommend a full-suspension bike that comes in around $1,500—they’re typically too compromised in design—but the Stance 2 earns a spot on this list as a surprisingly capable rig. Outfitted with 120mm mid-range X Fusion shocks at the front and rear, the Stance is smooth on the trail, further aided by its Shimano hydraulic brakes. The bike does have a dated geometry and doesn’t feel as confident on steep descents, but the cushioned ride is a nice consolation.
As one would expect at the price, the component group is a step down, but they remain decent Shimano stuff. The biggest sacrifices are the old 2 x 9 drivetrain and fairly heavy and slow feel on the trail. But, the Stance does surprisingly come with a dropper post, which only increases its value proposition. We think it’s worth spending a few hundred more for the Ghost or Diamondback options above, but if you’re set on getting a new full-suspension bike for $1,500, the Stance is a fine choice.
See the Giant Stance 2
|Diamondback Release 1 27.5||$1,800||150mm (front) 130mm (rear)||27.5 x 2.3 in.||1 x 10||Aluminum|
|Santa Cruz Chameleon||$1,699||120mm (front)||29 x 2.3 in.||1 x 11||Aluminum|
|Salsa Timberjack NX 27.5+||$1,099||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.8 in.||1 x 11||Aluminum|
|REI Co-op DRT 2.1||$1,599||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.8 in.||1 x 11||Aluminum|
|Salsa Beargrease Carbon NX1||$1,999||None||26 x 3.8 in.||1 x 11||Carbon fiber|
|Diamondback Mason 2 27.5+||$1,300||120mm (front)||27.5 x 2.8 in.||1 x 11||Aluminum|
|Ghost Kato FS 2.7 27.5||$1,699||130mm (front) 130mm (rear)||27.5 x 2.2 in.||2 x 10||Aluminum|
|Diamondback El Oso||$1,499||100mm (front)||26 x 4.5 in.||2 x 10||Aluminum|
|Giant Stance 2||$1,500||120mm (front) 120mm (rear)||27.5 x 2.4 in.||2 x 9||Aluminum|
- Full Suspension or Hardtail?
- Wheel Size: 27.5 vs. 29er
- 27.5 Plus (Mid-Fat) and Fat Bikes
- How Many Gears is Best?
In the $1,000 to $2,000 range, you’ll find yourself weighing a number of options, and the most significant may be rear suspension. Thus the question: is the extra cushion worth the added weight and complexity? A big consideration is where you typically ride. Rear suspension isn’t that necessary when your trails aren’t particularly rough, and a lightweight hardtail can actually be more fun and flickable on well-groomed trails. But in places like the rock and root-filled Pacific Northwest, full suspension can be the difference between a fun ride and an emergency root canal.
The extra costs involved in designing and building a rear suspension, along with the extra shock all add up to added costs that a similarly priced hardtail doesn’t have to account for. As a result, you’ll see notable upgrades in terms of components—particularly shifters and brakes. For example, our top full suspension pick, the Diamondback Release 1, comes with a 1 x 10 drivetrain, while the hardtail Santa Cruz Chameleon includes a nicer 1 x 11 setup. These higher-end components are typically smoother operating and longer-lasting. You just get more bike for the money if you can do without a rear shock.
Another factor to consider is long-term maintenance. Many folks will pick up a hardtail as a wet weather or winter bike because the rear linkage of a full suspension bike is just one more thing to take care of. The additional pivots, bearings, and bushings require cleaning, re-greasing and general love to keep from seizing up or rusting out. When you come off the hill with bike and body completely covered in mud, it’s sometimes nice to simplify the cleanup. That’s when a bike like the Diamondback Mason or the Santa Cruz Chameleon really comes in handy. Those hardtails are able to keep pace with full suspension models on many trails. All that being said, for folks that want a single bike to get them through the toughest terrain, it's hard to beat a quality full suspension design.
A number of factors will decide how a bike behaves on the trail, such as its geometry, but there are a few general truths we can point out in differentiating the two wheel standards. And in the sub-$2,000 price range, you’ll see the characteristics further exaggerated. As an example, an $8,000 carbon 29er will probably feel plenty nimble and fast, but at a more affordable $2k price with a heavier aluminum frame, components, and wheels and tires, it’ll often feel a bit more sluggish than its 27.5-inch sibling. The pros and cons listed below are a great starting point to narrow your search:
27.5 (or 650b)
Opt for the smaller wheel size if you’re looking for a bike that responds eagerly to quick inputs. It’s often a less isolating ride and you feel more control in the tighter sections than a comparable 29er. The downside is a step down in grip, and, while the larger wheel is better at taming technical single track than the old 26-inch wheel, it isn’t as huck-able as those older bikes. The industry has determined, however, that those pros outweigh the compromises made in the change. 27.5 also is a great choice for smaller riders, when a 29er can feel unwieldy and gives the impression you’re a kid borrowing your parents bike for the day.
You’ll hear the term “rollover” used a lot in describing a 29er, and it’s a fair point. The taller wheels have a more favorable attack angle so they aren’t as affected by rocks and roots or other trail roughage as a smaller wheel, which lends to a more stable feel. This comes at the sacrifice of some quickness and playfulness in the tight stuff as well as some extra weight. Wheelsets are heavier in this more entry/mid level category, and a 29ers greater "wheel" estate translates to extra heft to drag up a long climb. A $2,000 29er is less of a grin maker than a comparable 27.5 bike (or the old 26-inch), but is a stable companion that often makes a hardtail or a XC full suspension outperform expectations when the going gets rough.
First there was the 29er, then came the 27.5, and now we have the 27.5 Plus. The first two refer simply to wheel diameter, while the final one tacks on an indicator of tire width. The “plus” tires are referred to as mid-fat or a plus bike, and fall in-between the standard 2 to 2.3-inch mountain bike tires and the true 5 inchers that you find on a fat bike. The benefits of a wider tire include increased stability, greater trail comfort, and traction. Obviously with more rubber comes more weight, and mid-range bikes that are already a little heavy can feel even more ponderous. Done right, like the hardtail Diamondback Mason and Salsa Timberjack NX1 27.5+, these wide tires do wonders for grip with few negatives.
Unlike plus bikes, a fat bike will probably not become your everyday mountain steed. They’re undoubtedly fun, but remain a niche model best used in specific environments: snow, sand, and backcountry travel. The super wide width won’t set any speed records—it’s all about grip and rollover abilities here.
Weight is an unfortunate area of sacrifice at this price point. All of the fancy technology and materials that drive mountain bike weights lower and lower have a significantly higher cost of entry. For casual riders, it’s less of an issue, but if your rides involve extended climbs up fire roads or single track, the excess weight can be a factor. If weight is one of your top priorities and you’re trying to stick to a budget, a hardtail might be your best choice. These bikes consistently do better in managing their heft, with most weighing around or under 30 pounds, simply because there’s more leftover cash in the design budget when you don’t have to include a pricey rear shock and linkage.
One way to trim weight from your bike is transitioning to a tubeless setup. Removing the tubes cuts away that all-important rotational weight, and can be done really cheaply. More, you can run at a lower PSI, which increases traction. Many of the bikes on this list have tubeless ready tires, but you’ll also need to verify the rims are compatible. It’s possible to set up a standard rim tubeless, but the process can be a little arduous the first few times (trust us).
At first glance, it may appear that having more gears is a good thing—20 is better than 11, right? But that 20-gear (2 x 10 crankset) ride is actually a pain to use. On the trail you need crisp changes to react to rapid ascents and descents, and swapping from the big to small chain ring in the front is a real time killer—not to mention excess weight and complexity. As manufacturers have found, a 1 x 11 drivetrain is the current sweet spot at this price with a wide enough but manageable range to handle the ups and downs (literally) of mountain biking. There are a few bikes around $2,000 still made with a front derailleur, including the Ghost Kato FS 2.7 on this list, which is a good way for manufacturers to keep costs down. As the industry continues to adopt larger rear cassettes (many high-end bikes come with a 1 x 12), look for the front derailleur to become completely extinct even for bikes under $2,000.
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