Despite their similar pricing, we found some dramatic performance differences in this year’s crop of sub-US$1,000 mountain bikes (James Huang/BikeRadar)

What a difference a year makes for some mountain
bike manufacturers. There are two bikes our 2012 best mountain bikes under $1000 test that managed to beat Felt, who
took the honors last year with their $999 Nine Sport, a model that’s pretty
much stayed the same for 2012. That means the bikes in this category are
getting better.

Some have vastly improved, so much so that
we wonder if they read and took BikeRadar’s 2011 review to heart.
Trek are the best example here. Last year they offered up a nice frame and one
of the best forks in the test on their Mamba.
But from the cockpit to the drivetrain, the supporting package pulled the bike
down to the bottom of the bunch.

This year, Trek keep the high-quality frame
and fork — RockShox XC 32 TK, previously known as Tora. But they also add a
solid drivetrain and the best brakes in the test — Shimano M446 hydraulic
discs. The work that their product managers have put into the 2012 Trek Mamba
is rewarded with BikeRadar’s gold award.

Diamondback’s Overdrive Comp 29er stood in
close contention for best all-round package. They’ve been able to offer the
same fork as you get on the Trek Mamba but with a remote lockout – ours was
missing, though — and the only 10-speed drivetrain in the test.

Both Felt and Scott have delivered bikes
that are very similar to last year’s entries, if not exactly the same. Felt’s Nine Sport is a very worthy full package, which won our test last year. Scott offer the
best frame in the test, notably improved even from last year’s entry, but the
sub-par suspension fork keeps the Scott Scale
one component away from the whole deal.

UK readers shouldn’t feel left out — we’ve already published BikeRadar guides to the Best Mountain Bikes Under
and Best Mountain Bikes Under

2012′s top four mountain bikes under $1000



return to this year’s test with the best frame and fork combination. The modern
geometry feels playful at lower speeds yet stable when the pace is hotting up.
Ride quality is impressively refined for such an inexpensive chassis, and the
fork is stiff, well controlled and reasonably adjustable.

product managers have now given the solid foundation a far more competitive
parts package, too. It includes an all-Shimano drivetrain (albeit a 3×9 one
with a 34T cog out back), silky Shimano hydraulic disc brakes and easily
serviceable and fully adjustable Shimano hubs front and rear. Trek only earned
minus marks for the Bontrager tires, which were remarkably grippy but way too
narrow. Otherwise, this was far and away the most entertaining bike on test.

  • Standout features: Sorted frame
    geometry with custom-offset fork, Shimano hydraulic disc brakes,
    appropriately wide and flat handlebars
  • Pros: The most
    complete package overall, with a light and playful feel, genuinely capable
    fork and virtually flawless Shimano parts
  • Cons: Narrow tires
    require more air pressure to prevent pinch flats

Weight: 13.91kg/30.66lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.33kg/11.75lb (complete w/ tires, tubes,
skewers, cassette, rotors)

Scott Scale 29 Comp


Scott have put together the most
contemporary package in our 2012 test. Everything pertaining to the fit and
handling of the bike is dialed, not just in terms of this test but in the
greater scheme of modern 29ers. This covers the geometry through to the cockpit
dimensions. In fact, the Scale Comp shares geometry and frame design with the
top Scale
29 RC
. Note the chainstay-mounted rear brake, too.

Fit and handling are further aided by the
fact that this is the lightest 29er on test. A solid mix of components includes
good brakes, great tires and a solid drivetrain with Shimano’s SLX
derailleur. This combination bolsters performance.

Why didn’t the Scale 29 win, then? Well,
the 100mm travel Suntour XCR fork has fixed rebound damping that doesn’t do the
job on the trail. A new fork would tack on a fair amount to the bike’s price
tag, so it’s a tough sell. Scott are one component away from the top slot.

  • Standout features: Frame
    geometry and details, drivetrain, Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires
  • Pros:
    Best-handling bike on test, apart from the fork
  • Cons:
    Poor-suspension fork dampens the experience
  • Weight: 13.03kg/28.72lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.91kg/10.82lb (complete
    w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Felt Nine Sport


mostly unchanged 2012 Nine Sport brought with it most of the traits that earned
it the top spot last year – agile handling, a light and fast feel, a
legitimately functional fork with adjustable, hydraulic rebound damping and
solid parts.

It might
not be the most appealing bike on paper, with its square-taper crank, slightly
basic aluminum frame and smaller-diameter RockShox XC 28 fork. But the Nine
Sport still scored points where it counts.

other bikes in the test crashed over rocks and flat-out rode ‘heavy’, the Felt
managed to glide over the rough and seem lighter than it is.

was on the quick side but the bigger tires and cushier frame still made for
impressive stability at high speed, not to mention a surprising amount of
comfort for a hardtail. We were disappointed to see last year’s WTB Prowler
tires replaced by faster-rolling but far less grippy Geax AKAs, though.

  • Standout features: Smooth-riding
    frame, reasonably capable fork, solid drivetrain, brakes with 180mm front
  • Pros: A
    well-balanced package that demonstrates how the whole can be more than the
    sum of its parts
  • Cons: Wooden-feeling
    brakes, square-taper crank, 32T rear cog, sketchy Geax AKA tires
  • Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.12kg/11.29lb (complete
    w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Diamondback Overdrive Comp 29er


their first inclusion in our sub-$1,000 bike test, Diamondback bring possibly
the most impressive package to our 2012 test. They’ve checked just about every
box, from solid geometry to best component specification.

heartily recommend the Overdrive Comp 29er, and believe that it will serve any
beginner or budget mountain biker well.

The one
place where it lost ground to the Trek Mamba was its trail feel. Most testers
commented that it felt heavier and sluggish out on the trail, attributes that
can be related to its longer chainstays, wheelbase and the fact it has the
heaviest wheelset in the test.

It shares
the best fork in the test — the RockShox XC 32 — with the Trek Mamba. It’s also
the only bike in the group with 10-speed and a contemporary 36T low cog on the

  • Standout features: RockShox’ XC
    32, 10-speed SRAM X5 drivetrain with 36T cog
  • Pros: Good brakes,
    tires and cockpit components, hung from a frame with adequate geometry
  • Cons: Heaviest
    wheelset in the test, sluggish trail feel
  • Weight: 13.72kg/30.24lb (without pedals). Wheelset:
    5.48kg/12lb (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

the rest…

Trail SL 3


As the
only 26er bike on test, the Cannondale benefited from the nimblest handling
feel and quickest acceleration. It was bolstered by the heavily shaped aluminum
frame and unusual-at-this-price 1.5in steerer tube.

Deuce Coil fork is well controlled, stiff and sports weight-saving aluminum
stanchions. The Shimano drivetrain and hydraulic disc
brakes were among the best on test, too.

But the
26in wheels and disappointingly narrow tires also made for a sketchy feel at
high speed, and a bumpier ride. We’d also like to see the cockpit updated with
a wider bar and shorter stem.

  • Standout features: Lightest
    bike on test overall, refined aluminum frame, capable RST fork with
    aluminum stanchions
  • Pros:
    Quickest-handling of test bunch, ultra-precise steering, excellent Shimano
    drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes
  • Cons: Small-diameter
    wheels, disappointingly narrow tires
  • Weight: 12.62kg/27.82lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.54kg/10.01lb (w/
    tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Specialized Rockhopper 29


While some bikes in the lower price range
tend to feel more like campus or commuter bikes, Specialized have done a great
job of trickling down trail-worthy geometry to an entry-level mountain bike.

The manipulated seat tube and shorter
chainstays keep the 29in rear wheel closer to both the bike’s and rider’s
center of gravity. The head tube angle is relatively steep and the top tube is
roomy, too. This yields a legitimate trail-riding position while still
producing a fun, responsive bike.

The tighter, quicker-handling geometry will
make it easier for BMX or older-generation mountain bikers to adapt to 29in

note: Specialized mistakenly shipped a higher-end US$1,100 Rockhopper Comp 29,
not the standard version. Unfortunately, we caught the oversight too late so
the more expensive bike is covered here.

  • Standout features: Great
    handling, and components are of good enough quality to get a beginner
    pointed down the trail
  • Pros: Grippy tires,
    smart frame geometry
  • Cons: Heavy
    wheels, gearing too tall for entry-level bike
  • Weight: 13.96kg/30.77lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.44kg/11.99lb (complete
    w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

GT Karakoram 2.0


We picked on GT a lot in our blog
post on testing these sub-$1,000 bikes
. While our points were warranted,
the GT is far from the worst bike on test with a mid-pack finish.

Highlights include the RockShox XC 28 fork and
Shimano drivetrain. The Tektro Draco Pro brakes are okay but we found the
standard Draco model more powerful.

GT lose ground in a couple of specific,
important areas. The geometry includes a long rear center mated to what feels
like a short front center. This makes for a good climber but notably hampers

The tires also take a significant amount
from the package’s performance. The semi-slick Maxxis Aspen rubber is more at
home on a pro cross-country race bike than a beginner rig. While tires are
consumables, they represent a significant portion of the bike’s cost – figure about
5-10 percent in terms of replacement cost.

Oh, and there’s that razor-sharp headset
pre-load cap…

  • Standout features: Fork, good
  • Pros: Reasonable
    package that doesn’t go too amiss in any one department
  • Cons: Off
    geometry, slippery tires
  • Weight: 13.83kg/30.49lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.13kg/11.31lb
    (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Redline D610


fall mid-pack for the second year in a row. They offer a nice frame, fork,
wheels and tires but it’s the supporting components that really pull the
package down.

The D610
is one of two bikes on test with mechanical brakes, which are hard to set up
and keep running well. They also don’t offer much modulation.

cockpit is terrible, with its antiquated 110mm stem metric and crimped riser
bar. Redline have also skimped on supporting components such as the semi-sealed
headset, which is unlikely to last six months in wet regions.

idea of a 2×9 drivetrain is cool, and we want to support it. But it’s poorly
executed for beginners — the 28-32T low gear simply isn’t low enough for most

  • Standout features: Nice frame,
    second-place suspension fork, WTB Prowler tires
  • Pros: Great fork,
    SRAM X5 components
  • Cons: Not a
    complete package
  • Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.3kg/11.68lb (complete
    w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Giant Talon 29er 1


expected more from the Giant, with its appealing frame, solid geometry and the
company’s well-earned reputation for value. But the Talon missed the mark in
several key categories. The largely undamped and flexy fork was difficult to
control over bumpy terrain, the tires rode harshly and the cockpit included a
bar that was too narrow and tall along with a stem that was too long and
severely angled. None of our testers could find a comfortable position.

A few
component swaps would move this bike up in the rankings but would cost a lot.

  • Standout features: Foundations
    of a well-balanced machine, needs a few tweaks to be a true contender
  • Pros: Generous
    tube shaping, good geometry, relatively light wheel-and-tire package,
    solid Avid hydraulic disc brakes
  • Cons: Terrible
    fork, poor cockpit fit, stiff-riding tires
  • Weight: 13.66kg/30.11lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 4.88kg/10.75lb (complete
    w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

Jamis Exile Sport


The Exile Sport
comes in as the heavyweight in this division — and that’s not a good
thing. At a porky 15.12kg it’s the heaviest bike on test, with wheels
contributing nearly 5.4kg. What’s worse, the performance embodied many of the
early criticisms of the 29in design, with very few of the positives. It’s
sluggish, awkward and uninspiring.

It must be noted
that this bike is at least US$200 cheaper than most of the others on test. And
you get what you pay for, with a ho-hum spec: Hayes MX-5 mechanical disc
brakes, Alex DP20 wheels, Shimano Acera 8-speed shifters, Shimano Alivio derailleurs,
a coil/hydraulic RST Blaze 29 TNL fork, a coil spring and hydraulic fork.

Jamis could have
made up ground on the spec with smart frame geometry and rider positioning, but
those areas fall short as well.

  • Standout
    29in wheel format
  • Pros: The least
    expensive bike on test
  • Cons: All-round
    sluggish performance
  • Weight: 15.12kg/33.33lb (without pedals). Wheelset: 5.42kg/11.94lb
    (complete w/ tires, tubes, skewers, cassette, rotors)

BikeRadar verdict

We gathered up six riders to test the bikes
on short, repeatable loops. This kept things consistent and allowed us to
collect as many opinions as possible. After each session, testers had to fill
out our standard bike review worksheet, with 51 scores covering everything from
handling, stiffness, weight, shift and brake performance, suspension and even
aesthetics. Final scores were automatically tabulated to minimize tester

Once again, we learned that the overall
package is far more important than individual features or components. All of
the top bikes here have nailed the key categories – handling, fit, suspension,
tires and basic shifting and braking performance. They’re machines that are fun
to ride but also easily controllable in a wide range of conditions and for a
diverse collection of skill levels.

Weight plays into the equation but at this
price point it’s not nearly as critical a metric as many would like to think.
In general, we believe control is key: one bike might be lighter or better on
paper than another, but the best option will be the one that most readily
allows the owner to safely explore the sport and then develop their skills.

In that respect, we had no problems picking
this year’s winner. The Trek Mamba is that elusive complete package we were
hoping to find. It offers up a remarkably competent machine for beginners but
one that could easily evolve into a much higher-performance machine with some
key upgrades.

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