Budget mountain bikes no longer have to equate to trail riding disappointment. As economies of scale and trickle-down technology trends increase, entry-level buyers have access to some great deals in the budget mountain bike market.
We have segmented this latest buyer’s guide into three price ranges, allowing riders to match their expectations with a specific price point. The good news is that product planners in the mountain bike industry have heeded the call for greater value and delivered some excellent specifications, at very reasonable prices.
One thing to keep in mind when buying a budget mountain bike is that there will always be compromises. If a bike has a great drivetrain, it might have lower-end suspension in order to keep the price down or vise versa. Most components work pretty well these days, but if you are unsure of what to look for, skip to our guide on what you need to know when buying a budget mountain bike.
Once you buy a bike, you might find that you want to upgrade some of the components. That doesn't have to be too expensive, so we've put together buying guides for the best budget mountain bike wheels and the best budget forks. If you're looking to spend a little bit more for a full-suspension trail or enduro bike, check out our guide to the best bikes under $2,500.
Best budget mountain bikes under $500
GT is a legendary name among BMX riders and mountain bikers. Its Zaskar range of hardtails has an impeccable cross-country racing pedigree but the company offers many more affordable frame options too.
Although the Aggressor Sport is an entry-level bike, it does have an advanced frame design feature to make your hardtail ride with a bit more compliance. Instead of a gusset bracing the top-to-seat tube, the seat stays flow around the seat tube, to allow for superior terrain absorption.
The Aggressor Sport has a generous spread of gearing, thanks to a Microshift 3x7 drivetrain. SR Suntour’s 85mm coil fork smooths over terrain at the front, but the Aggressor’s geometry numbers are better suited to less challenging off-road trails, instead of dedicated singletrack descents.
Budget bikes are always a compromise between performance and price, however, Giant is able to use its huge economies of scale as the Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer is recognized as the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world.
You don't become the world's biggest bike manufacturer through poor production either and Giant is at the forefront of manufacturing techniques and despite the Talon's cheap price, it gets a high-quality ALUXX SL aluminum frameset.
The Talon 29er is only available in medium, large and extra-large sizes, however, Giant sells a 27.5-inch wheeled Talon which is exactly the same but available in smaller sizes. Giant's sister company Liv also offers a women's version called the Tempt.
Those looking for a classic, mile-munching cross-country bike should take Aim at Cube's budget 29er XC hardtail. The steep geometry may not be on-trend with many other bikes however the steeper head angle will keep handling sharp and nimble on tight trails.
Componentry is always tricky at a sub $500 mark and Cube go down the smart route of a Shimano drivetrain and Schwalbe Smart Sam tires. You don't get hydraulic disc brakes as Cube has opted for mechanical. Although braking isn't as powerful, maintenance is certainly simpler for home mechanics.
Best mountain bikes under $1000
NS started out as a dirt jump brand but has since branched out into all types of bikes from downhill to lycra-clad XC racing. Rowdy hardtails are still its bread and butter and the Eccentric Lite 2 is ready to shred your local singletrack.
Predictable geometry, as well as a decent component list, allow you to have fun on the trails. Most notably, the reliable Shimano groupset and NS brand tubeless-ready wheelset, which is equipped with Schwalbe tires, will lead to a fun time on the trails.
Rocky Mountain makes some top-of-class full-suspension bikes, but their Growler hardtail takes the same legacy of trail-shredding to a rigid aluminum frame. With burly trails in mind, this hardtail comes with a 130mm fork, which is nice seeing that most hardtails come with less fork travel. The Shimano drivetrain and brakes will be reliable, but you only get 10 gears instead of 11. Like most budget hardtails, the bike comes with an SR Suntour fork, which will work, but advanced riders looking for more adjustments and a more supple trail feel will have to spend the dollars to upgrade to a Fox or RockShox fork.
The Growler is a touch over budget but we think this bike is worth saving the extra $39 for as the quality frame will make a great platform for future upgrades.
Vitus' budget Nucleus is awkwardly priced for our guide price points, but the value shouldn't be ignored because it doesn't fit nicely in our categories. The Nucleus brings a 1x drivetrain, air-sprung fork and solid components to a bike that's less than $700. Plus, you get 27.5-inch wheels, which are great for jumping and flicking your way down the trail.
This bike features a 120mm fork from SR Suntour, and a 1x8 drivetrain from Box Four. One of the downsides is that you only get eight gears, however, a 1x drivetrain is a bargain at this price point. The Nucleus rolls on WTB hoops and rubber and features components from Nukeproof and Vitus.
Best mountain bikes under $1500
If you value the direct trail feedback of a hardtail frame, and its lower maintenance burden (especially for winter riding), the Scout 275 will not disappoint. With a 140mm RockShox Recon RL fork up front and huge Maxxis Assegai and Dissector tires rolling it along, this Scout is an awfully confident singletrack descender.
For those riders who like jumping and popping off trail features, the Scout 275’s blend of components and geometry will appeal. Nukeproof fits a 780mm (S and M) or 800mm (L and XL) handlebar to give you the opportunity to always correct the bike’s attitude within a margin of error, thanks to the leverage effect of such a wide handlebar.
Nukeproof actually offer the Scout Race in both this 27.5 version but also an identically specced 29er for riders looking for increased trail stability. The only real chink in the Nukeproof Scout Race's armor is that it doesn't come specced with a dropper post although dropper posts are cheaper than ever and are easy to fit.
Plus size tired bikes were somewhat of a flash in the pan trend and have since lost the popularity that they previously held. That's not to say they don't serve a purpose with many beginner and intermediate level riders loving the extra grip and comfort that the big tires offer.
The Fuse is a great bike for those looking to tackle singletrack comfortably and confidently thanks to the 66-degree head angle, feature-packed frame and very well specced component list - including a RockShox fork, Shimano Deore groupset and TranzX dropper post.
It might fall into the budget category but Marin's San Quentin is still an extremely capable hardtail for hitting radical trails. A 65-degree head angle and 464mm reach (Large) will help keep the bike planted and composed on fast rough tracks. While some budget hardtails are somewhat spoiled with a QR rear wheel, Marin has specced a proper 12x148mm Thru-Axle as well as ISCG chain guide mounts on the double-butted 6061 Aluminum frame.
Componentry is well thought out as well with a 130mm RockShox Recon RL fork and a reliable Shimano Deore 11sp drivetrain. The wheels and finishing kit is from Marin which saves a little money and allows a dropper to be specced as well.
While the San Quentin would be our pick, Marin does a couple of other excellent budget hardtails at this price point. If you're looking for a faster and lighter XC bike, the very handsome Team Marin 1 is a sorted bike for smashing out miles of singletrack. If you're seeking something with huge versatility from trail missions to bikepacking, check out the Pine Mountain 1 which must have the most mounting points of any bike on the market.
Year-on-year we have been impressed with the Vitus Sentier hardtail range as it has always offered a blend of excellent riding characteristics, well-thought-out specs and good value for money.
The 2021 Sentier VR is no different, with Vitus continuing the format of 130mm of front Marzocchi suspension, a dependable 1x11 Shimano drivetrain and the same geometry that helped make last year's bike so popular. The 66.5-degree head angle couldn't be described as progressive but combined with the 29er wheels it's slack enough for most trail riding whether your blasting over lumpy roots or negotiating technical singletrack.
What you need to know when buying a budget mountain bike
1. Don't get bargained into narrow rims
The biggest issue here is to ensure you are on a bike with hydraulic brakes and reasonably wide rims.
Many bargain mountain bikes use older rim profiles which are much too narrow, in the 19-21mm internal diameter range. Such narrow rims don’t allow modern mountain bike tire casings to shape correctly when inflated, diminishing the braking and cornering performance of your bike.
A welcome trend in the budget hardtail market has been improved geometry, with slightly slacker head angles and longer top tubes. Don’t be afraid of riding a bike that feels ‘too big’. Modern mountain bike geometry has proven that longer bikes are more stable, especially over loose off-road terrain
2. When to expect single chainrings and better wheels?
In the sub-$1000 price range you should be expecting an air-sprung fork and better wheelsets. The ideal rim width for most forest and mild singletrack riding is around 25mm, although bikes more purposed towards descending will offer wheels with an internal rim diameter closer to 30mm.
Double-chainrings should not be a feature at this price point, with most brands capable of fitting 1x12 drivetrains, crafting a cleaner appearance for your bike, and better chain life, thanks to a straighter chain line.
There is no excuse to feel uncomfortable on a mountain bike in the sub-$1000 class, as designers have experimented and discovered the best blend between slacker head angles and longer reach numbers, delivering superior high-speed stability and climbing comfort.
3. Making your budget mountain bike even better
Some of the best value is to be had in the sub-$1500 segment with wide rims, appropriately sized tires and generally terrific trail-orientated frame geometry have become standard features in this price segment.
Whatever you can save between your purchase price and the $1500 price budget ceiling, can be put toward a dropper seatpost upgrade. It may not seem like a priority upgrade, but speak to anyone that has one on their bike and they will all laud the performance and convenience of a dropper post.