Demand for mountain bikes has increased over time due to the real advantages this style of bike offers. While mountain bikes of any price aren't designed to be fast, the trade-off is greater durability and a more comfortable riding position. Riders sit higher and more upright on a mountain bike than on a road bike, making it often a better option for people with back problems.
These days there is a plethora of information available on mountain bikes, literally hundreds of different models, and scores of reviews from both experts and consumers. In researching our picks, we favored reviews from sources like Bike Radar, MTBR, and Singletracks, where staff experts are familiar with a wide array of bikes and know what features are necessary for a superior ride. We also sifted through countless reviews and comments in biking forums from consumers, ranging from beginners to expert riders, to get a feel for what works and what doesn't in the budget bikes we picked. This proved valuable in researching picks like the Trek Skye S women's mountain bike, which garners few expert reviews but glowing feedback from users.
The consensus in the mountain bike reviews we read is that the models we chose deliver decent, if not pretty darn impressive, overall performance and durability within the constraints of their budget prices. These entry-level models are not engineered for daredevil stunts or hardcore shredding, but for light to moderate off-roading and travel along paved surfaces, they hold their own.
Suspension is one of the features that sets a mountain bike apart from other types of bikes. The suspension makes riding on rough terrain smoother and more comfortable by absorbing some of the shock. Reviews warn, however, that the low-quality suspension on some budget models doesn't sufficiently protect the body against painful jolts and jarring. Our research shows that you don't have to spend big bucks to buy a mountain bike with adequate suspension.
Bikes with front-only suspension, also called hardtails, are extremely common and especially prevalent on the budget end of the market. Most of the mountain bikes on our list, including the top-choice Specialized Rockhopper 29 and Diamondback Overdrive 27.5, are front-suspension mountain bikes that users value for their smooth ride. The Rockhopper and Nashbar AT29, along with the women's Trek Skye S, also feature hydraulic lockout on their forks, which means suspension can be turned off when riding on pavement or in other situations, like climbing, where a rigid ride would be more efficient.
Dual- or full-suspension mountain bikes, which feature shock absorbers for both the front and back wheels, are also becoming more common but are for the most part reserved for the mid-range to high end. Here, especially, heed the experts who say that cheap suspension can actually make a bike's performance worse, due to added weight and other issues. While the dual suspension on the ultra-budget 26" Genesis V2100 seems to be a plus, for instance, one enthusiast who has generally positive things to say about the bike on Amazon mentions that the recoil from the rear shock can actually throw the rider from the seat.
If you're on a budget but full suspension is a must-have feature, take a look at the Diamondback Recoil 29 (starting around $600), one of the best full-suspension mountain bikes under $1,000. In addition to dual suspension, the bike features 29-inch wheels and mechanical disc brakes. In reviews on Amazon, users comment that this is an excellent full-suspension bike for riders just beginning to get more serious about mountain biking. It provides a comfortable ride, and at only about 30 pounds, it's lighter than many others in the category. A couple of more seasoned riders suggest that the coil shock in the rear could be upgraded, but it should serve the average rider well.
A final note on suspension: Pay attention to the brand name on the suspension forks, the part that has the greatest effect on the quality of the ride. A fork that doesn't provide proper travel or that doesn't have enough compression damping means a rough ride. Forks from sought-after brands like Fox and RockShox can cost more than $1,000 alone. On the budget end, the most common respected brand is Suntour. If a bike's specs don't list a fork manufacturer, it's usually a sign that corners have been cut and the quality of this component might be in question. This is the case with both bikes on our list that sell for less than $200, the Genesis V2100 and the Titan Pioneer. Although the Genesis has enough positives to make it a great value overall, the front fork is one of the first things buyers talk about switching out.
The two most common materials used for inexpensive mountain bike frames are steel and aluminum (on the higher end, carbon fiber and titanium alloy also become options). Although some consumers might believe a heavier bike is sturdier, steel (comparatively heavy) and aluminum (comparatively light) can be just about equally durable.
However, there are pros and cons to each material. Heavier steel bikes move more slowly, require more effort to ride, and are generally more arduous to store and carry. Experts and users agree that aluminum, with its lighter weight, is superior on these fronts. Additionally, aluminum doesn't rust, which means less maintenance. On the other hand, a steel mountain bike frame may provide the smoother ride, because it's naturally more flexible, making bumps on the trail a little less jarring.
All our picks feature an aluminum frame, which is becoming the norm and is usually a sign that a budget bike has better quality parts all around. The Titan Pioneer is the only mountain bike we reviewed with a steel frame, and it gets a fair share of complaints from users at Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, and Amazon regarding poorly made parts, such as gear shifters that are hard to operate, squeaking brakes, and pedals that snap.
Choosing the right frame size for your height is of the utmost importance. Some frame sizes for mountain bikes -- for example, 23-inch-frame mountain bikes (this measurement refers to the seat tube length) and 14-inch-frame men's mountain bikes -- are harder to find than others. Our top choice, the Specialized Rockhopper 29, has riders covered on both ends, with its smallest size measuring 13 inches and its XXL size going all the way up to 23 inches. The Giant ATX 2 is also suitable for smaller riders, offering a 12.5-inch XXS size; it tops out at 22 inches. The Genesis V2100 and Titan Pioneer are single-size men's bikes, with a 19-inch frame on the former and an 18-inch frame on the latter.
While there are many variations of mountain bike brakes, most budget models come equipped with one of two options: rim brakes or disc brakes. V-brakes, a type of rim brakes (also called direct-pull or linear-pull brakes), are most common, especially on cheap mountain bikes. They work by pulling on a cable that presses padded calipers on the rim of the bike wheel. These mountain bike brakes are cheaper and lighter weight than disc brakes and less prone to locking up a tire if applied suddenly, but they're also less reliable, especially in wet or muddy conditions. Not surprisingly, the Titan Pioneer and the kids' Diamondback Octane have V-brakes. The inexpensive Genesis V2100 features a rather odd combination of rear V-brakes and front disc brakes.
Disc brakes work much like those on your car; that is, calipers press against a rotor (disc) attached to the hub of the wheel to slow the bike. According to Cycling Weekly, they're heavier than V-brakes but gaining ground with riders for their superior technology, which allows for greater modulation and more powerful braking.
Disc brakes are becoming increasingly common on budget mountain bikes, and most of our top picks have them. There are two types: mechanical and hydraulic. The Specialized Rockhopper 29 has mechanical disc brakes from highly esteemed parts manufacturer Shimano, while the others carry Tektro brakes, which are also considered among the best mechanical disc brakes for mountain bikes. The Promax front disc brakes on the Genesis V2100 are about the quality to be expected on a basic bike.
Hydraulic brakes are much pricier, because they operate on a different system altogether. With this sealed fluid system braking is easier to modulate and has a better feel and more power. The downside to this system is price, and it's much more difficult even for fairly knowledgeable riders to maintain and fix hydraulic brakes themselves. There aren't many cheap mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. One affordable model we would recommend is the GT Verb Comp (starting around $1,080). With upscale parts, including proprietary All Terra shocks (the rear shock is air sprung, making it lighter and more easily adjustable than the cheaper coil shock on the inexpensive Diamondback Recoil 29), the GT Verb Comp is considered one of the best cheap full-suspension mountain bikes out there. User reviews are all quite positive, with one buyer on retailer Performance Bicycle's website saying simply, "Perfect. It doesn't get any better."
In years past, the standard mountain bike tire size for adult models was 26 inches. Smaller tires are generally available only on children's bikes, although women's bikes occasionally come with 24-inch tires. A recent development in mountain bike tires is the introduction of 29ers -- bikes with 29-inch tires. These used to be confined to the high end, but models with 29-inch tires have now trickled down to the budget price range. The Nashbar AT29 is a particularly cheap 29er mountain bike at just $400.
When it comes to 26- vs. 29-inch wheels on mountain bikes, the benefit of the bigger tires is that they roll over obstacles more easily, making the ride less bumpy, and they tend to have better ground grip due to their larger surface area. As a compromise between the two, a popular tire size in budget mountain bikes is 27.5 inches. These tires are lighter, cheaper, and accelerate faster than 29-inch tires, and while they can't match the larger wheels for grip, they've got better traction than 26-inch tires.
Speeds refer to the different combinations bicycle riders can achieve with the gears on the rear wheel hub (the cassette) and the gears (chainrings) on the crankset, where the pedals are located. With multiple speeds, riders can easily adjust the amount of power needed to move the bike forward, providing a more efficient and more comfortable ride. There's no one right speed for everyone in a given situation, so finding the gear combination that's comfortable for each individual rider takes some trial and error. This is especially important when it comes to mountain bikes, because pedaling up and down hills and across varying terrain requires many different gear ratios. More speeds allow more control.
All our adult-size top picks feature 21 to 24 speeds, or gear combinations (although in practice only about two-thirds get used). The Titan Pioneer offers a lackluster 12 speeds. Again, this is a moment to pay attention to brand names, as the manufacturer of the derailleurs can make all the difference between effortless transition among speeds and gear shifting that's a constant struggle. Shimano is among the industry leaders (alongside SRAM and Campagnolo) and all our top picks make use of the brand for both front shifting between chainrings and the all-important rear derailleur charged with lifting the chain and moving it to the appropriate cog. Again, the Titan Pioneer is an outlier.
Different Types of Mountain Bikes
While "standard" trail mountain bikes and cross-country mountain bikes make up our top picks, we also spent some time looking at fat tire bikes, hybrid bikes, electric bikes, and downhill bikes. While some of these mountain bikes are priced outside of our Cheapism price range, we did find a few relatively affordable models for consumers looking to expand their options -- or keep up with the latest trends -- without breaking the bank.
Hybrid mountain bikes could be considered jacks of all trades. They can tackle pavement, trails, and loose gravel, according to an REI buying guide. Wheel size isn't as big a factor with these bikes; most have 700c wheels (about 28 inches). They often have rim brakes, but disc brakes are ideal, and front suspension is the going style.
While a host of cheap bikes claim to do double duty, mountain bike enthusiasts looking for an affordable bike that takes off-roading as seriously as commuting might turn to the Fuji Traverse 1.7 Disc (starting around $499). This "sport hybrid" comes from a well-respected brand and has a butted aluminum frame, mechanical disc brakes, 24-speeds, and slightly wider 700 x 38c wheels. Riders posting reviews on Performance Bicycle say the Fuji Traverse 1.7 is lightweight and report a smooth ride no matter the surface area. Fuji's entire Traverse line turns in great performance for the price, according to testers at Icebike.org, who give it a "top notch" rating of 9 out of 10 stars. The Traverse 1.7 comes in six different sizes, including a 15-inch (XS) frame, and there's also a specific women's version available for the same price.
Fat tire mountain bikes, or fat bikes, have bigger-than-average tires with low pressure to provide extra traction in sand, loose dirt, and snow. They are designed for going off the beaten trail or commuting in wintery climates, and they've also become a staple of the beachfront scene. A good cheap choice here is the 26" GMC Yukon Fat Bike (starting around $467) with 26-by-4-inch tires. Users agree that this is a fun bike to ride, and several comment on how well it performs in snow as deep as 6 inches. According to a few seasoned riders posting on Amazon, this is a good beginner's fat tire bike that needs a few adjustments but overall provides a unique riding experience.
Electric mountain bikes are sometimes dismissed by biking purists or critics who aren't entirely aware of how they work. Some, indeed, might be considered mini-mopeds of sorts, allowing the rider to coast along, feet up and fancy free. But most models geared toward more serious mountain bikers are pedal-assist bikes -- by and large regular mountain bikes with electrical components that require the rider to keep the pedals moving in order to engage the motor and get that extra bit of electrically generated push. There's no denying that electric bikes have their share of positive attributes when it comes to fun, convenience, and, perhaps most important, opening up greater possibilities to senior riders or others who may not be able to fully, or continuously, operate a mountain bike on their own.
While the debate over so-called e-MTBs rages on -- particularly in regard to their use on trails -- They continue to grow in popularity and many major bike manufacturers have started producing their own models. Prices on most electric mountain bikes fall well outside of the Cheapism range. That said, one affordable example is the X-Treme Trail Maker (starting around $849). This model, from electric bike and scooter manufacturer X-treme Scooters, comes equipped with a rear hub motor and a removable 300-watt battery pack. The bike can operate three different ways: in pedal-only mode, PAS (power assist) mode, or a straight Power mode that requires no pedaling at all. Users can expect to get 20 to 25 miles per charge out of the battery, and max speed is about 20 mph. Other than the added motor, the bike's geometry is that of a traditional mountain bike with 26-inch wheels, an aluminum body, and 21 speeds. This model comes highly recommended by professional reviewers, sellers, and users alike, who are impressed with the quality parts despite the relatively low price and the sturdy ride. Ease of assembly and customer service don't earn equally high marks, however.
Downhill mountain bikes, or gravity bikes, are the furthest away from the Cheapism cost ceiling. Prices typically start around $2,000 and go up from there. The downhill bike occupies a particularly specialized niche, and as reviewers at Dirt Mountain Bike point out, this type of bike is useless to most average riders. Its main purpose is to go downhill at incredibly fast speeds. It has more suspension and technology to help it do this in a safe and fast manner, but pedaling such a bike uphill, on pavement, or on a trail is just not ideal. The technology involved in these bikes (as well as the price associated with it) and the fact that they aren't suitable for most riders who aren't looking to fly down cliff faces have excluded them from our list.