March 10, 2017
Scott Boulbol

Mountain Bike Buyer’s Guide

From Cross Country to Enduro, mountain bikes come in a variety of purpose-built frames, components and tires. Active Junky tested models from the best mountain bike brands to help you decide which one is best for you and your terrain of choice.

Editor's Pick Yeti SB5+

Yeti SB5+

Best for – One bike to ride it all; handling serious technical terrain and high-speed descents with confidence
$4,699.00 + 6% Cash Back
Buy Now
Best Value Fuji Bighorn 1.1

Fuji Bighorn 1.1

Best for – Improving riders looking to up their game; highly experienced riders who want to add a hardtail to their quiver
$2,500.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now
Also Great Bulls Wild Edge Team

Bulls Wild Edge Team

Best for – XC racers and/or marathoners who want a full-on race bike at an affordable price; less technical terrain
$5,499.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now
Also Great Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL

Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL

Best for – Serious Enduro racers who can afford the high price and want the bike’s ability to climb and descend at pro levels
$5,799.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now
GT Pantera Expert

GT Pantera Expert

Best for – Novice riders looking for a non-entry-level hardtail; more experienced riders who want a plus-size hardtail
$1,620.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now
Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0

Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0

Best for – Talented and fearless descenders who may not have the ability or desire to climb or don’t have access to lift-served riding
$5,999.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now
Specialized Women’s Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie

Specialized Women’s Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie

Best for – Serious Trail riding women and occasional Enduro riders when price is not a major consideration
$4,500.00 + 0% Cash Back
Buy Now

With the huge variety of mountain bikes these days – including subcategories of subcategories – the once very simple process of buying a mountain bike can now be a bit daunting, even for seasoned vets.

How much travel do you want? What width tires? Full suspension, hardtail or full rigid? XC, Trail or Enduro? Over the years, different categories of MTBs have evolved as rider preferences change, more locations open, and of course technology explodes. The first major advancement was suspension, then came disc brakes and later 27” and 29” wheels, and now Fat and Plus-size bikes.

There’s a lot to know when buying a new mountain bike. But don’t fret – we’ve laid down the basic and specifics to help you choose the best rig for you, including which bikes excel in specific situations, what you’ll get from an investment-grade bike, and which bikes standout in different price ranges. 

Brands evaluated by Active Junky

  • Bulls
  • Fuji
  • GT
  • Haibike
  • Rocky Mountain
  • Specialized
  • Turner
  • Yeti

Types of Mountain Bikes

These days there are quite literally enough bike categories to ride a different type of terrain on a purpose-built machine every day of the week. But most folks can’t swing that financial commitment and will only be able to buy one mountain bike – two if they’re lucky. The key to buying the right bike is knowing primarily how and where you’ll ride, or more specifically, which category bike you’ll want.

The major categories are based mainly on length of travel and geometry: Cross Country (XC); Trail (XC/Trail or All Mountain); and Enduro. Of course there is a wide range of subcategories – different suspension options, wheel/tire widths, etc. – within the three major categories, as well as a huge range in price point.

Cross Country Mountain Bikes

XC bikes are generally lighter with shorter travel, usually between 100mm and 120mm, and can be full rigid, hardtail (front suspension only) or full suspension. These days, they’re almost always 29ers. They also generally feature stiffer frames with a more “aggressive,” or forward, geometry and are best for riding faster speeds on smoother trails and railing sharp corners. They excel at climbing all but the nastiest technical routes, but are a bit more “tippy” (prone to “endos”) and don’t have enough suspension for serious technical descents.

Trail & All-Mountain Bikes

Trail bikes tend to run a bit heavier with a slacker geometry, and are usually full suspension, with between 130mm and 160mm of travel front and rear – although a new breed of hardtail Trail bikes is gaining popularity. Most now offer 27.5” wheels although some 29ers still exist. These offer a combination of the speed traits of the XC bikes with the descending abilities of Enduro, and are excellent all-around bikes for a wide variety of terrain.

Enduro Moutain Bikes

Enduro bikes – named after the recently booming style of races that go up a mountain and then fly back down – are almost exclusively 27.5” wheels, and usually 160mm-180mm of full suspension with very relaxed geometries. Enduro can still go uphill relatively well, but descending is decidedly smoother and faster than the other two categories.

Plus-Size Bikes

By far the biggest thing in the industry in the past couple of years is “Plus Size” bikes – these are generally Trail- and Enduro-oriented bikes with 27.5” wheels, and they’re capable of handling tires up to 3” wide and more, adding cushion and traction to the rig, and making it more rideable in snow and sand. We’ve included a few in this guide as we feel these are more versatile and enjoyable for a wide range of riders. And unlike many industry “trends,” we feel strongly that Plus Size bikes are here to stay.

Editor’s Note: In the MTB category, there are also electric and Downhill options, but we won’t cover those in this guide.

How We Tested

Five Questions to Ask Yourself

As explained above, picking the right mountain bike can be a daunting task. Here are five questions to ask yourself to help narrow down the options to make an education decision and a solid MTB selection.

Question #1: Do I really need to spend $5,000 or more on a high-end bike?

Just because a bike costs more and/or features the latest kick-ass tech does not mean it’s the right fit for you. In fact, we find some of the lower-end models last longer and can be easier to work on than premium models.

Question #2: Will I really get what I pay for?

In general, a bike is as good as its components and frame, and the more you spend the better they are. And because components are generally from third parties and not from the bike’s brand, you can certainly find bargains with the same or similar parts.

Question #3: Where and how will I be riding?

Your bike choice should depend almost entirely on the precise type of riding you’ll be doing. Be realistic about how far, often and aggressively you’ll ride, and on what type of trails and terrain. If you never get within 10 miles of an XC race, there’s absolutely no reason to shell out $10,000 for a top-end racing bike, or if you mostly take a lift up the hill so you can completely shred the descent, you need a bike with suspension and build that can handle the rigors of big hits and rock gardens, regardless of weight.

Question #4: How do I choose which tire/wheel is best for me?

In general, taller thinner 29” wheels/tires are faster at speed and roll over obstacles easier thanks to their lower entry-angle. However, they can add weight, raise a rider’s center of gravity, and may not be as strong as smaller wheels. 27.5” wheels come in two widths – standard and Plus – and both are common on Trail and Enduro bikes. Narrower wheels/tires will be faster than Plus in flat and smoother terrain, but wider ones have much better traction, which is especially critical on loose gravelly terrain, wet rocks, mud and any descents.

Question #5: Technology changes so fast – how do I know my bike won’t be obsolete in a year?

The reality is you don’t! But you can certainly narrow your odds. Do the research on some bike websites to see what the latest tech trends are, and ask at local shops. Most of what’s out there now will be around a while. If there is a new trend, like Plus size tires recently, ask the shop workers if they think it’s here to stay. And as a general rule, we’d suggest staying away from truly radical technology until it’s been around a year or two.

Three Purchasing Mistakes

#1. Buying the wrong size bike: If this is your first MTB-style bike, let the professional at the dealer suggest – and confirm – the best size.

#2. Buying the wrong style bike: With all the styles available, it’s easy to buy the wrong one, so make sure the type of bike best fits your true riding style and your usual trails before purchasing.

#3. Spending too much (or too little): It’s easy to get sucked in by a ridiculously low price tag or to want the fanciest, sexiest bike in the shop. Most people don’t need, and in fact can’t handle, a top-end bike; and the least expensive bike in the shop may quickly become obsolete as soon as you improve and/or up your miles.

Universal Attributes

While all five of the following characteristics were respectable in every bike selected for this guide, each product displayed a singular strength, noted in their review. As such, the quintet of attributes considered covered everything except value: Active Junky considers around $6,000 and above as top end, with $800 normally a minimum for suitable quality.

Stiffness & Efficiency 

The stiffer and stronger a frame is in the fork/headtube conjunction and the bottom bracket/rear triangle area, the quicker accelerating and better handling it will usually be. However, it can also mean a harsher ride.

Ride Quality/Suspension

Ride quality means how much ruggedness of terrain can be felt and overall ride comfort. Along with suspension, the frame’s tubing, geometry and wheelset dictate how comfortably a bike rides. Just because a bike has full suspension doesn’t necessarily mean it offers a strong ride quality, and vice versa.

Components/Wheels

A bike’s components – drivetrain, wheels, brakes, bars and seatpost – are a major player in the overall performance, and since most are provided by third parties, these often help dictate the value of the bike. To wit, an outstanding frame can be rendered sub-standard with lousy components.

Weight 

Less weight means easier maneuverability and less effort, but weight is not always a good overall indicator of a bike’s performance or value. Often the same things that help keep weight down can also diminish durability and/or functionality.

Durability/Longevity 

While we can’t ride these bikes long enough to determine this on specific models, we’ve ridden enough of each brand to make a pretty good prediction. And it’s safe to say that these bikes will generally outlast their riders’ tastes and/or motivation.

Mountain Bikes Reviews

Yeti SB5+ Yeti SB5+

Editor's Pick

This is Yeti’s answer to the Plus craze, tweaking their well-received SB5 to accommodate wider wheels. It’s a 27.5” inch Trail bike with 5” of travel front and back and Yeti’s proprietary Swith Mech suspension system that they say helps with pedal bob and added sensitivity to small bumps and big hits. It’s surprisingly light at just under 26 pounds, despite its beefy feel and ample travel. It’s also surprisingly nimble in tight flowy singletrack, but with its relaxed geometry and dialed suspension, where it really excels is deep in the gnar. While it’s not cheap at over $4,600 for the Shimano XT/SLX version, Yeti frames are outstanding, and this is the only bike most riders would ever need. 

Tester Comments: “I’m always excited when I throw my leg over a new Yeti, and I was especially stoked for the SB5+. Plus tires mixed with outstanding all-around geometry enabled me to attack some frequented trails with less-than-frequent aplomb!”

Looking for more information about Yeti SB5+? Read the full review

Buying Options

6% Cash Back
$4,699.00
Before Cash Back
$4,417.06 After Cash Back
6% Cash Back
$6,499.00
Before Cash Back
$6,109.06 After Cash Back
7% Cash Back
$6,999.00
Before Cash Back
$6,509.07 After Cash Back
Fuji Bighorn 1.1 Fuji Bighorn 1.1

Best Value Mountain Bike

Fuji’s Bighorn 1.1 is the brand’s top-end 27.5” Plus hardtail Trail bike. Fuji has built a reputation of making top-quality bikes at surprisingly low prices, and this bike is another strong example. While its $2,750 price tag is mid-level for this category, the bike performs with the best in the group, and with comparable spec. It’s chock full of features often saved for higher-end bikes, including a dropper post, a FOX 32 fork with remote lockout and 120mm of travel, and a solid Oval wheelset. With a relatively steep head tube angle, the bike handles and climbs well but still manages to descend without feeling excessively tippy, especially with the seatpost dropped.

Tester Comments: “Usually I’d consider 27 pounds a bit too heavy, but with the big tires and balanced geometry, this bike climbs like an XC bike, without the constant spinout, and it’s super fun on the downhill to boot!”

Looking for more information about Fuji Bighorn 1.1? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$2,500.00
Before Cash Back
$2,500.00 After Cash Back
Bulls Wild Edge Team Bulls Wild Edge Team

Best & Fastest Climber

With a steep head tube angle, a short 100mm of travel front and back, and a superlight and stiff frame, the Bulls Wild Edge Team is clearly designed to rip through tight corners and tear through smooth, flowy trails – uphill or down, this bike is fast. This is the top-of-the-line for the Wild Edge family of bikes, featuring top-end Shimano XTR spec and RockShox suspension. It even features a 2x11 drivetrain, which is rare in today’s 1x world – the extra chainring will keep riders from spinning out on higher speed sections of XC courses, although many riders will prefer the new 1x systems. This is not the bike to attack long rock garden sections, especially with steep transitions and big drops, but if speed and value are your thing, it’s a helluva good option.

Tester Comments: “I’m not sure how Bulls can make a bike this fast and with such great spec for this price, but I’m not complaining! It’s a bit heavier than many in its class, but it’s not a major issue, and that price will make you forget the weight pretty quickly.”

Looking for more information about Bulls Wild Edge Team? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$5,499.00
Before Cash Back
$5,499.00 After Cash Back
Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL

Best Descender

The Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL is the top model in the renowned Slayer family of 27.5” Enduro bikes. This bike is full of top-end spec, with a full-carbon frame that features RM’s Ride-4 adjustable geometry and 170mm of FOX front travel (165mm rear). The bike is light and efficient enough to handle long climbs, but climbing is not its forte. That would be descending: it’s plenty burly to handle full-on downhill-style descending over all but the most ridiculous terrain. With its high price tag, however, this bike is clearly aimed at legit Enduro racers and/or serious enthusiasts looking for a downhill-capable rig that won’t force you to take the chairlift up.

Tester Comments: “I so wish I had this bike when I was living between Colorado and Vancouver. It would have opened up a whole new world of riding for me where I could earn my descents and then take the gnarliest route down.”

Looking for more information about Rocky Mountain Slayer 790 MSL? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$5,799.00
Before Cash Back
$5,799.00 After Cash Back
GT Pantera Expert GT Pantera Expert

GT enjoys a long and storied tradition in mountain biking, and the Pantera Expert is among their latest offerings and its first in the 27.5” Plus category. With a classic GT “Triple Triangle” alloy frame, the bike offers a generous 120mm of front travel, but with a relatively steep head tube angle – this provides a strong balance of handling and descending ability. The bike is marketed as a Trail hardtail, but we feel it’s especially well suited as an all-around MTB. The frame is a bit heavy – the bike weighs in at 29.5 pounds – but it rides quite well overall, and is a very solid climber despite the weight. The 1 x 11 drivetrain and shifter spec is a mix of Shimano XT and SLX, along with an FSA crankset, and is very impressive for the money. While the Expert is the highest model in the family, it still comes in at just over $1,600 – a super deal at that price.  

Tester Comments: “The GT Pantera Expert is an outstanding value, and a whole lot of fun to ride. I was really surprised at how well it handled and climbed, despite its relatively bulky size. For the budget-minded, this would be an excellent choice for an all-around bike.”

Looking for more information about GT Pantera Expert? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$1,620.00
Before Cash Back
$1,620.00 After Cash Back
Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0 Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0

The Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0 is a legitimate and fully-capable motor-assisted 27.5” Enduro mountain bike with a whopping 180mm of FOX travel front and rear, a DT Swiss wheelset and SRAM drivetrain/shifters, a decidedly slack downhill-style geometry, and a dropper seatpost. The 350-watt Bosch motor offers four levels of power direct to the crankset – all controlled by the handlebar-mounted remote (which also provides basic ride info). As with all electric-assist bikes, the motor only kicks in when the rider pedals and at the power level selected on the remote. So when a rider hits the base of a climb, s/he can switch from Tour at 50-percent power boost to Turbo mode at 300-percent power boost, or any in between. The unit can also be turned off for downhill sections or an extra workout on the flats – and don’t be fooled; pedaling a 50-pound beast sans motor is definitely a workout! 

Tester Comments: “I didn’t really think these were legitimate mountain bikes – and I thought it was a total cop-out to use a motor – but after riding this a couple time, I realize I can totally hammer descents no matter how technical, and if I want a workout, I can always turn off the motor. A few miles pedaling this bike without power is a serious grind. But the best part is flying up hills that used to nearly break me!”

Looking for more information about Haibike Xduro Nduro 8.0? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$5,999.00
Before Cash Back
$5,999.00 After Cash Back
Specialized Women’s Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie Specialized Women’s Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie

Though the name suggests otherwise, the Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie is not actually a Fat bike, but a 27.5” Plus bike with 3” wide tires – fat to be sure, but not Fat. The Rhyme line is a Trail-oriented bike designed specifically for women, with dialed tube lengths, geometries and suspension based on the biomechanics of women’s bodies. In the early days of “women’s specific” bikes, they were mainly just shrink-and-pinked, but there are legitimate differences in biomechanics, and no brand is more dialed in than Specialized. This is a top-end Trail bike, with enough travel to also handle light Enduro riding and racing. It features the latest SRAM XO1 Eagle 1x12 drivetrain, and SRAMS standout Guide RS brakes, plus Specialized’s house brand Roval Traverse wheels with 29mm wide (inner) rims to best accommodate the wide tires. All of that spec adorns the FACT 11r Carbon frame, which offers a very impressive strength-to-weight ratio. There’s even a compartment inside the down tube for stealthy storage of tools and tubes.

Tester Comments: “The shifting is really impressive. With 12 gears, there’s only a minor difference in pedaling cadence on each shift, noticeably different from the 11-speed bikes. And that massive climbing gear is making me feel fit again!”

Looking for more information about Specialized Women’s Rhyme Pro Carbon 6Fattie? Read the full review

Buying Options

0% Cash Back
$4,500.00
Before Cash Back
$4,500.00 After Cash Back