Are you looking to get started in the world of mountain biking or just after a budget trail shredder to add to your existing bicycle line-up? There are a confusing number of options on offer that represent fantastic value for money.
With next years stock beginning to make its way onto showroom floors, we’ve sifted through our picks of the best budget hardtail mountain bikes to be had for under AU$1,500 and made a short hit-list.
- Related Reading: The Ultimate Mountain Bike Buyers Guide
What to Expect For Your Money
Hardtails are distinctive as they have a rigid frame and a suspension fork at the front wheel, as opposed to dual-suspension bikes that have suspension in the front and rear of the bike. While gendered frames used to be commonplace at the entry level, most manufacturers are now moving back to unisex designs and colourways. Dual-suspension bikes also exist at this price point; however, we’re yet to find one that is up to the rigours of mountain biking, while the simpler hardtail allows brands to equip the bike better.
All bikes at this price point (AU$1000-AU$1500) will have aluminium frames (read about frame materials here). The amount of movement in the suspension is known as “travel” and is typically 100mm for the bikes listed below; however, trail hardtail options are increasing in popularity and offer up to 120mm. The greater the travel, typically the more significant the control on descents. When comparing front forks, look for a “lock-out”, which will enable you to close off the suspension for use on smooth roads.
The braking systems for bikes on this list are predominantly full hydraulic disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes use a fluid system to transfer force from the brake lever to the brake pads and are typically favoured as they’re a sealed system. Hydraulic disc brakes will typically provide a smoother lever feel, more control and lower maintenance than cable disc brakes. On the downside, hydraulic brakes often carry an increased cost.
While many of the bikes listed here have a similar frame, fork and groupset, the honest debate lies in the wheel choice. You'll see a mix of 27.5in and 29in diameter options below, and you'll get a variety of opinions as to which is better. The trend in recent times has been to opt for larger wheel sizes to improve roll-over ability, traction and comfort (greater tyre volume equals a smoother ride), which is why the original 26in wheels have become all but redundant. 27.5in wheels are lighter, stronger and typically more nimble than 29in options. Riders with a smaller stature or those who like to jump the bike may be well suited to this smaller wheeler size.
Most bikes will be outfitted with a 9 to 11-speed groupset paired with a single or double crankset in this category. The additional gearing offers riders an extensive range that's well suited to tackling steep climbs and enough at the opposite end to be used on the road.
Considering spending a little extra money and wondering what you’ll get for your money? Hardtails priced over AU$1,500 are typically outfitted with higher-performing 12-speed shifting, a more robust wheelset, and better-performing and serviceable suspension, often with an air spring for finite tunability and increased control.
Get to know more about mountain bike groupsets and gearing by reading our in-depth guide.
Marin Bobcat Trail 5 - AU$1399
Named after the birthplace of mountain biking, Marin are no strangers when it comes to the manufacture of high-quality mountain bikes that represent excellent value for money. Marin highlights exactly what upgrades can be had with the Bobcat Trail by stretching your budget a little and looking a little left of centre. The Bobcat ships complete with arguably the most capable build kit on this list, with the components of this quality typically found on bikes costing twice as much.
With a quality Shimano 1x11 drivetrain, beefy hydraulic disc brakes, meaty tubeless-ready wheels and tyres, a capable 120mm of SR Suntour air suspension up-front, all mated to a quality frameset. The frameset itself is hydroformed aluminium and features routing for a dropper seatpost if you’re looking to expand the scope of this rough and ready ride. Tubeless double-wall aluminium wheels wrapped in 2.25” WTB rubber completes the build.
Norco Storm 1 – AU$1299
Priced at AU$1299, the Norco Storm 1 is a big-brand highlight on this list, purely due to the level of the components fitted. Shipping complete with a Suntour XCM HLO DS fork offering up 100mm of travel, with a capable Shimano 1x11-speed drivetrain, this is one entry-level mountain bike capable of tackling some more serious trails.
The advantage of an air-sprung fork over their cheaper coil-sprung counterparts is the ability to fine-tune the desired firmness to your weight, making for a more effortless and controlled ride out on the trail. As an extra perk, an air spring is always lighter than a coil.
Additionally, the plush Maxxis Rekon 2.25in tyres should provide good levels of traction and roll-over ability, which will help newer riders tackle more demanding trails. Other upgrades for the refreshed Storm 1 include a Shimano Deore crankset paired with an 11-speed Shimano Deore 11-51T cassette and Tektro hydraulic disc brakes. We are impressed with what this bike has to offer for the price.
Trek Marlin 8 – AU$1499
One of the most popular “big brand” budget hardtails on the market, the Marlin range from American brand Trek carries on with few changes after a slight overhaul in 2019. With a tweaked geometry, specification update and women’s specific models, the Marlin is as at home on potholed city streets as it is on the dirt.
Outfitted with 29in wheels, save for the smallest 15.5in frame size, which rolls on 27.5” wheels, the Marlin 8 makes use of Shimano components and natural, reactive handling, thanks to a slack head tube angle and increased fork offset, a rarity on bikes at this price point. RockShox Judy Silver Solo air forks, double-walled Bontrager rims wrapped in Maxxis Ardent 2.35” tyres up front with 2.2” rubber at the rear, and internally routed cabling, with provisions for a dropper seatpost, round out the quality build kit.
Priced at AU$1499, the Marlin sits at the pointy end of the price range here. However, the range of included extras leaves you with a little extra cash to splash on some quality mountain bike accessories.
Focus Whistler 3.7 – AU$1099
Named after the famed Whistler mountain bike park in Canada, an ode to the mountain bike scene, the Focus Whistler is one of many bikes on this list outfitted with 29in wheels. In this instance, the larger wheels are ably assisted by quality 2.25in Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres.
A boxy aluminium frame at the heart of the bike is paired with a 100mm travel Suntour XCT Coil fork that features a handlebar-mounted remote for the lockout. The Shimano double crankset paired with a 10-speed Deore XT level derailleur and hydraulic disc brakes rounds out this capable package.
Giant Talon 29 1 – AU$1099
The Giant Talon is arguably the biggest selling entry-level hardtail mountain bike in Australia, and when you consider what you get for your money, it’s not hard to see why. After undergoing an extensive update in 2017 that saw the range score more confidence-inspiring geometry, generous specification additions and a welcome weight reduction, the Talon range has continued to grow in popularity.
The Talon 1 detailed here sits atop the range destined for Australian shores. Outfitted with a 10-speed Shimano groupset mated with a single crankset and wide-range 11-42T cassette, the bike looks to have a wide gear range suitable for various terrain. The Talon rolls on the widest rubber specified here, with the bike shipping with 2.4” rubber front and rear. An SXC32 air spring fork with 80-100m of travel (XS-S 80mm, M-XL 100mm) and hydraulic lockout complete the package.
Specialized Rockhopper Elite 29 – AU$1500
The RockHopper Elite is another quality 29er option with a schmick paint scheme that makes it look higher-end than its price-point counterparts. The recently revised A1 aluminium frame is paired with a RockShox Judy Judy sir fork with between 80/90/100mm travel depending on frame size. Much of the other components are Specialized's own, such as the stem, handlebars, crankset, rims, hubs and tyres, keeping it all neatly within the family. The brakes are ever-reliable Shimano hydraulic with 180mm/160mm centre lock rotors front and rear.
The Specialized 1x crankset is combined with a mixture of Shimano components. The 10-speed Shimano 11-42T cassette paired with a single crankset provides a wide spread of gears. The double-walled aluminium tubeless-ready wheelset is wrapped in 2.3in Ground Control 2Bliss Ready rubber front and rear for ample traction.
Merida Big Trail 200 – AU$1299
Merida has long stated that hardtail mountain bikes are the most popular off-road segment for the company. With that in mind, the second-largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world has offered up a range of entry-level trail hardtails with the Big Trail series.
Our pick for this list is the Big Trail 200, which sports a longer, lower and slacker geometry than its Big Nine/Seven cross country focussed siblings. The Big Trail 200 is outfitted with 29er wheels coupled with Kenda 2.4in (Front) and 2.2in (rear) tyres. The 10-speed drivetrain is an entire Shimano Deore affair, popular for bikes at this price point, whilst a 32T 1x crankset also features. Up front, a Suntour XCM32 fork provides 120mm of travel with a hydraulic lockout. Full width 740mm handlebars are equipped with Tektro hydraulic brakes, including 180mm rotors at both ends for increased stopping power when things get out of control.
Reid Neon 29 – AU$1299
The Australian-designed Reid Neon 29 stacks up impressively well compared to other bikes on this list, despite being middling in terms of its affordability. The Taiwanese made alloy frame is paired with a relatively high-end SunTour Raidon Air fork with 100mm travel, lockout and preload adjustment. A SRAM SX Eagle 1x crankset combines with the 12-speed groupset to provide a versatile gear range. Looking at rolling stock, the Argon is equipped with 29in double-walled aluminium wheels shod with 2.25in tyres.
Reid can keep costs down by selling directly to the consumer, which does mean if you order a bike, expect to complete some self-assembly or you can pick it up assembled directly from one of their retail outlets. We’ve previously been critical of these direct-to-consumer frames; however, Reid has moved their manufacturing in recent years, resulting in a steep upgrade in quality, making this ride very recommended.
Cannondale Trail 5 – AU$1149
After undergoing a significant rejuvenation in 2020, the Cannondale Trail range carries over to the new year with little change save for a fresh lick of paint and some minor specification changes. Notably, the trail-ready geometry remains, using a slacker head angle paired with a shorter stem and shorter seat stays (decreasing the wheelbase) to make the bike feel more maneuverable, agile and confidence-inspiring than its price tag suggests. Add in the broader bars and plusher WTB Ranger 2.25in tyres, and this ride looks ready to offer plenty of control. In line with current wheel size trends, the Trail 5 has 27.5in hoops for the smaller sizes, with 29in wheels equipped to larger frame sizes.
We found it pretty impressive that for the price, consumers can get a hardtail that echoes more advanced trail bikes, as seen in its dropper-post ready set-up and option to set up with a single chainring drivetrain. The front derailleur mount is not in use here with a 1x 10-speed Microshift X groupset. To top it off, the Trail 5 is equipped with Tektro hydraulic brakes and an SR Suntour XCM fork with 100mm travel.
Your first mountain bike is only half the equation. Check out our guide to mountain bike accessories to ensure you get the most out of your off-road ride!