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Review | Ratings | How We Test

The Best Wallet-Friendly Hardtail Mountain Bikes of 2017

Our Editors Choice Award winning short the 100% Airmatic can do it all from XC to Enduro.
By Clark Tate, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Robert Braun, Pat Donahue
Thursday August 17, 2017
Need a trail-worthy mountain bike but don't want to break the bank or deal with costly maintenance? We tested five wallet-friendly hardtails extensively over a six week period to find the best ride for you. These trail-ready hardtails are simple thanks to the lack of complicated suspension systems which involve many bearings and linkages. Having a rigid rear end forces the rider to use proper technique and finesse to navigate rough terrain. Those in search of a more forgiving ride might consider an efficient yet forgiving short-travel full suspension bike. Harsh or not, hardtails are low maintenance machines that will afford you more time on the bike and less time worrying about servicing your bike.

August 2018 Update: We did our homework to make sure our information is up to date. As of August, the only change is the Santa Cruz Chameleon R+ that we tested. The Chameleon now sports a $2,349 price tag which is a jump from our test bike that retailed for $1,999. This bike now sports a RaceFace Aeffect dropper post and 3.0-inch WTB Ranger tires.

Best Hardtail Trail Bike


Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017


Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie
Editors' Choice Award

$2,000 List
List Price
See It

Most fun and most confident bike in the test
Recommended for any rider
Great dropper seatpost
Not a great all-day climber
Serious chain slap
The Specialized Fuse 6Fattie is a well-balanced mountain bike. This bike descends with confidence, climbs swiftly and offers excellent traction. The Fuse is built around spot-on geometry that makes for a comfortable ride on a wide range of trails. The 3.0-inch tires relieve part of the harsh nature of a hardtail mountain bike and offer unbelievable traction when climbing. Gravel, sand, hardpack, these wide tires hook up like velcro. This bike is best suited for areas with rolling terrain that lacks 45 minute or longer climbs. The Fuse is a beautifully simple mountain bike that can be appreciated by riders of varying experience.

Read Full Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie

Most Playful and Versatile


Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017


Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+

$1,999 List
List Price
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Super nimble and playful
Truly versatile
Best fork in the test
Nearly too nimble
Not the zippiest pedaler in the test
No dropper post
The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a fun-loving trail bike with an easy going attitude. Cross-country rides, pumptrack, charging flow trails, this bike does it all. This 27.5+ hardtail is outfitted with our favorite tires in the test, the 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekon. These tires had a nice aggressive shoulder knob to allow riders to really lean into corners. Playful trail manners are heavily encouraged aboard the Chameleon. Does this sound perfect? Not quite. The front wheel has a tendency to wander on climbs. When riding in the "short" chainstay mode, this bike offers a harsh rear end on rough terrain. The Chameleon is almost as capable as the Specialized Fuse, only with a more playful approach

Read Full Review: Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+

Most Innovative and Aggressive


Trek Stache 7 2017


Trek Stache 7

$2,100 List
List Price
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Holds momentum better than any bike in the test
Neverending traction
Confident
Heavy and less nimble
Requires more aggressive handling
No dropper post
The Trek Stache is a straight-lining monster truck with grin-inducing characteristics. Once this bike's 29+ wheels gain a head of steam, momentum continues to build. These enormous wheels help keep the Stache out of holes on this speedy descender. Even though it takes a fair bit of momentum to get the Stache rolling, this bike is a surprisingly slick climber. There is no denying this big bright bicycle takes some muscle to whip around corners and over obstacles. Some of our finesse focused testers had a hard time getting used to the undamped, bouncy tires. The Stache is a capable and unique trail bike that is fantastic on smoother singletrack that lacks tight corners.

Read Full Review: Trek Stache 7

Best All-Day Climber


Kona Honzo AL/DL 2017


Kona Honzo AL/DL

$2,199 List
List Price
See It

Solid climber
Performs reliably everywhere
Fairly functional dropper post
Ho-hum
Uninspiring component spec
On the pricey side
The Kona Honzo is more of a traditional aggressive 29er when compared to the plus-sized competition. The narrower tires mean less rotating mass and decreased rolling resistance. The relatively middle-of-the-road geometry creates a great rider position for blasting out longer climbs or epic rides. The downside? The Honzo is outfitted with a stiff 32:42 gear ratio and a rear hub that offers poor engagement. When you work yourself into a pedaling rhythm, this bike provides an efficient, comfortable and predictable ride.

Read Full Review: Kona Honzo AL/DL

Full suspension bikes have the ability to get significantly more rowdy but require far more maintenance.
Full suspension bikes have the ability to get significantly more rowdy but require far more maintenance.

Hardtail V Full Suspension


At $2,000 you could get into a bare-bones full suspension rig. For $2,500 to $2,600 you could get one of the impressive 2017 short-travel full suspension trail bikes we tested alongside this crop of hardtail mountain bikes. The downside is a slightly heavier bike and more time and money spent on maintenance. Rear suspension linkage service and shock overhauls can run about $300 a year.

If you want to get into mountain biking but don't want to drop too much coin or deal with increased care and maintenance that full suspension bikes command, a hardtail might be right for you. If you are getting into the sport for the long-haul, and the expense and attention are worth it to you, a full suspension bike offers higher performance and will not limit growth.

Thinking through which kind of mountain biking matches your riding style, skills and MTB dreams? Here's some grist for the mill:
Cross-country Bikes — Relentlessly efficient. These bikes are hardtails or full suspension bikes with about 100mm of travel that are laser-focused on pedaling and climbing speed. Narrow rubber and super low bars decrease descending confidence.
Hardtail Trail Bikes — Simple and effective. These bikes have a rigid rear end but are more relaxed than a cross-country style hardtail, putting riders in a more comfortable position. Well-rounded but not the best on descents.
Short-Travel Trail Bikes — Squishy yet fast. Short-Travel trail bikes feature roughly 110-130mm of rear travel and can attack downhills confidently while retaining excellent climbing abilities. These are comfortable and efficient full suspension rides.
Mid-Travel Trail Bikes — Well rounded and aggressive. Mid-Travel bikes sport roughly 130-150mm of rear travel. These bikes are capable climbers but aim to balance downhill performance and pedal efficiency evenly.
Enduro or Long-Travel Trail Bikes — Aggressive and rowdy. These bikes feature 155-170mm of travel and can attack technical downhill terrain confidently. Enduro bikes can climb but are made to aim downhill.

up to 5 products
Score Product Price Wheelsize Measured Weight (w/o pedals, Medium) Frame Material
90
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017 $2,000
Editors' Choice Award
27.5"+ 29lb 5oz M4 Alloy Aluminum
80
Santa Cruz Chameleon R1+ 2017 $1,999
27.5"+ 28lb 8oz Aluminum
70
Trek Stache 7 2017 $2,100
29"+ 30lb 2oz Alpha Aluminium
62
Kona Honzo AL/DL 2017 $2,199
29" 29lb 11oz Aluminum
49
Salsa Woodsmoke 29 NX1 2017 $1,999
29" 27lb 11oz Carbon

Hardtail Analysis and Test Results


After testing blingy downhill bashing enduro rigs and aggressive mid-travel trail bikes, we turned our attention to more affordable rides. We bought five short-travel full suspension and five hardtail trail bikes. We tested the hardtails listed here alongside the award-winning Santa Cruz Tallboy 29 D, Specialized Camber Comp 29, Trek Fuel Ex 7 29, Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1, and Giant Anthem 2. See the hardtail rankings in the table below. Read on to find out all the gritty details.

Three fantastic hardtail mountain bikes with unique skill sets and characteristics.
Three fantastic hardtail mountain bikes with unique skill sets and characteristics.

How We Test Hardtails


Four of our bike obsessed testers took these hardtail mountain bikes on every ride they could fit into a six week period. They also completed timed laps for our benchmarking trials. Armed with this data, we ranked the bikes on the fun factor (worth 25% of the final score), downhill, climbing and cornering skills (worth 20% each), and build quality (worth 15%). See the final scores in the table above, find out more about our time trials below.

Adjustable Geometry — We test complete bikes as the manufacturer builds them. This round included three bikes with adjustable dropouts, which let you customize the chainstay length. We completed the majority of testing with the bikes in the setting they arrived in — the Santa Cruz Chameleon in its short setting and the Trek Stache and Salsa Woodsmoke in their long settings.

When it has a head of steam  the Trek Stache is holds speed like no other.
When it has a head of steam, the Trek Stache is holds speed like no other.

Benchmark Testing


We busted out hundreds of Sierra mountain miles to find out how these bikes feel. We rode them through short, punchy time trials to get some hard data. It's handy to discover if the bikes that feel speedy, or sluggish, actually are. We ran 128 timed laps to get four climbing and four descending times per rider on each bike. Unfortunately, crazy spring winds kept us from getting reliable results on the downhill time trials. See How We Tested for all the details.

The climbing results are in the Climbing Performance section below. Here's a quick description of the course.

Climbing Section, aka The Bite — The trail is a jagged stack of non-stop hardpack switchbacks. Mostly smooth, it incorporates a short rocky stretch and two technical turns. It takes an average of 2 minutes and 42 seconds to complete. The climb nicely balances the need for precision handling with on-call pedal power and the straightforward climbing speed of the straightaways.

There is no denying the Santa Cruz has a jovial and frolicsome attitude.
There is no denying the Santa Cruz has a jovial and frolicsome attitude.

Fun Factor


It's no coincidence that the top three hardtails in this test feature plus-sized tires. Hardtail mountain bikes are inherently harsher than full suspension bikes. They can be jarring. When tempered by big tires, hardtails give you a lively trail feel without as much feedback from the rigid rear end. Pretty fun. Since having fun is the goal aboard a bicycle, the fun factor is worth 25% of the final score.

The Fuse offers standout performance on every aspect of the trail. It sends jumps, rails turns, and tackles aggressive descents with more confidence than any other bike in the test. Excellent geometry allows the bike to be stable enough for newbies and playful enough for experienced riders. It's also a comfortable climber. It wins fun. It's 27.5 x 3" tires keep us at ease in corners, but have a blurry feel that our irks our most precision-minded tester. The rest of us just lean the bike over and laugh.

The Fuse excels on every aspect of the trail. It is pretty good above the trail too.
The Fuse excels on every aspect of the trail. It is pretty good above the trail too.

Coming in right behind the Fuse on the fun-o-meter is the Santa Cruz Chameleon. It's excellent 120mm Fox Rhythm 34 fork and perfectly spec'ed Maxxis Rekon 27.5 x 2.8" tires keep it confident on the descents. In it's shortest chainstay mode, the Chameleon is more tossable than any bike we've tested, getting puppy level playful at low speeds. Its compact wheelbase and dirt jumper style geometry demands access to side jumps, and this bike swings around switchbacks like it's tied to a tree.

Unfortunately, some of that tossing is enforced by the bike's lack of balance. If you can't get your weight properly situated over the front wheel on the climbs it starts rising skyward, with the rear tire wanting to loop out. The 415mm chainstays and slack 71.2-degree seat tube are somewhat to blame. It's better when it's chainstays measure more like 430mm. It's also difficult to keep your body in optimal position for descents, largely due to the lack of a dropper seatpost. Slap on one of the new, lower cost droppers (we love the Tranzx dropper on the Fuse) and the Chameleon's fun factor would jump up.


The Fuse's fun factor ranks a 9 of 10 for its confidence, play-ready personality, and excellent performance across the board. The Chameleon is one step behind at an 8. While it prioritizes a good time, it can play the class clown when you'd rather it just keep its head down. The Trek Stache rates a 7 for being a tank, a fast one at that. It's fun is in the insane rollover and friendly squish of those big wheels. The Honzo earns a 6 of 10 for showing you a well-mannered good time on all aspects of the trail. It's a bit like dating a Stepford resident. The Woodsmoke comes in at a 5 for holding down an average bi-wheeled enjoyment level.

The enormous wheels bolted to the Stache make short work obstacles of in the trail.
The enormous wheels bolted to the Stache make short work obstacles of in the trail.

Downhill Performance


The top three hardtails are surprisingly confidence-inspiring when heading downhill. Those slacker frontends and mid-fat tires urge you to push your speed and attack the hits, devils grinning on your shoulder. The back end is the little angel that'll smack you when you hit the limit. These are aggressive, modern hardtail mountain bikes meant to charge on-trail, so we rated their downhill performance at 20% to match their climbing and cornering skills.

Downhill Confidence


The Specialized Fuse blows us away with its assertive downhill nature. A longer wheelbase, measured 67.8-degree head tube angle, and 3-inch tires work to keep you grounded, letting you push your skills and your speed. Its 430mm chainstays are also the longest of any test bike. This geometry equals a balanced and grounded bike. It's no wonder the Fuse is the most stable descender in the test, offering up composure in the rock gardens approaching full suspension levels.

The Fuse has the right attitude to feed it down chunky terrain.
The Fuse has the right attitude to feed it down chunky terrain.

The Chameleon rides like the Fuse's little brother, a little less confident and a lot more playful, attributes that will level out if it grows up to get a dropper post. It's pretty darn good, inspiring a low and aggressive stance. But, at high speeds, it can feel a little squirrely on steep descents, possibly due to its steeper head tube angle and shorter chainstays. We measured them at 68.2-degrees and 415mm respectively. The rigid seatpost also forces you to cantilever your weight further back than you'd prefer. The combination makes the bike challenging to balance for a few of our testers. With our most aggressive tester feeling like he's on the bike rather than in it. If you can stay centered, it's a solid ride. Consider ordering a dropper post immediately if you order this bike.

The Trek Stache is almost overconfident, with those 29 x 3" tires getting you in over your head in a hurry. The big wheel squish stops suddenly when you hit hard enough, giving you a big and often unexpected bounce. This almost ruined two of our testers on a technical rock drop, rebounding with all the finesse of a trampoline and nearly sending them careening off trail. (The Fuse handled the same hit without incident.) We don't recommend this bike for a lot of air time as a result. Its monster wheels are stable and make small work of most rock gardens, but their inertia is hard to interrupt. Good luck course-correcting. And while those big tires can help you get through some ill-advised line choices, this isn't a full suspension rig. There's only so much the bike can do for you.

The Honzo and Woodsmoke are on the other end of the spectrum, largely due to the trail chatter translated by narrow tires. The Honzo keeps it's head under pressure and gives you the benefit of ideal body positioning with its dropper post. Meanwhile, the Woodsmoke is an unbalanced ride without enough tire width or bite to enforce its brakes.

The Santa Cruz is a super fun bike but requires some attention at speed.
The Santa Cruz is a super fun bike but requires some attention at speed.

Downhill Cornering and Handling


The Fuse is an ideal trail bike, stable at speed and easy to navigate along your line. It's the best handling test bike at high speeds, but it doesn't have automatic steering. It can feel sluggish and vague due to those 27.5 x 3" tires. Still, it responds well to subtle input. Riders can also get aggressive with the bars, because, man, those tires can take it. They rarely let their grip go, even on off-camber turns. They don't have well-defined cornering knobs though. You can't feel the tires digging into a turn. For this reason, several testers prefer the 27.5 x 2.8" tire size, as found on the Santa Cruz Chameleon. They give you endless traction and the comforting edge of larger and more defined shoulder knobs. In contrast, the Fuse's 3-inch tires have smaller knobs wrapping around a ballooned sidewall.

While the Fuse handles well at slow speeds, the Chameleon is better. It's easy to toss the lizard between lines and around turns, feeling predictable and stable just before you hit full bore. While the front feels aggressive enough to point and shoot, the short rear end doesn't always back it up. When speeds increase, the short chainstays can get jittery. Again, it's handling is so quick it can feel skittish, requiring a lot of moving around to find balance for the descents.

The Stache's tall front end combines with a high bottom bracket, measured at 331mm, to create a lofty feel. This sensation sends testers further back on the bike for descents in an attempt to get low and aggressive. A dropper would help, but either way, it plows through what you point it at. It doesn't require much effort until you need to turn. This bike benefits very little from handling or cornering technique. It's a muscle job.

The Honzo is comfortable on all aspects of the trail and performs respectably.
The Honzo is comfortable on all aspects of the trail and performs respectably.

The Honzo is stable and predictable on descents, requiring minimal input. It doesn't inspire playful side hits though, and the lack of tire traction keeps your guard up. It's a bit "blah," says one tester. In contrast, the twitchy and unstable Woodsmoke requires a lot of movement to find an aggressive attack position on the descent.

Our downhill test course was a little too gradual, short, and wind affected to give us reliable results. Four of our five test bikes got scattered results among testers. What we can confidently say is that the 29+ tires and pedaling efficiency on the Stache make it pretty darn fast. It was the fastest bike for all three time trial testers on the descent.


We rate the Fuse a 10 of 10 for its downhill prowess. It's hard to imagine a trail-oriented hardtail taking on gravity challenges with more composure. It also offers up a playful side as your skill level allows. The Chameleon rolls in at an 8, taking a hit for being slightly less stable and for forcing you to dodge a rigid seatpost to get the most out of the bike's frolicsome nature. We put the Stache in the middle of the pack with a 7. The 6 rated Honzo would undoubtedly rate much higher with wider rubber. The Woodsmoke's narrow rims and tires leave us with more work than we want to get downhill. We gave it a 4.

The Fuse  while it may not be suitable for multi-hour climbs  will get you to the top of the hill comfortably.
The Fuse, while it may not be suitable for multi-hour climbs, will get you to the top of the hill comfortably.

Climbing Performance


These hardtails are not the most incredible climbers out there. They don't lose any pedal power to rear suspension linkages but have their weight, plus-sized rolling resistance, and aggressive leaning designs working against them. These bikes don't inspire excitement for long climbs. Some of them are certainly better than others. Climbing counts for 20% of final scores.

Climbing Pedaling


The Fuse's balanced geometry and longer chainstays allow you to sit and spin efficiently from the saddle, making it the most likable climber in the test. It feels incredibly lively given the rolling resistance and weight of its 3-inch tires. Unbelievable traction transfers every ounce of your energy to chew up the trail. It's on par with the Chameleon in acceleration and has reasonable engagement in its Specialized sealed bearing hubs. Yet, as the climbs get longer, our enthusiasm for the Fuse wanes. It's a lot of wheel to roll uphill, and the cockpit's measured 426mm reach can start to feel cramped.

The Chameleon's 2.8-inch tires are less of a lactic acid issue on the uphills. It has more of a body positioning problem. Several of our testers have an uncomfortable time scooting far enough forward on the Chameleon's saddle to keep its front tire on the ground and its pedaling efficient. This isn't entirely surprising. As we've mentioned the Chameleon came set up with uber short, 415mm chainstays and has the slackest seat tube in the test, measured at 71.2-degrees.

The Stache rolls effectively but requires some serious power to get it rolling from a stop.
The Stache rolls effectively but requires some serious power to get it rolling from a stop.

The Trek Stache wins the inertia award. The weight of its wheels and crappy engagement on it's Bontrager sealed bearing hubs make it a bear of a bike to get going. Once rolling, it builds momentum like crazy, even uphill. One of the steepest seat tube angles in the test, 77.3-degrees, positions you nicely to put the power down. The other bikes demanded more consistent pedaling to keep pace.

The Honzo also suffers from power lost to low-quality hub engagement, this time Shimano Deore hubs. Between poor hubs, uninspiring tread on it's Maxxis Ardent 29 x 2.25" rear tire and a bit of wheel flex, the Honzo can't be mistaken for a race rocket. Still, it's a reasonable pedaler and the lack of rolling resistance make it our first choice for all day climbs. The Woodsmoke pedals nicely but is too easily knocked around on what feel like traction-less tires.

Climbing, Handling, and Cornering


We know how they pedal uphill, but how do they steer? The bikes' aggressive head tube angles are more prone to front wheel wander than we'd like, but it's not overly distracting. While they all have sharp steering, their widely ranging tires can't always enforce it.

The Fuse's front end is easy to guide on the climbs and pick up to place around tight turns. You don't have to work hard to keep it on a line, and can do most of your steering from the saddle. With tires that steamroll over obstacles and keep a reasonable pace on smooth trails, the Fuse is an incredibly beginner friendly climber.

Plus sized tires offer incredible amounts of traction and allow more liberal weight placement.
Plus sized tires offer incredible amounts of traction and allow more liberal weight placement.

The Chameleon is a little faster in the turns than the Fuse, but it can be challenging to steer and keep the front wheel down. Several testers really have to lean out over the bars on the steep sections, not the coziest of climbing positions. We remedied this by running the bike in it's longer chainstay iteration, which lengthens the stays to 430mm. It helps keep the front tire down and is more comfortable, more stable, and less harsh over rocks. One tester doesn't like it any better though, saying it feels more sluggish than ever on the climb. Another tester — a long-legged ex-cross-country racer — found the Chameleon an easy bike to climb from the saddle no matter the chainstay length.

Two of our XC leaning testers prefer climbing on the Fuse and the Chameleon. One of the more aggressive testers prefers the Trek Stache. None can deny that the Stache is easy to get around tight switchbacks on the climb, even though its front wheel is too planted to lift with ease. It's also a heavy feeling bike at 28 lbs, 8 oz.

The Honzo's front wheel is also planted, and the bike takes up a ton of the trail to get around a switchback. Its tires lack traction, but we appreciate the lighter rolling resistance on long slogs. The Woodsmoke is a precise, if overly sensitive, steering bike, but the rough riding rear end will jostle you off line on occasion.

Our climbing data is more reliable and consistent than the downhill numbers. We found the Fuse and Stache to be the fastest climbers  averaging 4.8 and 4.7 seconds ahead of the last place Chameleon. The trial took an average 2:42 min:sec to complete.
Our climbing data is more reliable and consistent than the downhill numbers. We found the Fuse and Stache to be the fastest climbers, averaging 4.8 and 4.7 seconds ahead of the last place Chameleon. The trial took an average 2:42 min:sec to complete.

While it's not the most energizing bike on the climbs due to all that rolling resistance, the Fuse is fairly fast. It won our climbing time trial test. The ever accelerating Stache keeps up, coming in a close second. The lack of traction on the Woodsmoke and Honzo took a toll on their time trial results, but the efficient pedaling of the Salsa came out ahead. The poor engagement of that Honzo hub slowed its acceleration out of the switchbacks. The Chameleon didn't feel that slow on the climbs, but it's slack seat tube keeps the pedal power from translating efficiently.


The Fuse keeps up its best-in-the-test streak by ranking a 9 of 10 in the climbing category. It pedals efficiently and handles more automatically than the rest. We just wouldn't want to push it uphill all day. The Chameleon comes in next with an 8 of 10 for similar skills but an awkward balance point on some pitches. The Stache and Honzo tie at a 7 of 10. The Stache gets props for solid plowing wheel/tire combo but has lots of rolling resistance and low acceleration. The Honzo has comfortable, middle-of-the-road climbing. Suffering from a lack of traction and rough riding, the quick to accelerate Woodsmoke rates a 6.

The Trek offers insane traction but requires some persuasion to move it through corners.
The Trek offers insane traction but requires some persuasion to move it through corners.

Cornering


We discuss the bikes' relative cornering, handling, and body language skills in the climbing and descending sections above. For scoring purposes, we rate cornering separately from uphill and downhill handling to get a sense of the ability of each bike. For this metric the Fuse and Chameleon tie atop the standings with an 8 of 10, both whipping around corners without much thought, preparation or skill. Both bikes have plenty of traction and the quick handling skills to take down any corner with style. The Fuse has a fuzzy, fat-tire feel, while the zippy chainstays and 2.8-inch tires on the Chameleon give you enough edge to keep your steering sharp.


While the Stache is a lot of bike to fit in a switchback, all that traction lets you get aggressive in the corners. Still, the Stache loses time here. Our most aggressive tester pushed for the 7 of 10 ranking on this one. The two more XC guys voted for a 6 to reflect the vague plus-sized tires and the big bike feel that had us using every bit of real estate to turn. Perhaps predictably, the aggressive guy won.

The Honzo is a bit trickier in the turns than the Fuse or Chameleon. It uses up most of the trail to get around a switchback and washes out readily. When we tried it with wider rubber, it was far more capable. We gave it a 6 of 10. The Woodsmoke steers around nearly as sharply as the Honzo but has less traction. It gets a 5.

We measured all the bikes and refer to these numbers in each review. The Fuse's measurements are above. Read about our methods in How We Tested.
We measured all the bikes and refer to these numbers in each review. The Fuse's measurements are above. Read about our methods in How We Tested.

Build


Manufacturers strive to compliment their frame with a build kit that maximizes performance while minimizing costs. Here we look at how well the build kits work with our test bikes. This metric counts for 15% of the final score.

The TranzX dropper post lever is neatly placed under the left side of the handlebars on the Fuse.
The TranzX dropper post lever is neatly placed under the left side of the handlebars on the Fuse.

The Fuse Expert 6Fattie wins the build quality metric. Its 120mm RockShox Reba RL works with the Specialized Purgatory 27.5 x 3" front tire to provide plenty of cushion. The smooth shifting SRAM GX1 drivetrain is one of the nicest in the test with a generous 28x42-tooth climbing gear. One complaint is the extensive chain slap we experienced during testing. The real prize is the 120mm TranzX dropper post, which, despite costing significantly less than most droppers, functioned perfectly throughout testing. The SRAM DB-3 brakes are a step down from the Levels that we would expect at this price range. The Specialized wheelset is serviceable. While the 3-inch tires are solid, below at left, we liked the 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekons on the Santa Cruz better, below on the right.


The Chameleon R1+ build gives you an excellent 120mm Fox 34 Rhythm fork with a plush stroke and stiff chassis. The Maxxis Rekon+ 27.5 x 2.8" tires are tubeless and the best in the test. We like the 760mm handlebar with its sturdy 35mm clamp. The Novatec 711/712 hubs on the wheelset are quick to bite but have a reputation for loosening on their axle frequently. The NX1 drivetrain is fine with a 30x42-tooth climbing gear. The real issue is the lack of a dropper post. Droppers run from $129 to $479. You could step down to a D+ build and add a dropper with the $400 you save. In fact, you will likely have some cash left over. The downside? You lose that killer fork, and the bike will probably lose some spark.

The Chameleon has adjustable dropouts. They are pictured in the "short" setting above.
The Chameleon has adjustable dropouts. They are pictured in the "short" setting above.

The solid Stache 7 sports an equally solid build. We didn't like the 120mm Manitou Magnum Comp 34 during the parking lot test. But it's indistinguishable from the tire squish on trail. A longer 70mm stem and 750mm bar made for a narrow cockpit. We'd prefer a wider bar closer to the head tube to wrestle all that rubber. The 29 x 3.0" Bontrager Chupacabra tires have more traction than studded truck tires on a rubber road. The 30x42-tooth climbing gear isn't too burly and allows for power on descents, though getting started after a stall is brutal. The groupset works.

The Trek's drivetrain sports an impressive SRAM X1 crankset.
The Trek's drivetrain sports an impressive SRAM X1 crankset.

We appreciate the Honzo's dropper post, but it's not a very nice one, traveling a paltry 100mm. One of only two spec'ed in the test, it is very slow to climb back up to pedaling position. We don't love the RockShox Yari RC 120mm travel fork. Its 35mm stanchions are stiff, but the fork feels like a pogo stick on small to mid-size hits. The Shimano Deore M618 32h hubs are noticeably slow to engage, annoying several testers. The Maxxis Minion DHF tire up front is nice, but we'd prefer a 2.5-inch to its 2.3-inch version. The Maxxis Ardent out back is just bad. The SRAM NX1 drivetrain is fine, if clunky.

The Honzo's KS Eten dropper post was slow to return to its pedaling height and only featured 100mm of travel.
The Honzo's KS Eten dropper post was slow to return to its pedaling height and only featured 100mm of travel.

The Salsa Woodsmoke 29 NX1 sold its component soul for a carbon frame. The result is the lightest (27 lbs 11 oz) and poorest performing bike in the test. The 120mm RockShox Recon RC fork is rough. The narrow Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires don't provide proper traction for climbing, cornering or braking. They keep the SRAM Level brakes from doing their job. The SRAM NX drivetrain is functional, as is the handlebar, but the Salsa Backcountry grips are the worst. They don't lock on and slide off the end of the bar throughout the test. The Woodsmoke features an adjustable dropout as well.

A SRAM NX1 drivetrain powers the lightweight Salsa Woodsmoke.
A SRAM NX1 drivetrain powers the lightweight Salsa Woodsmoke.

What you can't change (Boost Spacing) and what you can (Tires)
Boost — Excepting the Honzo's front wheel, these bikes have Boost axle spacing. Boosted axles measure 110mm up front and 148mm in the rear instead of the old 100/142mm standard. Boost makes room for plus-sized tires, shortened chainstays, and is purported to stiffen wheels and frames.
Tires — The width and tread of tires have a disproportionate impact on performance considering their relatively low cost. We test the bikes with the manufacturers' stock build, but if the rubber dominates our ride experience, we switch it out and ride some more. Adjusting rim width, which affects the profile and function of a tire, is more costly. Tubeless — The Santa Cruz Chameleon is the only test bike that came with tubeless tires, known to increase performance.


We rate the Fuse a 9 of 10 for its performance-focused build. Following with an 8, the Chameleon gets props for its fork and tires, taking a hit for having no dropper post. In the middle of the pack, the sturdy Stache gets a sturdy 7. The Honzo is a pricey bike and we're not sure where the money went with this 6 rated build. The carbon Woodsmoke didn't have enough cash leftover for a solid spec. We give it a 4.

While it is hard to go wrong with a modern mountain bike  the Specialized Fuse is a cut above the competition.
While it is hard to go wrong with a modern mountain bike, the Specialized Fuse is a cut above the competition.

Cockpit and Fit


The Fuse fits all testers well, working flawlessly for a range of body types and riding styles. The Honzo and Woodsmoke are similarly comfortable for all riders, though the lack of a dropper post on the Woodsmoke makes it hard to appreciate. The Honzo's 100mm dropper is short for a few of our testers, who couldn't raise the post (420mm total length) enough to climb comfortably. The slack seat tube, which is exaggerated for the taller testers, and short chainstays on the Santa Cruz Chameleon make it a challenging for some to find a comfy spot for climbs and descents. The balance point on the Chameleon seems to be less of a size issue than a preference issue. This is a good bike to ride before purchasing. The Trek Stache is just tall, with a curved seat tube holding the saddle too high. If you're on the edge of medium sizing, consider sizing down on the green machine.

Find each manufacturer's size recommendations below:

Specialized Fuse — Sizing not available on manufacturer's website
Santa Cruz Chameleon — S (5'0" - 5'5"), M (5'5" - 5'10"), L (5'10" - 6'1"), XL (6'1" - 6'6")
Trek Stache — 15.5" (5'0.5" - 5'4.5"), 17.5" (5'4" - 5'8.5"), 18.5" (5'7.5" - 5'11"), 19.5 (5'10" - 6'2.5"), 21.5 (6'1.5" - 6'5.5")
Kona Honzo — XS/S (4'10" - 5'1"), S/M (5'0" - 5'7"), S/M/L (5'6" - 5'10"), M/L (5'9" - 6'0"), M/L/XL (5'11" - 6'2"), L/XL (6'1" - 6'5")
Salsa Woodsmoke — XS (5'2" - 5'6"), S (5'3" - 5'9"), M (5'8" - 6'0"), L (5'11" - 6'3"), XL (6'2+)

Our test bikes all have unique personalities. The Specialized Fuse crushes all aspects of the trail with confidence and attitude.
Our test bikes all have unique personalities. The Specialized Fuse crushes all aspects of the trail with confidence and attitude.

Conclusion


Three hardtails are nearly as aggressive as the short-travel full suspension bikes we tested, but you can't escape the feedback. For advanced riders, this can equal an excitingly sporty trail feel and for beginners it's a less intimidating step into the costly world of maintaining a mountain bike. The Specialized Fuse is stable enough to stoke any newcomer and fun enough for absolutely anyone. It's endless traction and all-around skills charmed even our 3-inch tire hating tester. The Santa Cruz Chameleon isn't far behind with tossable yet confident handling. Its geometry isn't perfectly balanced and it doesn't feel equally amazing for all riders, especially on the climbs. A solid bike that lacks the squish of fat tires, the Kona Honzo is a hardtail 29er that gets it, no frills needed. The Trek Stache and Salsa Woodsmoke are out there on the innovation versus demand teeter totter. In its 29+ guise, the Stache combines laugh-out-loud descending with a solid component spec to gain a lot of love from the testers. The Woodsmoke's narrow 29 x 2.25-inch tires and cut-every-corner-for-carbon build does not.



The Trek Stache is at its best when aimed straight and carrying momentum.
The Trek Stache is at its best when aimed straight and carrying momentum.

The Testers


OutdoorGearLab's professional test riders are bike obsessed. They've spent their lives racing, wrenching, review reading, and riding. While we didn't have an official lady tester on this review, we had a couple of women ride all the bikes and included their feedback.

Paul Tindal, Lead Tester


Give Paul six shots of espresso and put him on a bike and you won't see him for days. He'll come back happy. Starting out as a triathlete and road bike racer, Paul quickly rose through the junior and senior ranks in his native Australia. Then he moved to South Lake Tahoe, CA and picked up a mountain bike. A professional bike mechanic, he's been switching out fat tire rides ever since. While racing in the National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) series shortly after moving here, Paul crosstrained on his road bike. Several years ago he moved on to the pro category of the California Enduro Series and now races in the open class. Paul charges around 100 miles a week on his Specialized Camber 29 and Specialized Enduro 27.5.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame

Curtis Smith, Collaborating Tester


Curtis "Cardio" Smith's nicklastname might as well be "Strava". He's got KOMs for days. It's no wonder, he grew up as a bike shop kid in southern Cali, then moved to trail-tastic South Lake Tahoe, CA. Curtis made the National podium in the XC MTB, won the Sierra Cup Series and the Pro Open class of the Sacramento Cyclocross Series. While he prefers challenging singletrack MTB trails, he also races road Cat 2. Curtis lives in South Lake with his wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters. He rides his Santa Cruz Bronson, Trek Emonda SLR, or Trek Boone 9 on singletrack around 10 to 30 hours a week.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame

Robert Braun, Collaborating Tester


Robert's been biking for as long as he can remember, mostly trying to keep up with his five older siblings. He switches between cross-country, cyclocross, road and cruiser bike riding and races in the first three. Robert likes bikes, logging 2,000 miles in the first five months of this year, between one and three hundred miles each week. Robert has a Specialized FSR and a Scott Foil.

Height and Weight: 5'8"lbs and 150lbs, prefers medium frame








Clark Tate, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Robert Braun, Pat Donahue
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