New 2017 bikes are hitting the shelves in bike stores around the country, we've had a look through the latest models and come up with what we deem the best budget mountain bikes for $500 (in no particular order).
Despite the name, mountain bikes of this price point aren't truly built for riding rough off-road trails, instead they offer a versatile bike for getting around that's capable of tackling smoother, well maintained dirt trails. Whether it's for a young teenager looking for their first 'proper' bike, a bike to ride with the kids or simply something to trial the sport with, we've got the short list of the best models to consider.
The frames of all the selected bikes are made from aluminium and can host pannier racks, kickstands and other popular accessories. Expect a hardtail mountain bike that has a rigid rear triangle and suspension in the front forks with limited travel (the amount of movement in the suspension). This travel provides a comfortable ride and will vary from between 60mm and 100mm on most models at this price. A few bikes of this price also feature the option to close off the suspension for use on smooth roads, this is known as a 'lock-out' switch. Most however, will only offer 'preload adjustment', which allows a small amount of control over how firm the suspension spring is.
The braking system will be either rim or disc brake, the latter the preferred option as it typically performs better in the wet. At this price point, bikes with rim brakes will be lighter. Both braking systems are likely to be operated by mechanical cables, although a few do offer hydraulic systems (sealed fluid replaces cables).
Tourney and Altus are the introductory groupsets from Shimano that are found on kids mountain bikes and mountain bikes under $500. Designed for recreational riding; rough and muddy off-road riding is beyond the design criteria of these two options. Both groupsets will often have three gears at the crankset and feature either 7 or 8 gears at the back, which combine to offer 21 or 24-speed drivetrains (e.g: 3x7 = 21).
From our experience testing bikes of this category, you want to look for bikes with an aluminium, not steel, handlebar and you want wheels that feature 'Double Wall' rims to ensure they stay straight. All bikes chosen here tick these boxes.
Spending a little more money will reduce the weight of the frame, offer improved suspension control and better shifting quality. Hydraulic disc brakes will likely feature, offering lower maintenance and better braking. One hidden upgrade is seen with the rear hub, where it'll move from using a 'freewheel' to a 'cassette' for the gears, simply put, the cassette style is better for rear axle support and is therefore stronger. That extra money most importantly adds up to a bike that's more durable and is better equipped for off-road riding.
To get a better understanding of mountain bikes, read our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Mountain Bikes that explains the different types of mountain bikes, the type of riding you can do with them, and just how to choose the right one for you.
Highlighted here are the unisex versions from each brand. Many of these listed are also available in women's-specific versions.
Giant ATX 2
Giant, the world's largest bicycle manufacturer knows a thing or two about quality aluminium frame construction. Rolling on 27.5in wheels, the ATX 2 offers a proven frame matched with a basic, but confidence inspiring, SR Suntour XCT 100mm travel fork. The gearing is a entry-level mix of Shimano and SR Suntour 7-speed components which offer a respectable range for fast on-road speeds and tackling steep inclines. Tektro mechanical disc brakes should keep a check on speed with ease. The ATX replaces the hugely popular 'Boulder' series of years past.
Trek Marlin 4
Offering confidently large 29in wheels in all but the smallest frame sizes, the Marlin 4 borrows a number of design characteristics from Trek's proven performance mountain bikes to make it steer with class. A full Shimano drivetrain offers a gearing range more suited to off-road and path riding, while the rim brakes help to keep the bike's weight under 14kg. Only a basic 75mm SR Suntour fork is featured up front, but the big-volume 2.2in width front tyre should pick up the slack when the terrain gets bumpy.
Specialized Hardrock 650b
Another great option from another leading brand, the Specialized Hardrock is a classic model that has served as a starter bike for many enthusiast mountain bikers for well over a decade. This Hardrock rolls on 27.5in wheels, but is otherwise much like the Trek Marlin 4 in its component selection. Again the SR-Suntour M3030 suspension fork with its 75mm of travel appears, as do lightweight rim brakes. The Shimano gearing offers one of the lower gear ranges for the price point, making it an ideal choice for those expecting steep hills.
Another classic bike company, GT have been offering their identifiable 'triple triangle' hardtails for over two decades. The Palomar builds on this historic design with an 80mm All Terra CH-565 fork that's equivalent to a SR-Suntour M3030. Similar to the Giant, Trek, Specialized and Merida, the GT offers a 21-speed Shimano drivetrain with a freewheel-type hub. Rim brakes help to keep weight down, while an included kickstand makes this a great around-town ride.