With 2018 model ranges well and truly making their way onto bike shop floors, we thought it’s high time to look through the current crop of trail mountain bikes and come up with what we deem are the best choices for $3,000 or thereabouts.
Consider this a short-list of the bikes we’d put our own money on (in no particular order).
What is a Trail Bike?
Trail bikes are best described as the all-rounder of singletrack, designed to be efficient on the climbs, and with 120-140mm of suspension travel, still provide plenty of confidence and control on rough and technical descents. Whilst this list is mostly comprised of dual suspension, a few hardtails have made the cut thanks to their plus-sized wheels and impressive value for money.
At this price, bikes become increasingly specialised as either cross-country, trail, enduro or downhill, allowing you to choose a bike type that best suits your riding style and the local terrain. Wheel sizes remain a hot topic within the trail bike category, with some brands focused on the smaller 27.5in size for nimbleness, while other brands are dedicated to the larger 29er wheel for its greater roll-over and speed. And then some brands are on the fence, offering both.
The trail hardtail continues to evolve and shape up as a viable option compared to a dual suspension bike. Many brands are continuing to support 'Plus-sized' wheel formats, fitting out new models with massively wide tires. These 2.8in to 3in wide tires add grip beyond belief, soak up the hits and remain comparable in weight to a thinner-wheeled dual suspension model.
Budget pending, however, a dual suspension remains the most popular choice for this type of riding. Choosing a dual suspension bike provides additional control and comfort, but you'll have to settle for lesser components as the greater complexity (moving components) of a dual suspension frame is a large part of the cost. At this price, the aluminium frame you're getting is often the same as found on the more expensive models.
What to Expect for your Money
Many of the top-tier features such as a dropper seatpost, 1x drivetrain and tubeless wheels that you see on the best mountain bikes start to become available at this price. The dropper seatpost has become a favorite choice amongst enthusiast mountain bikers as it allows remote-controlled saddle height adjustment for negotiating technical descents without having to compromise pedaling on flat and uphill sections.
Finely damped suspension that features adjustable air springs are just about standard at this price, as are hydraulic disc brakes.
Expect drivetrains to be equipped with either a 10 or 11-speed cassette, paired with a double crankset. However, drivetrains with a single chainring up front (aka 1x) are starting to become more commonplace in 2018. The benefits of the 1x drivetrain is less moving parts, which means less chance of mechanical failure or issues; reduced weight; allows manufacturers to experiment with frame design, creating bikes with greater tire clearance and shorter chainstays which help create a more nimble bike with better traction and control; and lastly, frees up space on the handlebar for a dropper seatpost remote.
Designed to improve steering and suspension performance, thru-axle wheels appear at this price but are far from standard equipment with a few bikes still featuring the traditional quick release skewer. Tubeless wheels are a great upgrade for any mountain bike and will allow the use of lower tire pressures without risk of puncture, some brands will offer “tubeless-ready” wheels at this price, but commonly you'll need to purchase compatible tires.
If you’re able to spend a little bit more, then truth be told, the very best value in mountain bikes sits within the $3,500-$4,500 price range. Here features such as 1x drivetrain, dropper posts, tubeless wheels and thru-axles are near guaranteed. You'll also find improved suspension quality, better shifting and perhaps even a carbon dual suspension frame. However, if your budget doesn't stretch that far, then you'll certainly find the bikes listed here more than capable of putting a smile on your face.
Trail Dual Suspension
Giant Trance 3
The Trance carries on with little change in 2018 save for a fresh lick of paint and some specification changes following its major update in 2017. With a massive 150mm of suspension travel at the front and an impressive 140mm at the rear, the Trance is a truly modern trail bike capable of handling trails of increasing difficulty just as easily as fast flowing singletrack.
Featuring a quality alloy frame paired with a thru-axle-equipped Suntour Aion fork up front and a RockShox Deluxe R shock at the rear. Rolling stock comes in the form of proprietary 27.5in XC-1 wheels, paired with tubeless Maxxis High Roller II tires. Shimano Deore 1x10-speed shifting, a PraxisWorks 1x crankset and Shimano M365 hydraulic disc brakes round out this budget-friendly package. And the best part? The Trance 3 now receives Giant's Contact Switch dropper seatpost.
Wheel size: 27.5in
Trek Fuel EX 5
The Fuel EX 5 has the potential to be a do-it-all trail bike with either 29in or 27.5in Plus wheel options that you can change to suit your riding style or locals trails (only 29in available as stock in Australia). Like the new Giant Trance, the Trek Fuel EX carries on with few changes following a major update in 2017. What elevates this above other trail bikes available is the adjustable headtube angle and progressive frame geometry. The former giving thanks to the 'Mino Link', which allows 1/2 a degree change by simply undoing two bolts.
The 130mm-travel alloy frame is paired with 130mm RockShox Recon Silver fork up front and RockShox Deluxe RL at rear. The front suspension travel may seem small compared to some others on this list, but the 29in Bontrager wheels and big volume 2.3in tires go a long way to smoothing out the trails.
A Shimano Deore 2x10-speed drivetrain and Shimano M315 hydraulic disc brakes feature, although no dropper post is provided until you step up to the more expensive EX 8.
Wheel size: 29in
Norco Optic A3
The Optic A3 from Canadian-brand Norco is one of the few bikes available at this price with a dropper seatpost, tubeless-ready wheels, and a 1x drivetrain.Immediately it sits high on the ladder of consideration.
The alloy frame provides 120mm of travel at rear controlled by a RockShox Monarch shock, matched with 130mm RockShox Recon RL Gold fork up front.
The creators of 1x drivetrains, SRAM, provide its GX1 11-speed group with a large ratio 11-42 cassette to ensure you won't be left short by dismissing the second chainring. WTB STP I25 rims, Novatec hubs (thru-axle) and wide Maxxis Forecaster 2.35” 27.5in tires will keep you rolling. Tektro M285 Hydraulic disc brakes round out the package.
Wheel size: 27.5in
Cannondale Habit Al 6 27.5
Cannondale is no stranger to creating capable trail munching machines at the top end of the market and with the Habit 6, the American company brings this refinement down to an affordable price.
The Habit 6 features an alloy frame paired with a thru-axle-equipped RockShox Judy fork, out back there’s an X-Fusion 02 shock offering up 120mm of travel. The 1x drivetrain comes courtesy of Shimano in the form a 1x10-speed Deore with 30T front chainring and an 11-42T rear cassette. Tektro takes over for brakes, with Augira hydraulic discs, using a larger 180mm rotor up front. WTB provide its 25mm-wide i25 tubeless-ready rims with Ranger Comp 2.25in tires wrapping up this trail-ready package.
Wheel size: 27.5in
Specialized Camber 29er
The base-level Camber is sure to offer you a refined ride on the trail. Both frame and fork offer 120mm of travel, using a RockShox Recon RL and custom X-Fusion front and rear respectively. The big bag 2.3in tires will surely provide plenty of confidence, too. Like many models here, the frame shares its geometry and design with more expensive models, with premium features such as thru-axles found on this model.
There's little doubting Specialized have invested in important areas such as the frame and suspension at the expense of the drivetrain. This is the only bike listed that features a lower-end 2x9-speed drivetrain and more basic Tektro hydraulic disc brakes. Like some others on this list, a dropper seatpost is also missing, however, it can be found on more expensive offerings and the quality frame is fully ready to accept such an upgrade.
Wheel size: 29in
Polygon Siskiu D8.0
Available for as low as $1,999, the Siskiu D8.0 is the cheapest bike listed here. Such a price is achieved by the Indonesian brand being its own manufacturer and sold in Australia by predominately online by a direct-to-consumer distributor.
This is a short-travel trail bike with 120mm of travel front and rear. A RockShox Recon Gold sits up front, with a Monarch RT out back. Impressively, it's Shimano SLX and XT 2x11 components that take care of shifting duties, with the greatly underrated Shimano Deore hydraulic brakes featuring too. Mavic 27.5in Crossride wheels are an impressive sight for the price too.
So with spectacular components for little money, what gives? Well, the online purchase aspect isn't for everyone, and then there's the rather simple rear suspension design that arguably isn't to the same level as the other dual suspension bikes listed.
Wheel size: 27.5in
BMC Speedfox 03 Two
Best known for its high-quality road bikes, BMC has long-offered a range of high-performance mountain bikes. The Speedfox 03 is best suited to long days in the saddle with its 130mm of front and rear travel. Its quality frame construction, 2x11 Shimano SLX drivetrain and dropper post are reasons for us selecting it here. The suspension package is a mixed affair from Fox and RockShox, with a Recon RL found on the front and Fox Float DPS Performance shock featuring out back.
At $3,499, this Swiss-designed bike is the most expensive on our list, however, with a dropper seatpost, quality frame and suspension parts spec’d it's easy to see where the money has been spent.
- Wheel size: 27.5in
- RRP: $2,999
Kona Honzo AL
With an impressive frame, dropper seatpost and tubeless-ready wheels, the Kona Honzo is a great example of the value on offer when you remove the rear suspension. This alloy-framed trail bike rolls on 2.3in wide 29er tires, with a 120mm RockShox Recon Silver fork up front. Revised geometry from 2017 sees this bike get more capable of tackling steep and technical terrain.
The SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain is comprised of a 30t front chainring with a wide 11-41t cassette featuring out back. Braking comes courtesy of Shimano in the form of its ever-popular Deore level products. Rolling stock see’s Shimano Deore hubs laced to tubeless-compatible WTB i29 rims shod with beefy Maxxis Minion DHF rubber.
- Wheel size: 29er
- RRP: $1,399
Norco Torrent HT
Rolling on some of the biggest tyres you'll find here, the Norco Torrent takes Plus-sized hardtails up another level with 2.8in rubber wrapping 27.5in rims.
Featuring an alloy frame with a 140mm Suntour Zeron front fork, those plus tires are sure to feel like much more. The beefy tires provide tremendous grip, while shorter chainstays should help deliver an exciting ride. SRAM 11-speed NX 1x drivetrain is again in play, with a wide-range 11-42T cassette given out back.
The Torrent rolls on Alex MD-35 rims laced to Novatec hubs. Maxxis provide the tubeless-ready tyres in the form of its Minion DHF 2.8” rubber, and the bike is finished off with a Tranzx dropper seatpost.
- Wheel size: 27.5in Plus
- RRP: $1,999
After more information about mountain bikes? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Buying a Mountain Bike to find the perfect ride to suit your needs.