Mountain biking is changing. More and more purpose built trails are appearing, and with this, more challenging terrain is presented. An increasing number of bike designs are no longer dictated by what’s best for competition; instead they’re built for what’s best when having fun on the trails. And this new wave of mountain bike design is starting to trickle down in price, becoming available to new and experienced riders alike.
Look to the current state of mountain biking and it’s the mountains of Canada where much of this progression took place first. And so it makes sense that Canada’s leading bike brand, Norco, is at the leading edge of modern mountain bike design. Norco has a deep range spanning all price points, but it was the affordable Charger 9.2 hardtail that grabbed our attention as a bike well suited to the newer rider looking for hard-hitting trail performance. With modern geometry, 29er wheels, air suspension and 1x10 drivetrain, we hit the rocky trails of Sydney to assess this 2017 model.
- Highs: Great geometry, simple drivetrain, quality components, value for money.
- Lows: Quick release fork, gearing range limited for on-road use.
- Buy if: You want a fun-riding mountain bike to that won’t let you down on the trails.
Modern Geometry and a classy frame
The modern mountain bike seeks to balance the rider between the two wheels, with enough weight on the front wheel to force the front tire to bite in loose dirt, but without so much weight over the front that you risk going head over heels.
To do this, the trend is to lengthen the bike’s front center (the top tube) and tuck the rear wheel in nice and tight. With the bike’s reach longer, stem length is then shortened which not only allows a comfortable reach to the handlebars, but also makes for a more reactive riding characteristic.
The Charger has done just this and combines a long roomy top tube with a stubby 60mm stem. Such a setup ensures the bike and its big 29er wheels still handle with agility.
The head tube angle is often used as an indication of the bike’s desired application, and here the 70-degree setup and 100mm suspension fork of our medium sample places this bike firmly in the versatile cross-country category.
Despite its short stem, the Charger climbs with focused efficiency that a good cross-country bike should. Short stemmed bikes often waver on climbs, but this goes exactly where it’s pointed without much input needed.
Point the Charger downhill and its spacious frame gives you plenty of space to move your body weight around and let the bike pop off ledges, rail turns and dip through rollers.
Dropping the height of the handlebars is something we do to the majority of test bikes when we first get them. Often the tall stack of spacers that sit beneath the stem on new bikes gives a nervous feeling to the bike’s handling due to a high center of gravity and not enough rider weight to dig that front tyre into the ground. However, Norco has taken away such a choice by cutting the steerer tube short straight from box. We found the given ride position to still be upright, but not at a cost to good handling. It’s an aspect of the bike that shows Norco’s experience in trail riding.
On paper, the rear end is 15mm longer than what’s considered a benchmark for 29er hardtails, but on the trail the Charger hides it well. Instead, the Charger is well balanced and poised at speed, while still being reactive at a crawl. The Charger is ready for fun things like popping wheelies and bunny hopping, with just a little more body movement needed to tip your weight over those bigger wheels.
A sloping top tube is given to increase standover height of the bike, and so being properly sized to the bike is even more important. If you’re basing the bike size on how much gap sits between the frame and your inseam, you’ll end up on a bike that’s actually too big.
Beyond the angles and measurements, the Charger’s aluminium frame is a quality item. It’s double butted frame tubes have been further manipulated with high-pressure molding techniques to create shapes that yield higher strength and stiffness without an increase in weight. Proving the frame isn’t carrying wasted grams, our sample weighed 12.93kg without pedals, a respectable figure for a 29er at this price.
Further quality is evident with features such as the tapered head tube for improved stiffness, a rear brake mount that’s tucked within the rear of the frame and some nice reinforcement gussets to ensure the frame will handle whatever the trail throws at you.
Smashing the pedals in anger or twisting the 720mm wide bars with force reveal little give in the frame. Assuming you choose to stick with a hardtail once the mountain biking bug bites (… it’s a good thing), this frame is a suitable platform to make some upgrades from.
As for the one aspect to any bike that can’t be overlooked, the fluro yellow on matte black frame looks pretty good in our eyes!
Marginal price restraints
The Charger 9.2 ticks so many boxes in the list of what makes a great trail mountain bike, with very few boxes left empty.
Sitting at the front of the bike is a RockShox Recon Silver Solo Air RL suspension fork. It’s adjustable air spring and rebound control must be commended and are impressive features for the price.
The air spring allows you to finely match the fork’s spring to your body weight and is a feature found on nearly all premium mountain bikes. Another set-and-forget feature is the external rebound control, which allows you to adjust how quickly the fork returns after being compressed. Forks that lack this feature often ride like pogo sticks, greatly limiting how controlled the front wheel is when the terrain gets rough.
Between the air spring and rebound control, the RockShox fork can be setup to be well controlled when pushed hard. It does exactly what’s asked of it, and handles larger hits with composure.
There’s a lockout switch too, something that’s used for turning the suspension off on smooth terrain where greater efficiency is sought.
Looking to the fork’s construction, and a tapered steerer tube is another impressive feature which matches with the frame, it makes the connection to the bike that little bit stiffer.
However good that fork is, look to how the wheel mounts to the fork and it’s a standard quick release that exists. More expensive models will use a ‘thru-axle’ which provides a more secure and stiffer connection between front wheel and fork. Given just how capable the Charger 9.2 is, when pushed hard in rocky terrain, the slight wandering front wheel and the lack of a thru-axle is an occasional reminder of the bike’s price.
Mixed brand gearing
The idea of a single-ring drivetrain (Aka: 1x) is one of simplicity. With fewer moving parts, a 1x drivetrain is simpler to use, less likely to suffer mechanical issue and also lighter.
While it of course has fewer gears on offer (10 in the Charger’s case), it’s important to know that double or triple chainring drivetrains often have multiple overlapping gears, and so a 27-speed drivetrain may only have 18 actual individual gear ratios.
What matters off-road is total range, and here the Charger’s 11-40T cassette with a 30T single front chainring gives a low climbing gear equivalent to what a common 26T chainring and 34T rear cassette cog would achieve. It’s enough to conquer most trails, but you may be negotiating with your leg muscles if you’re new to riding or live in overly hilly terrain.
You typically don’t need massively hard gears when riding off-road, but hit the tarmac and it’s likely you’ll want more range than what the Charger offers. It’s here that the Norco’s 1x drivetrain and its 30/11T gear range is limiting. Simply put, if you’re seeking a mountain bike to handle double duty of getting you to work during the week, perhaps look elsewhere at a bike with a double or triple chainring setup.
It’s common on price-conscious mountain bikes to see a mix-match of components, and the Charger 9.2 is a clear example of just this. A quick glance shows a SRAM GX 10-speed drivetrain, but a closer look reveals such parts are only used in the rear derailleur and shifter.
The rest of the 1x10 drivetrain is made up of a brand-free alloy crankset, SunRace 11-40T cassette and a KMC chain. It all works in unison without fuss, and even the generic crankset is an item of quality and is easy to service. New riders may miss the lack of gear position indicator at the shift lever like what is found on cheaper bikes, but in an odd way, it's a sign of quality and learning to ride by feel is important to becoming confident off-road.
The SRAM GX rear derailleur offers a ‘clutch’ mechanism that ensures the derailleur holds appropriate tension on the chain and prevents it from dropping off over rocky terrain. A side perk of the clutch system is that it runs extremely quietly over rough terrain, whereas cheaper derailleurs are typically heard clanging against the frame.
Quality brakes, hoops and the rest
Our test sample arrived with SRAM Level brakes. It’s different to the Shimano brakes Norco’s website claims, but we’re suitably pleased with the stopping performance on tap. Up front is larger 180mm rotor that provides a little more leverage when pulling those big wheels back to speed, while a smaller 160m rotor saves a bit of weight out back. This new generation of SRAM brakes is proving perfectly reliable too.
The brand-less wheels may be easy to gloss over, but they’re absolutely trail worthy. Most notable are the 26mm external width rims which provide the well rounded and easy rolling 2.25in WTB tires plenty of volume. A nice upgrade down the track would be to set up these rims tubeless, something that can be done easily with the right tubeless tape, valves, sealant and compatible tyres.
Finishing off the bike is a mix of Norco-branded components. While many of these parts are generic in nature, they proved perfectly suitable for the task. The saddle is generously padded, as are the grips. Where so many brands now go with the very cheapest pedal possible, it’s a nice surprise to see that the provided Wellgo alloy platform pedals are just fine to hit the trails with; that’s if you’re not keen on clipless pedals.
At AU$1,499, many looking at this bike may also be wondering if it’s worth the extra money to get a dual suspension. The answer to that will vary greatly on just how rough your local trails are and just how flexible your budget is, as we can attest that you’ll likely need to be spend closer to AU$2,499 before you get a bike with an equal components specification.
For us, the respectable weight and efficient ride offered by the Charger makes for a more enjoyable ride than an equivalent priced dual suspension would offer. While capable of some technical trail riding, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is still a cross country bike and so its limited 100mm of travel is less forgiving if you’re following friends that are on longer-travel and more expensive dual suspension rigs. On the positive side, you’ll likely have a good chance of having to wait for them at the top of the hill.
The Norco’s relaxed ride position and 1x10 drivetrain are best suited to tackling trails and not tarmac surfaces. And so if it’s a mountain bike, for mountain biking that you seek, the Charger 9.2 is an impressive pick.
**The 2017 Norco Charger 9.2 is available in sizes Small, Medium (tested), Large and Extra-large. Our sample read 12.93kg on the scales (without pedals and bottle cages). The MSRP $949. The Charger 9.3 shares the same frame and retails for $849.
For in-depth help of where to start in your mountain bike research, read our complete guide to buying a mountain bike.