You’re locked and loaded and ready to buy the hardtail of your dreams. You’ve checked your bank account, and you’ve done the math to figure out your price point. You’re looking for the very best diamond-shaped shredder under $2,000. Lucky for you, bikes in this price range have made giant leaps in fun factor, capability and reliability in the past couple years. But there’s also a veritable plethora to choose from. We’ll cut out the noise and show you the best options within the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
Bare bones fun.
Spit in any direction inside a WalMart sporting goods department and you’ll hit a bike that comes with a suspension fork and costs a quarter the price of Marin’s fully rigid Pine Mountain. Spit inside a bike shop, and you might even hit a front-suspended offering from a trustworthy brand like Specialized or Trek for as low as $500. But you shouldn’t be doing so much spitting. And more importantly, those forks are generally crap. They don’t perform well enough on the trail to justify their excess weight or poor reliability. You’re better off either going used or looking for a fully rigid rig shod with plus-size tires if $1,000 is the top of your budget.
Marin’s Pine Mountain is one such plus-size trail stomper. Those big tires add cushion and give you more traction, which means less falling. The Pine Mountain’s steel frame and fork are paired with a 10-speed Shimano Deore drivetrain and Shimano MT-400 hydraulic disc brakes for unwavering reliability. We wish it had the 148×12 rear-end spacing used on the higher-end Pine Mountain 2 instead of the strange 141×9 quick-release that pops up on bikes at lower price-points—like the Norco Fluid and Giant Fathom below—but you can't be too choosy at this price.
For the lazy masochist.
The reasons to buy a Kona Unit form a bit of a paradox. As a singlespeed fully rigid mountain bike, the Unit will turn most trails into a marginally type-2 fun experience. You do get a reasonable 32×18-tooth gearing set-up and plus-size tires on the Unit to soften the blows, but anyone who’s ridden a single-speed rigid bike knows the experience is akin to a strongly worded argument at best, and an all-out war of attrition at worst.
Maintaining the Unit, on the other hand, essentially includes looking at it briefly, possibly drizzling on some chain lube and then putting it in the garage. With hardly more complexity than your common dinner fork, the Unit doesn’t have a lot to go wrong. Granted, this will depend on the conditions you ride in and how hard you ride, but aside from occasional checkups on your bearing systems and brake pads, maintenance should be a breeze. The Unit has sliding dropouts too, so chain tension shouldn’t be an issue ever.
So, to recap, you should buy a Kona Unit if you want to ride your bike hard and not worry much about maintaining expensive components all the time. Hold on, that sounds like what most riders want … .
Same same, but different.
We’re getting close to the middle of the pack here, but the Fluid looks ready to pull ahead. It’s got a TranzX dropper post, NX 11-speed drivetrain and Truvativ Stylo cranks, none of which would be out of place on bikes costing a couple hundred more. The geometry is decidedly centrist, though. It’s not the borderline XC machine that the Giant Fathom is, though it wouldn’t be with its 27.5 x 2.8-inch WTB Ranger tires. Nor is it the unruly monster that the Marin San Quentin or Commencal Meta HT are, but that also wouldn’t do either given that it’s got a 9×141-millimeter rear axle with a traditional QR skewer. It’s somewhere in between, designed for versatility.
It also offers the unique feature of being built around 26+ tires in its XS and small sizes. If you’re looking for a bike for your little one or for your little lady, the Norco Fluid HT 2 might be a big win.
Get the bang for your buck.
Giant always serves up remarkable value, but the Fathom 1 packs next-level bang for low-level buck. For under $1,500, you’re getting an aluminum frame with a trail-ready component package.
The 100-millimeter-travel SR Suntour Axon 32 LO-R has a 15-millimeter through-axle and is air-sprung and fluid-dampened. You’ll be able to adjust it to your weight and riding style just like you would a fork of a higher-end brand. The Fathom’s 29-inch wheels are powered by a 1×11 Shimano SLX drivetrain with an 11-46 cassette and slowed by Shimano MT-400 hydraulic brakes.
We could stop there and the Fathom would still be a pretty okay value. But add in Giant’s reliable dropper post and you’ve got a complement of parts that’s nearly unheard of at this asking price. It’s even got internal cable routing and comes with a front fender! Kids these days …
The only downsides to the Fathom are that, as mentioned with the Marin, it has a funky rear hub spacing, and the geometry is fairly XC oriented. Luckily, Giant also makes a 27.5-wheeled Fathom if you’re more of a “send it first, think about your life decisions later” type of person.
At this point, we’re nearly rambling, but Giant also makes a more budget-friendly version of the Fathoms (both 29 and 27.5) with nearly the same component spec but at about $300 less.
Skin walls. ‘Nuff said.
One look at the Meta HT is all to takes to know what this hardtail is meant for. A 160-millimeter RockShox Yari holds up the front end and the head angle is a slack 65 degrees. If that’s not enough, the stock stem has the word “FREERIDE” in the name—and yes it is in all caps.
A 1×11 SRAM NX drivetrain is a solid choice on a bike with abuse clearly in its future, but it would be nice to see much stronger cranks and bottom bracket than this little three-piece Powerspline number, and slightly stronger brakes than the SRAM Levels. Commencal does spec 200-/180-millimeter rotors though, which should help with the steep descents this bike is begging to be ridden down. There’s no dropper post, but this is surely made up for with Commencals inclusion of e*thirteen alloy wheels and skin wall 27.5×2.6 Vee Tire Co Flow Snap tires.
If you like the vibe of the Meta HT, there’s a higher spec’d version for $2,100 that comes with a 150-millimeter Lyrik and a dropper post for more of an all-mountain attitude.
Did we mention the Meta HT Essentials comes with skin walls?
Fatbike-like traction meets trail-bike-like handling.
The plus-size Fuse is also fully Boosted and upgrade worthy, but for an extra $50 over the Meta HT the Fuse comes stock with a Trans-X dropper. The 120-millimeter Rockshox Recon RL and more conservative geometry speak to a more trail-riding nature for the Fuse, but the burly 3-inch Specialized Purgatory tires surely have plenty of float and traction for getting through the rough stuff.
Besides that, you get the same SRAM Level brakes and 200-/180-millimeter rotors on larger sizes, while the smaller sizes get 180-/160-millimeter rotors. Read our review of the Fuse Expert here.
Here, there, everywhere.
Perhaps falling in between the Fuse and the Meta HT in terms of aggressiveness, the Growler is the “go anywhere, do anything” bike in this list. Its geometry is relatively conservative, but it’s likely to suit a variety of riding styles from beginners to seasoned trail veterans. The 140-millimeter RockShox Revelation RC isn’t going to let you follow your fully-suspended friends quite as well as the 160-millimeter travel Yari on the Meta HT, but it’s certainly more compliant than the 120-millimeter Recon that comes on the Fuse. Even the 2.8-inch WTB Ranger tires are right in between the 2.6-inch Flow Snaps on the Meta HT and the 3.0 Purgatorys on the Fuse.
The rest of the build kit is very similar to both of its plus-size brethren, with a 1×11 drivetrain and hydraulic brakes—albeit from Shimano instead of SRAM. The Growler 50 also comes with a Trans-X dropper, internally routed to boot.
More traction than you could ever imagine, less weird than you would ever think.
There’s no comparing the Stache to the other bikes on this (or any) list. Twenty-nine-plus (29+) tires offer a ride that’s really like nothing else. And its elevated drive-side chainstay allowed Trek to make its rear center shorter even than those of bikes with traditional tires and wheels. The idea is to mitigate the unwieldy feel of such humongous hoops. It’s a pretty nifty machine for especially chunky or loose terrain. And a near perfect one for some trail-oriented bikepacking.
The Stache 5 floats on 29×3.0 Bontrager XR2 tubeless-ready tires paired with tubeless-ready rims, ready to be set up out of the box. It also floats on a 120-millimeter Manitou Machete 32 Comp fork. You don’t see a lot of Manitou forks getting equipped these days, but then again you don’t see a lot of 29+ compatible forks at all. This one isn’t bad for the entry-level option. The Shimano MT200 brakes might be a little underpowered for all that traction, but the rest of the spec is good to go, including the Deore drivetrain and Bontrager dropper. It’s even got Boost spacing and a slotted dropout, so it’s got a while before it reaches obsolescence, and can take many forms on its way.
Long, slack and looking for a fight.
If it weren’t for the paint job, dropper post and lack of skin wall tires, it’d be easy to mistake the San Quentin for the Commencal Meta HT. Just by looking at the frame you can see how slack the headtube angle (65 degrees) is and with a low standover, it’s apparent the San Quentin is meant to rally.
Marin does take a slightly different approach than Commencal, and really all of the other plus-size bikes listed so far, in that it combines progressive geometry with a shorter-travel fork and big tires to accomplish its goal. The San Quentin’s RockShox Revelation RC only has 130 millimeters of travel, which is nearly unheard of on a bike with such a slack headtube angle. However, we’d wager that with those 2.6-inch Vee Tire Co. Flow Snaps, the San Quentin is as much at home on big jump trails as it is on an all-day epic.
The OG hardtail shredding machine.
Would a list of the best hardtails ever be complete without a Honzo in the mix? One of our all-time favorites, the Honzo, was one of the first bikes, hardtail or otherwise, to push the long and slack geometry movement. Even though it’s been years since its inception, the Honzo holds its own against pretty much any new hardtail out there, and even some full-suspension rigs.
The 120-millimeter-forked, 29-inch-wheeled Honzo is a true do-it-all-mountain bike, and the fully Boosted frame has all the features you need if you want to upgrade parts later on. However, with the component spec of the DL build, there’s little reason to change much—the 1×11 drivetrain offers plenty of range for most riders, tubeless wheels and tires are a no-brainer and the rest of the build speaks to a long-lasting and reliable bike.
Granted, you do pay a bit more than some of the other bikes on this list, but if you’re thinking of writing-off the Honzo in favor of a less-expensive rig, we’d recommend heading to your local Kona dealer to take a Honzo for a test ride. There’s also a base-level Honzo for $1,500 and a plus-size Big Honzo for $1,700.
Carbon shred-ready rig.
If you’re keeping count, this is the 11th bike we’ve covered here. But we allowed it in on a technicality. Ten of the bikes listed here are under $2,000. The DV9 NX happens not to be. But it’s so close, and it is carbon, so we had to tack it on. Most carbon frames cost more than $2,100, and you get a full, trail-ready package for exactly that with the DV9.
So where does Ibis cut corners? Well, we really can’t find any. Granted, the geometry isn’t ultra-modern. In fact, it’s suspiciously similar to that of the previous hardtail from Ibis, the Tranny. And the spec isn’t quite the same as you’d find on some of Ibis’ other high-end carbon bikes, but that’s not to say the DV9 skimps on parts either. The tried and true SRAM NX 1×11 drivetrain, with a threaded bottom-bracket too, comes stock. And a Fox 34 Rhythm holds up the front end with the high performance, but low cost, GRIP damper. The rest of the build is rounded out with Ibis-branded components, including Ibis’ 938 alloy wheels and Schwalbe 29×2.6 tires.
To sweeten the deal, Ibis offers a lot of upgrade options for the Dv9—if you want more of an XC racer instead of a trail rig out of the box, you can spend an extra $400 and get a Fox Factory 32 Step-Cast, Ibis 933 wheels and skinnier, fast rolling tires.
The Dv9 doesn’t come with a dropper, but for $75 a KS E30i can be added—not a bad deal in itself.