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Cheap Mountain Bikes Buying Guide

Our research identified cheap mountain bikes that come with desirable features and solid performance evaluations. Topping our list of cheap mountain bikes is the Diamondback Adult Sorrento Mountain Bike 2013 (starting at $259.99), a favorite with users for its light weight and easy ride.

Higher up the Cheapism price ladder is another top pick, the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc (starting at $399), which draws riders with its comfort and finesse on a variety of surfaces. A worthy option for female riders is the Schwinn Ridge AL Women's Mountain Bike (starting at $225), which users praise for the fit, handling, and smooth ride. The V2100 Dual-Suspension Bicycle (starting at $149) is another decent buy owing to its full-suspension frame and disc brakes, both rare in this price segment, although complaints about the pedals and seat are legion. One cheap mountain bike that doesn't meet expectations despite featuring dual suspension and a front-wheel disc brake is the Huffy DS-7 (starting at $129); riders aren't impressed with the build quality and a ride that seems to drag.

Mountain Bike Reviews
Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes, Mountain Bike Frame
Mountain Bike Brakes, Mountain Bike Tires

Pricing on mountain bikes covers a very wide range. At the Cheapism end of the market, mountain bikes go for $150 to $500. Experts warn against spending less than that, though, because at super-low prices the parts aren't likely to hold up or provide much riding comfort. Experts at Galttech say the best cheap mountain bikes come from Schwinn, Diamondback, and Mongoose. Huffy also produces budget models and some major retail chains carry proprietary brands. Trek bikes are a step up in performance and price, although several still qualify as cheap mountain bikes. The high end of the mountain bike market starts somewhere around $3,000 and extends all the way to $10,000 and more. Mountain Bike World notes that high-end models are more durable, lighter in weight, and deliver better performance with more speed options and stronger suspensions than lower-priced models. Here you'll find names such as Specialized, Cannondale, and Santa Cruz. These brands are generally found in specialty bike shops rather than in the big box stores that carry cheap mountain bikes.

Mountain bikes have been mass-produced since the 1980s and are intended to be ridden on unpaved terrain and mountain trails. Cheap mountain bikes, however, are really entry-level models that are suitable for less strenuous workouts; that is, light and well-maintained trails and paved (though not necessarily ice-smooth) surfaces. Mountain bikes of any price aren't designed to be fast, and their lack of speed is a trade-off for durability and a more comfortable riding position; riders sit higher and more upright on a mountain bike than on a road bike, which is often a better option for people with back problems.

If you're in the market for a budget choice, most bike shops won't have what you're looking for -- the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc is one of the few cheap mountain bikes sold by smaller retailers. Most of our best cheap mountain bike picks are available at large national chains and online. Note that online shopping widens the selection considerably -- stores just don't have the floor space to stock and display all that many models. The downsides of an online purchase, however, are the possibility of shipping damage -- a complaint that sometimes surfaces in consumer reviews of cheap mountain bikes -- and the DIY assembly. Regardless where you buy the bike or whether you or the vendor put it together, experts recommend a professional tune-up; minor tweaks will likely be necessary before you're ready to hit the road or trail.

Most cheap mountain bikes come with the basics, including front-wheel suspension, a steel frame, 26-inch wheels, V-brakes, and 21 speeds. Some boast features such as dual suspension, a lightweight carbon or aluminum frame, 29-inch wheels, and disc brakes.

The critical features remain the same whether you're shopping for a men's or women's mountain bike. What distinguishes one from the other are subtle differences in the frame geometry, seat shape, and handlebar size. Women's mountain bikes have a shorter top tube to accommodate a shorter torso. Bikes made for women also feature narrower handlebars and wider seats. Although these variations may seem insignificant, they're important in ensuring a more comfortable and safer ride.

If you're shopping for a youth rider, you'll need a youth-size bike built for a smaller physique and for someone with less riding experience. In this segment, we like the Diamondback Octane Youth Mountain Bike (starting at $196 for 20" model; $222 for 24" model), which comes in two sizes for boys and two sizes for girls.

Mountain Bike Reviews

The consensus among the mountain bike reviews we read is that the models on our list deliver decent overall performance and durability within the constraints of their budget price. These are entry-level models and not engineered for dare-devil stunts or mountaineering. But for light off-roading and travel along paved surfaces, these inexpensive mountain bikes hold their own. Indeed, a large share of reviewers use these bikes to commute to work or school, for occasional recreational fun, and/or as a vehicle to better health.

Two complaints pop up frequently in mountain bike reviews: uncomfortable seats (a.k.a., saddles) and complicated setup. Both issues seem readily fixed. Mountain bike reviews say seat replacement is fairly cheap and easy, and many riders recommend setup assistance from a bike shop, or at least a once-over to tweak cables, brakes, and wheel alignment before setting out on a first biking adventure. Mountain bike reviews also discuss features such as suspension, brakes, and frame.

On- and Off-Trail Handling.

Mountain bike reviews frequently comment on how the model handles, whether on the road or off. The frame, the gears, the brakes, and the seat all factor in, with the latter often getting special attention because of the comfort or lack thereof. Anyone who's ever ridden a bike with an especially hard or awkwardly-shaped seat knows how difficult it becomes to focus on any other aspect of the riding experience. An uncomfortable saddle is an oft-expressed woe in mountain bike reviews, which otherwise indicate that riders like the way our top picks move along.

Mountain bike reviews posted on Bike Line report that the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc (starting at $399) travels with ease over roads and trails, even on 20-mile rides, and shifting is smooth and quick. Experts at Bike Radar agree, adding that the bike inspires confidence, especially for beginners, given its stability and agility. Riders themselves concur and write in mountain mike reviews on the Trek website that this is an excellent entry-level model. Many rely on it for daily commutes in town and occasional off-trail use, but caution against trying any high-performance moves. Only a few riders are less than thrilled with the seat and the vast majority commends the comfort of the ride.

BestCovery's mountain bikes review gives the Diamondback Adult Sorrento 2013 (starting at $259.99) top billing for models in its price class, saying this is a heavy-duty, sensible choice that can take some abuse and is easy to ride. In mountain bike reviews on Amazon, riders consistently comment about the bike's light weight and prowess on streets and well-maintained trails; one repeat purchaser insists it provides a ride superior to any other. One of the few digs against this model concerns the seat. Mountain bike reviews say the Diamondback Sorrento is otherwise quite comfortable, but the seat demands a gel pad or outright replacement. Experts at Extreme Sports Magazine agree the seat is a bit hard and insist this high quality bike is worth such an easy fix.

The Best Mountain Bike Reviews site is keen on the Schwinn Ridge AL Women's (starting at $225) model, noting that this bike is an exception to the rule that few budget mountain bikes designed for women receive favorable ratings. This reviewer particularly likes the responsiveness of the brakes and users, for the most part, second the overall positive appraisal. Despite a few reports about some stickiness and noise, mountain bike reviews on Amazon write that the bike shifts with ease and serves teenage and adult riders well on paved surfaces and light trails. Some riders groan about the seat, describing it as too narrow, and gripe that the handlebars can't be fit to their height.

The dual suspension on another of our picks, the Genesis 26" Men's V2100 (starting at $149), keeps things rolling smoothly, according to mountain bike reviews at Walmart, the sole vendor for this model. Although numerous riders complain about the extremely uncomfortable seat and flimsy pedals, they're quick to add that swapping out those parts for upgraded components produces a fun ride for commuters and off-road beginners.

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Doubts about build quality earn the Huffy DS-7 (starting at $129) mediocre grades in some mountain bike reviews at Walmart. But appraisals posted at Amazon are more forgiving. These reviewers describe the ride as smooth, with easy transitions from one surface to another. Deep tire treads and what riders describe as a heavy aluminum frame, however, seem to slow the Huffy DS-7 on paved roads and trails.

Another model in the Diamondback family, the Octane Youth Mountain Bike (starting at $196 for 20" model; $222 for 24" model) garners appreciative comments from parents and youngsters alike. Reviewers at MTBR praise the 24-inch model as a good segue into the world of mountain biking, saying the front suspension can take small ups and downs but probably not hardcore trails. The Octane Youth bike handles particularly well on paved surfaces, mountain bike reviews continue, but the brakes could use some post-assembly adjustment.

Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes, Mountain Bike Frame

A mountain bike's suspension is one of the features that set it apart from other types of bicycles. The suspension makes riding on rough terrains smoother and more comfortable by absorbing some of the shock. Bicycles with front-only suspension, so-called hardtails, are extremely common in the mountain bike world. But dual- or full-suspension mountain bikes are becoming more popular and also more available at the cheaper end of the market. Full-suspension mountain bikes feature suspension for both the front and back wheels, but reviews warn that the low quality of the suspension on some budget models doesn't sufficiently protect the body against painful jolts and shocks.

Our research shows that you don't have to spend big bucks to buy a mountain bike with adequate suspension -- so long as you limit your riding to paved surfaces and elementary-level trails. Most of the mountain bikes on our list, including the Diamondback Sorrento 2013 and the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc (our top picks), are front-suspension mountain bikes that users value for their smooth ride. If a full suspension mountain bike is a must-have feature, the Genesis 26" Men's V2100 fits the bill. Users posting comments at Walmart say the dual suspension gives an incredibly smooth ride. The Huffy DS-7 also comes with a full suspension but fails to wow riders due to performance and quality issues.

Mountain Bikes Frame.

The two most common materials used in the construction of mountain bike frames are steel and aluminum. Although some consumers might believe the heavier the bike, the more durable, that's not the case here: steel (comparatively heavy) and aluminum (comparatively light) are just about equally durable.

However, there are pros and cons to each material as used in a mountain bike frame. Heavier bikes move more slowly, require more effort to ride, and are generally more annoying to store and carry. Experts and users agree that aluminum, with its lighter weight, is superior on these fronts. Additionally, aluminum, unlike steel, doesn't rust, which means less maintenance. On the other hand, a steel mountain bike frame may provide the smoother ride because it's naturally more flexible, making bumps on the trail a little less jarring. All of the Cheapism mountain bike choices feature an aluminum frame, which is becoming the norm. The Huffy DS-7 is something of a hybrid, with an aluminum frame but a steel suspension fork and handlebar rise.

Mountain Bikes Assembly.

Assembling a cheap mountain bike on your own can get downright technical; multiple mountain bike reviews reveal buyers' frustration with the process. A detailed and easy-to-follow manual is certainly a big help, and this is one dimension in which the Genesis 26" Men's V2100 falls short. Buying this model online or from a big-box store that sends you home with box in hand leaves you at the mercy of the manual. Although most purchasers don't complain too much, some reviews say the manual isn't helpful and suggest turning to online tutorials instead. One review claims the Huffy DS-7 manual is intended for Huffy bikes in general and is verges on being useless.

At the other extreme, some DIY-ers find the Diamondback Sorrento a cinch to put together. The bike arrives partially assembled and reviews generally indicate that assembling the front tire, steering bar, and pedals at home doesn't pose much of a challenge. The Schwinn Ridge AL Women's model escapes censure for assembly struggles, and one post on Amazon says the process took less than 45 minutes. DIY assembly with the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc is a non-issue. This budget mountain bike is sold exclusively in specialty bike shops that typically include assembly in the purchase package.

Mountain Bike Brakes, Mountain Bike Tires

While there are many variations of mountain bike brakes, most models come equipped with one of two options: rim brakes or disc brakes. V-brakes, a type of rim brake, are most common, especially on cheap mountain bikes. V-brakes work by pulling on a cable that presses padded calipers down on the rim of the bike wheel. These mountain bike brakes are cheaper and lighter in weight than disc brakes, but they're also less reliable, especially in wet or muddy conditions. Disc brakes work much like those on your car; that is, calipers press against a rotor (disc) attached to the hub of the wheel. Disc-style mountain bike brakes are heavier than V-brakes but are gaining ground with riders for their reliability and superior technology.

Although disc brakes are rare in cheap mountain bike territory, we found one with this feature -- the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc. Riders' comments indicate that for some, this was one of the deciding factors in their purchase. The mountain bike brakes on the Diamondback Adult Sorrento, Diamondback Octane Youth, and Schwinn Ridge AL Women's are standard V-brakes. The Genesis 26" Men's V2100 and Huffy DS-7 feature a disc brake on the front wheel and a linear pull brake on the rear wheel.

The subject of mountain bike brakes doesn't come up often in reviews of these models, aside from a few comments about the brakes needing adjustment after assembly and later as part of routine maintenance. One review of the Diamondback Octane Youth bike claims this model is particularly hard on brake pads, which need frequent replacement.

Mountain Bike Tire Size.

The standard mountain bike tire size for adult models, including all those on our list, is 26 inches. Mountain bike tires with smaller circumferences are generally available only on children's bikes, although women's bikes occasionally come with 24-inch tires. The Diamondback Octane Youth Mountain Bike comes with 20-inch or 24-inch tires.

One new development in mountain bike tires is the introduction of high-end bikes called 29ers, with 29-inch tires. The benefit of these larger tires is that they roll over obstacles more easily, making the ride less bumpy. It will probably be some time, though, before mountain bike tires of the 29ers variety appear in the budget price range.

Mountain Bike Speeds.

On a bicycle, speeds refer to the different combinations riders can achieve with the gears on the rear wheel hub (the cassette) and the gears (chainrings) on the crankset where the pedals are located. Having multiple speeds on a bike lets riders easily adjust the amount of power needed to move the bike forward, providing a more efficient and more comfortable ride. There's no one right speed for everyone in a given situation, so finding the gear combination that's comfortable for you takes some trial and error. This is especially important when it comes to mountain bikes, because pedaling up and down hills and across varying terrain requires many different gear ratios.

More speeds mean more control over the way you ride. All the adult-size cheap mountain bikes we researched, from the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc to the Huffy DS-7, feature 21 speeds (i.e., gear combinations), although in practice only about two-thirds get used. Most user comments about the gears revolve around the ease of shifting, and all of our top picks garner positive reviews in this department, as does the Diamondback Octane Youth model; parents report their children mastered the technique quickly. One rider who posted on Dick's Sporting Goods commends the smooth shifting on the Diamondback Sorrento but notes that his speed has slowed compared to what he achieved with a previous bike. Bike Radar points out that the crankset on the 21-speed Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc is engineered to support higher gear ratios, which are better for road and downhill cycling and could pose quite a challenge for steep hills; a lower gear geometry would be more suitable for trail riding, the expert review concludes. Several riders similarly critique the gearing while others contend that uphill climbs are no sweat.

Mountain Bike Durability.

On- and off-trail riding tests the mettle of a bike, whether cheap or high-end. Frugal consumers certainly want some assurance that a budget mountain bike will stand up to the elements, to bumpy terrain, to falls and spills, and to whatever crosses its path.

The Diamondback Sorrento contains parts that should last, according to experts at Extreme Sports Magazine, who are especially impressed with the frame. In posts at Dick's Sporting Goods, a plus-size rider says the bike is solid and has held up through more than six-months of rugged riding on and off the trails. Bike Radar considers the Trek 3 Series 3500 Disc a mountain bike through and through, built with quality materials and a design devoid of gimmicks. The Schwinn Ridge AL women's bike seems durable enough; one rider on Amazon reports she's ridden the bike up to 16 miles a day for two years without running into any glitches. The Genesis 26" Men's V2100 model gets mostly good marks for durability in consumer reviews, although an overwhelming number of users recommend buying better pedals because the originals are plastic and break easily. The Huffy DS-7 doesn't fair as well with reviewers. We came across multiple complaints about seemingly flimsy parts that don't live out a year. Many riders say the wheel alignment and brakes just never feel right despite professional adjustments. The Diamondback Octane Youth mountain bike is sturdy enough to take what kids dish out, reviewers say, and the protective covering on the derailleur guards vulnerable moving parts against spills, accidental and otherwise.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Mountain Bikes
  2. Discount Mountain Bikes Features Comparison Table
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