In economics, marginal utility refers to the benefit or satisfaction a consumer experiences when consuming a good. Diminishing marginal utility is the principle that says that, as that consumption increases, the marginal utility derived from those increases will decline.
Let’s say Homo Economicus walks into Big Bob’s Bikes and buys a $1,000 mountain bike. Suddenly, he can go mountain biking—enjoying a whole new thing that he couldn’t even do before. He buys a Tacoma, moves to the Pacific Northwest and changes his name to Bromo Radonomicus. Now, what if he upgrades to a $2,000 bike? His enjoyment of riding will surely increase, but it won’t double. If he were to spend twice that again, his increase in enjoyment per additional dollar would be yet smaller, and so on.
Whether or not we know it, the calculus of marginal utility is always present when we’re buying a bike. We might go in with a target price point, and then see a model with upgraded suspension. The decision as to whether or not the upgrade is worth it is a question of marginal utility. Now, if we were to go looking for a mountain bike with the greatest marginal utility, it would probably be the cheapest one on this list.
But since most of us are willing to spend more than we need to in order to enjoy a better ride, we’ve assembled a collection of bikes that we think offer the greatest marginal utility at their respective price points. You could say that these are the best mountain bikes for the money, as long as that amount of money is between $1,150 and $5,500.
Norco Fluid HT3 Mountain Bike – $1,150
his is the second time that the Fluid HT3 has appeared atop this list, and now it’s $200 cheaper than it was in 2017. Therein lies the advantage of models that remain unchanged year after year: Brands often reduce prices once they’ve recouped their development costs. Some of the price cut can also be attributed to Norco’s switch from a RockShox Recon air fork to an SR Suntour coil fork. And there is only one choice in spring rate for that fork, so it’s aimed exclusively at riders of average weight. But it’s still a good build for the money.
Just over a grand buys you only slightly dated geometry, an 11-speed SRAM NX drivetrain, 120-millimeter-travel TranzX dropper post, and Tektro hydraulic disc brakes. Because it has a quick-release rear end, this might not be the bike to buy with an eye towards upgrading. But if you’re looking to get into mountain biking for a reasonable amount of money, the Fluid is a reasonable place to start.
Rocky Mountain Growler 40 Mountain Bike – $1,350
Rocky Mountain’s Growler 40 is the bike to look at if you like the idea of a plus-size hardtail with entry-level, trail-worthy components, but want more adjustability than the Fluid’s coil fork can offer. It comes with a 130-millimeter-travel Suntour Raidon LOR Air fork, which has a thru axle for increased front-end control. X-Fusion’s Manic dropper seatpost offers an experience functionally identical to many more expensive brand-name posts. And the Shimano Deore drivetrain mated to a wide-range 11-46 Sunrace cassette gives you plenty of gearing for days big and small. If the Shimano MT400 brakes aren’t stopping you quickly enough, try swapping out the resin-only rotors and accompanying pads for sintered ones.
Specialized Fuse Comp Mountain Bike – $1,650
Some consider hardtails to be beginner bikes, but even advanced riders enjoy a rigid rip every so often. It’s worth spending a little more money for Specialized’s Fuse if you think you might want to hold on to your hardtail and upgrade it over time.
It has Boost-spaced thru-axles at both ends, an aluminum frame with decent geometry, and an air-sprung RockShox Recon RL fork. The rest of the build kit is pretty good, too: SRAM Level brakes put a halt to momentum generated by the SRAM NX drivetrain, and the TranzX dropper comes in different travel lengths to match the frame size. Specialized’s own 38-millimeter-wide Stout rims and Purgatory 27.5×3.0 tires round out the stock setup.
Marin Hawk Hill 2 Mountain Bike – $1,950
In our last round-up, we featured the $1,600, Hawk Hill 1, which is still a choice we’d call quite wise for the miserly, even if it doesn’t come stock with a dropper post. But the $1,950 Hawk Hill 2 is equally unbeatable at its price, and worth the extra money—if you can spare it.
In addition to the size-specific TranzX dropper, the extra cheddar buys you a build kit without any holes: You get slightly upgraded front and rear suspension, a wider-range 11-speed drivetrain, and Boost thru-axles front and rear.
Diamondback Release 2 Mountain Bike – $2,500
The Release signaled the second (third?) (fourth?) coming of Diamondback. The brand took advantage of the expired VPP patent and cooked up a 130-millimeter-travel, 27.5-wheeled fun machine that pedals efficiently but can still charge through rocks and roots. Marketed through Diamondback’s consumer-direct sales model, the Release 2 is brings a potent mix of performance and value.
Fox takes care of suspension duties at both ends with a Performance Float shock and 150-millimeter-travel Rhythm fork, which is controlled by the admirable Grip damper. Shimano’s solid SLX groupset handles braking and transmission, and TranzX’s dropper makes yet another appearance. You even get a pair pedals with sealed cartridge bearing and removable pins. Spec-wise, there’s very little to complain about, and very few bikes that can compete on price. But we do have one major gripe with the Release: There’s no water bottle mount inside the front triangle.
Giant Trance 29 2 Mountain Bike – $3,100
Giant’s Trance 29 is an ideal partner for any ride ranging from an after-work rip to backcountry epics. Its 115 millimeters of rear suspension may not sound like much, but it descends like a slightly bigger bike, and plays like a 7-year-old in a ball pit with fruit roll-ups dangling from the ceiling.
The aluminum-framed Trance 2 comes with Fox suspension front and rear (including a 130-millimeter, Grip-damper-equipped fork), a 12-speed SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain, SRAM Guide T brakes, and a Giant-branded wheelset and dropper post. Giant left the rubber to those who do it best, speccing the unassailable Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR tire combination. Though it doesn’t offer a ton of additional value over the Release 2, the Trance 2 is an ideal choice for a rider seeking a fun, efficient 29er for about $3,000.
The carbon-framed and rimmed Trance Advanced Pro 29 Opens a New Window. is also worth a gander if you’re looking to spend in the $4,500 range.
Norco Torrent FS1 Mountain Bike – $3,100
Norco strikes again, this time with the unexpected Torrent FS1, the only plus-size full-suspension bike on this list, as well as the only one with boutique-level DVO suspension. The Torrent’s combination of plus-size tires and high-performance suspension will probably make it a weapon in technical terrain, and its geometry isn’t too far off modern trends.
The rest of the build kit includes an 11-speed SRAM GX drivetrain, four-piston Guide R brakes, and Spank rims laced to SRAM hubs. Do we even need to say it? TranzX dropper.
YT Jeffsy 27/29 CF Comp Mountain Bike – $3,500
It wouldn’t be a “best bikes for the money” listicle without at least one YT, and don’t worry, this isn’t the only one. YT’s entry-level carbon builds are the benchmark for value, which might be why they’re often sold out.
But if you manage to get one, the Jeffsy CF Comp comes with Fox Elite suspension front and rear, and SRAM Guide R brakes. We’re going to reserve judgement for now, but the cobbled-together SRAM/Shimano/E*Thirteen drivetrain is suspect. Dropper duties are handled by E*Thirteen, as are wheels and tires.
Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 Mountain Bike – $2,900
We can’t talk about YT without talking about #Canyon, and the Spectral AL 6.0 is one reason why. This 160-front, 150-rear 27.5 machine is the kind of bike that might not be the best at anything, but will handle just about everything, and it comes with a parts kit suited to that purpose of purposelessness.
Fox suspension is specced front and rear with the capable DPX2 shock out back. It also gets a SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain and Guide R brakes. The DT Swiss M1900 wheelset is one of the most trustworthy sets of spinners out there, and offers excellent ride quality to boot.
Commencal Meta AM 29 Fox Mountain Bike – $3,300
And, we can’t talk about YT and Canyon without also talking about Commencal. The Andorran brand is committed to building high-quality aluminum frames and offering them directly to consumers, a model that has earned it legions of fans. Top-step results in both World Cup Downhill and the Enduro World Series haven’t hurt, either.
The Meta 29 is the weapon of choice for Commencal’s enduro team. This beast of a 29er has 160 millimeters of rear travel and comes stock with a 170-millimeter fork. Both ends of this model are suspended by Fox, with the super-supple Performance 36 Grip up front. The drivetrain is a SRAM GX Eagle assembly that drives a Formula and E*Thirteen wheelset. The SLX brakes are underpowered for the bike’s intentions, but it’s a solid spec otherwise.