Twelve trailblazing full-suspension machines, three categories, three outstanding winners - it's the most important bike test of 2018
In association with Alpinestars we bring you our rundown of the best full suspension mountain bike in each of three core wheel sizes: 27.5in, 29in and 27.5 Plus.
The best full suspension mountain bike
Progress never stops and every year the full-suspension trail bike inches its way closer to perfection.
While it’s easy to bemoan the constant revisions to geometry and sizing, or the lack of standardization and inherited obsolescence that goes hand in hand with progress, it’s this constant evolution that makes every generation of trail bike that bit more capable than the last.
This year is no exception.
We’ve got 12 trail blazers on test and we’ve maintained our test format that splits the bikes evenly into three distinct categories based on wheel size. So we have four 27.5in trail bikes, four 29ers and four 27.5 Plus bikes.
No only does this allow us to compare apples to apples, but by breaking it down into bite-size junks and allocating each category to an individual tester we can maintain our test procedure while bringing you one of the biggest tests of the year. It’s effectively three separate tests under our Trail Bike of the Year umbrella, which is why we have a winner in each class.
To give the best possible spread of bikes and to avoid duplication due to so many of the bikes being available in multiple wheel sizes, we also have different price points for each category.
The four Plus bikes are the most expensive in test, all coming in around £3.5 – 4k mark. And with more longer travel Plus bikes coming online we decided to break with tradition and not to get last year’s winner, the Scott Spark back to defend its title.
Instead, the 150mm travel Scott Genius steps up to take its place. Joining it are the Rocky Mountain Pipeline, Intense ACV and Specialized Stumpy FSR Comp Carbon 650b.
For the 29ers the target price point is £3k and we have the YT Jeffsy back to see if it can repeat last year’s success story. We also issued a wildcard to the Vitus Escarpe 29 VRX at £2,699, simply because the specification was every bit as good as the more expensive bikes in that category. Factor in the new Whyte S150 with its progress geometry and sizing, and our Bike of the Year 2017 the Trek Fuel EX and the 29er category has a seriously stacked field.
Of the three wheel sizes 27.5in trail bikes are easily the most abundant, so it was relatively straightforward getting four great bikes around the £2.5k mark.
Last year’s winner, the Commencal Meta TR V4.2 is back with some minor changes, but has Commencal done enough to retain it title against new bikes like the Merida One Forty and the Canyon Spectral? Giant has also addressed the issues we highlighted last year with the finishing kit on the Giant Trance so everything is to play for in this test.
So we have three categories all with different wheel sizes and prices, but all twelve bikes have between 130mm and 150mm of suspension, which seems to be the sweet spot between weight, pedaling efficiency and capability for trail riding. Which bike strikes the best balance remains to be seen but one thing is certain, the modern trail bike has never been in a better place.
This year’s best full-suspension mountain bike winners
27.5 full-suspension trail bike of the year 2018
With the new Spectral, Canyon has built on the strength of its market-leading specification while addressing the bike’s underlying weaknesses – namely geometry and suspension.
As such, the Spectral CF 8.0 has no equal in the 27.5in segment of this test. The modern geometry and sizing let you push this 140mm trail bike to the very limits of its 2.6in tyres. It’s everything a modern trail bike should be and a deserving winner of mbr‘s Trail Bike of the Year 2018.
UK buy now: Canyon Spectral CF 8.0 at Canyon for £2,699
US buy now: Canyon Spectral CF 8.0 at Canyon for $3,499
29 full-suspension trail bike of the year 2018
The Vitus Escarpe VRX has a real urgency about it and when you combine that with the stunning build, it’s a shoo-in for 29in Trail Bike of the Year. It falls short of a perfect 10 because it’s a bit too tall in the seat tube, the BB is a touch too high and it’s the heaviest bike on test, mostly due to the Double Down reinforced casing tyres. It is, however, the cheapest bike on test by almost £150, which means you’ll have a bit of money for those corrective components and some lighter parts.
27.5 full-suspension trail bike of the year 2018
The new Genius lets you go full hooligan on the descents, without paying a penalty on the climbs. However, the Twinloc remote is still clumsy and takes priority over the dropper post lever, and we don’t think it benefits from being hooked up to the fork. We’d also like to see shorter cranks, a wider bar and a slightly steeper seat angle. But the fact that the Genius still stands head and shoulders above the rest of the bikes in this category shows how Scott has completely nailed the fundamentals.
All 12 Trail Bike of the Year 2018 contenders
It’s telling that the Commencal and Canyon are the best handling bikes in the 27.5in category and both share very similar geometry and sizing. Their specifications are similar too and there’s very little separating them in terms of price – the Commencal costing £2,645 at the current exchange rate. Yes, the carbon-framed Canyon is almost 1kg lighter but you don’t notice this out on the trail. What you do notice is that the skinny harder compound tyres on the Commencal Meta TR4.2 Essential don’t offer as much grip or control as the 2.6in rubber on the Canyon. And that’s a deal breaker.
All of the improvements Merida has made to the suspension and geometry of the new One Forty frame are positive, but faced with such stiff competition in the 27.5in category, they get a little lost in the crowd. Yes, the rear suspension works very well when bombing downhill and remains steadfast under power on the climbs, but the bike is heavy and lacks sparkle, feeling particularly sluggish on flatter, flowing trails, even though it has a fast rolling rear tyre. The real sticking point, quite literally, was the RockShox Revelation fork, but given that the tight bushings are covered under warranty we didn’t mark the Merida down.
Big improvements to the cockpit and tyre specification have really help unlocked the underlying potential of the Trance frame and showcase its superb suspension. The Fox suspension components also impressed, and with a lighter touch to the rebound damping, especially on the shock, the Giant is the best option here for lighter riders. It’s still not perfect though. Yes, the move to 2.4in Maxxis High Roller II tyres is a massive step in the right direction, but the Trance is crying out for the extra front-end grip that only a softer 3C Maxx Terra compound tyre will bring. Maybe next year.
Even though the Jeffsy 29 CF is £200 cheaper than the bike we tested 12 months ago, it still has an amazing frame and fantastic components for the money. Unfortunately, while the spec has moved on, the ride quality has taken a step back. We felt perched on the Jeffsy 29 CF and it felt nervous and edgy compared to the other three bikes in this test. The issue with the seat post also put the mockers on a lot of our rides because we were constantly worried about it firing back to full height.
The Whyte S-150 S has the best geometry and sizing in test, it also feels incredibly balanced and holds a line in a corner truer than any bike here, and the only limiting factor is the lacklustre performance of the RockShox Revelation fork. That’s not really the fault of the fork though, we just think Whyte should have bitten the bullet and fitted the better Pike fork from the outset. This would have pushed the price of the Whyte S-150 S to just over the £3K and it would still have been within the price range of this test.
Being sold through bricks and mortar retailers means Trek can’t offer the same stellar build as direct sale brands like Vitus and YT but the Fuel EX is still a really balanced package. The 11-speed drivetrain is a step down but the suspension is first rate, the frame is stiff and lightweight and the bike has the best wheels on test. As a result, it flies uphill and feels incredibly agile on twisty singletrack. If we had to knock out an all-day epic or long weekender at a UK trail centre, the Fuel Ex 9.7 29 is definitely the bike we’d reach for.
Much as it consistently put a smile on our faces, one thing about the Pipeline had us scratching our heads. While the geometry is designed around a 150mm fork, Rocky fits a 140mm Fox and a 10mm spacer under the head tube. This just doesn’t make sense to us. We’d much rather have a bit of extra travel up front than an inert lump of alloy. It would also be a marginally better bike with shorter cranks, narrower rims and a wider bar, but these are minor details and don’t really detract from the ride experience. The new Pipeline is leagues ahead of its predecessor, is an absolute scream on technical terrain and, in this test, pulls the pants down on one of the most iconic suspension bikes on the planet. For a small brand like Rocky Mountain, that’s impressive.
If you want to cover the most ground, with the least effort, and you’re a surgeon on the descents rather than a steamroller, then the ACV is the bike for you. Its sharp handling and eye-watering pace are addictive assets, and let’s face it, who doesn’t want that head badge hanging in their garage? But the traits that ensure it stomps away from the competition on pedally trails also hinder it on more challenging terrain. It’s a balancing act, and you have to decide which side of the scales you sit.
Specialized’s motto is Innovate or Die, but the Stumpjumper seems to have lost sight of that battle cry. A few years ago it was so far ahead of the competition it was in another league, but this is a cutthroat business and the rest of market has sneaked up and caught the Stumpjumper napping. It desperately needs a refresh with more modern geometry and improved suspension to bring it back into the game. As it stands though, you’d have to be staunchly brand loyal, or completely sold on SWAT to forgive its shortcomings. Thankfully we know Specialized has the talent and the resources to fix it, so we’re convinced this will be a matter of when, not if.
Last year’s trail bike of the year 2017 winners
27.5 Trail Bike of the Year 2017
Back in black, the Commençal Meta TR V4.2 Essential is anything but dull. With a shape profile, killer geometry and suspension that can handle anything, it’s a total trailblazer.
Commençal’s Essential component selection leaves nothing wanting either. The sizing is comprehensive and the suspension is a breeze to set up. It’s everything a 130mm bike should be: it’s tight, it’s reactive and it’s very effective. It’s no slouch on the climbs either; you never feel like you’re over-biked. It’s been a long time coming but the Meta is back where it needs to be.
29in Trail Bike of the Year 2017
The Jeffsy CF Pro is one of the fastest 29er trail bikes we’ve tested with a turn of speed that literally takes your breath away. It’s also tons of fun and will flatter and rider, no matter their ability. With 140mm of travel it can get a bit out of shape on steeper, rougher tracks, the flip side being that it’s incredibly agile, and can still punch its way out of most skirmishes.
Mesh this stand-out ride quality with the parts adorning the Jeffsy CF Pro, and you literally have one of the best pound-for-pound 29er trail bikes on the market today.
27.5 Plus Trail Bike of the Year 2017
As you’d expect from a pumped-up XC race bike, the Spark isn’t intended for ploughing down trails and riding passively. You need to work your limbs to make up for the shortfall in travel, but the rewards for your efforts are spectacular. We were constantly in awe of what this bike can do. Yet unlike a highly-strung athlete, it’s neither nervous nor neurotic, and its confidence is infectious.
Already it has been ridden to two Olympic gold medals; well now it can add our Trail Bike of the Year award to its glittering palmarès.