There’s no shortage of blinged-out, $6,000 carbon bikes to choose from. But finding a capable full-suspension model for less than $3,000 is much harder. That’s why we love the 120mm Stance 0; it costs half as much as many of the top options, but sacrifices hardly any performance. To keep costs low, Giant gave the bike a single-pivot suspension design that’s cheaper to manufacture, but it still works great. The Stance is a crap-ton of fun to ride. This model comes with a dropper post, too; a huge asset to riders of all experience levels and a rare find on this level of bike.
Santa Cruz Highball 27.5 CC
People keep saying the hardtail is dead, but the Highball shows that the category’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. One reason we love it: The bike’s geometry is more relaxed than many hardtails', splitting the difference between XC machine and playful trail bike. Santa Cruz offers several versions, but the Highball 27.5 C comes with the exact same parts and features as the most expensive option, but uses a lower-grade carbon fiber that shaves $1,500 off the price. It’s a little heavier, but it’s every bit as fun.
Ultimate Extreme Sports Watch
Giant Anthem Advanced SX 27.5
Just because you want a light, efficient XC bike doesn’t mean you want to skimp on fun. The hot-rodded SX Advanced takes Giant’s proven Maestro suspension and supercharges it with RockShox’s plush and supple Monarch DebonAir shock. Then, Giant added a dropper post and boosted travel by 20mm. That slacks out the head and seat angles by a degree, creating a versatile bike that blurs the lines between XC racing and all-day trail riding.
Transition Patrol 2
We recommended this bike’s little brother, the Transition Smuggler, in our 2015 Buyer’s Guide because it was one of the most exciting short-travel bikes we’ve tried. But we are just as enamored with this model, which jumps in travel to 155mm. The company’s GiddyUp suspension is based on the proven FSR four-bar design and the Patrol’s geometry tends toward the rowdy side of the spectrum. GiddyUp indeed.
Trek Stache 9
Trek completely revamped its line of Stache aggressive hardtails to work with super-wide 29+ wheels and tires. That setup allows you to run super low pressure, so the Stache 9 sticks to the trail like ink on a hipster. It’s fun to ride, surprisingly fast, and floats off rocks and logs despite (or perhaps because of) the massive tires. A cool thing about the 29+ system is that you can run 27+ or regular 29er wheels and tires (though you might need to—or have a shop—fiddle with the fork).
Some folks roll their eyes when the see 29ers with more than 140mm of travel. Those monstrosities are too sluggish, they cry. We say Feh! The 150mm TF01 is so capable and fun to ride that it’s a great choice for all-day excursions in addition to lift-assisted runs. It's a baller, ready to punch back at even the burliest trails. And it climbs well, pedaling with just a touch of platform to the Fox Float X shock, then transforming into a rocket as you tear down the trail.
Ibis Mojo HD3 XO1
Lower, longer, lighter, and slacker geometry gives the third iteration of the Mojo its magic. For this version, Ibis stuck with 27.5 wheels and a DW-Link suspension, which combine to create a trail bike like no other. It climbs, descends, and leaps over obstacles with balance and poise. There’s even room for a water bottle for the days you don't want a pack. Its available in builds for every budget. We think the XO1 option offers truly exceptional parts and performance at a fairly priced (but in no way cheap) package.
Niner Jet RDO 4-Star XO1/RS1
This bike is as much a work of art as it is a two-wheeled trail-eating machine. Outfitted with the stunning (and stunningly stiff and smooth) inverted RockShox RS-1 fork as well as Niner’s CVA suspension design, the carbon Niner Jet RDO is light enough to blaze through an XC race while being capable enough for tough-as-nails trail rides. It features Shimano XT M785 ICE brakes and a SRAM XO1 1x11-speed drivetrain. The massive 10-42 cassette and 32-tooth front chainring mean the ideal gear is only a few clicks away, whether you’re grinding up a steep ascent or barreling down a long descent. It’s a bike that rides as beautifully as it looks.
Juliana Roubion XX1
The Roubion is essentially a prettier, petite version of Santa Cruz’s Bronson. And though it comes dressed in some feminine accessories, including a Juliana flat 720 carbon bar, Primeiro saddle, and luscious evergreen paint job, it’s equally baller. Decked out with a Pike RCT3 fork and Fox Float CTD shock, the 150mm-travel Roubion confidently handles high-speed descents replete with drop-offs and rock gardens. It also features a SRAM XX1 1x11 drivetrain, Shimano XTR brakes, and a RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post for when the going gets gnarly. Women looking for a bike that makes them feel even braver should look hard at this offering from Juliana.
Scott Spark 900 SL
Now available in 27.5 (120 mm) or 29er (100 mm) versions, the Scott Spark 900 SL is a proven XC race and marathon champion. It’s one of the lightest full-suspension carbon frames out there and thanks to Scott’s Twin-Loc technology, which allows you to change the bike’s travel and geometry with the push of a button, this bike is also one of the most versatile and capable model’s we’ve tried. The Spark is dressed with a Fox 32 Float Factory CTD front fork and Nude rear. You get full travel on the descents, 70 mm to keep the rubber down over rough terrain, and zero when charging out of the saddle. That makes the Spark one of the most fun, versatile bikes you can buy.