The wheels on the wheel-size debate go 'round and 'round. As if buying a mountain bike wasn't already a chore—picking a geometry, frame material, component group and suspension to match your skill and local terrain isn't easy—now the bike companies are rolling out more wheel sizes. First, there was the classic 26-inch, a lightweight, playful size that responds aggressively to rider cues. A few short years ago, the monstrous 29-inch wheel came online, rolling steamroller-like over everything in its path. It's heavier and somewhat more sluggish, but it requires less finessing over challenging terrain (just point yourself downhill, and keep on rolling). Now a lot more 27.5-inch (650b) wheels are rolling out, striking a balance or weight, steering responsiveness and terrain crushing power.
Confusing? Hopefully not, because big wheels are in. In fact, only one of our 12 favorite mountain bikes from this year are rocking 26-inch wheels. We've also got a geeked-out, tech-crazy 29er that adjusts suspension and seat level at the flick of a switch, a value-oriented entry-level bike that gives you big wheels a race-influenced geometry for a thousand bucks and a first-of-its-kind monster bike that looks better suited to winter riding than tearing up muddy trails (but it definitely does the job—and fast).
Our choices represent what we believe to be the best on offer this year, made from a spectrum of materials (carbon, aluminum, steel) for a variety of budgets. We selected them from a combination of personal tests, consumer review sites and reviews by other leading bicycle media, and ranked them based on price, components, weight, consumer reviews and overall build quality.
We'll leave you with a word of caution: Our list is meant as a buyer's guide, but it doesn't substitute for personal trial. Above even carbon forks, high-end derailleurs, disc brakes, responsive suspensions and lightweight frames, nothing improves ride quality more than perfect fit. Once you've determined the category of mountain bike—competition, x-country, all-mountain or trail—you're in the market for and narrowed your slection a bit, we recommend heading to your local bike shop and riding as many models as possible. Once you've chosen, have them custom fit for you. Trust us, you'll never want to take to the trails in your big-box hardtail clunker again.
#12. Trek Superfly 100 Elite SL
#11. Yeti SB66 Race
#10. Rocky Mountain Altitude 750 MSL
#9. Specialized Epic Comp 29
#8. Cannondale Trigger 29er 1
#7. Jamis Dakar XCR 29 Sport
#6. Santa Cruz Bronson RAM27
#5. Trek Lush 29 SL
#4. Norco Range Killer B-2
#3. Scott Scale Comp 29
#2. Surly Krampus
#1. Niner Rip 9 RDO
Like these bikes? See where they finished on our 32 Best Bikes of 2013 list.