21 Mar 2018

Ready, set, enduro! We've picked three popular bang-for-your-buck enduro bikes under $4000 and put them head to head...to head. Introducing the Giant Reign 2, Merida One Sixty 800 and the Norco Range A3.

We review the Giant Reign 2, Merida One-Sixty 800 and Norco Range A3.

Enduro bikes are so hot right now, look at the latest 2018 models from the big brands like Giant, Merida and Norco, the componentry manufacturers are clearly throwing their weight behind the category and producing genuinely great parts for sub $4K bikes. No longer do you need to sell a kidney to afford a bike with excellent suspension, robust components and frame geometry influenced by team riders. It’s a good time to be buying a new bike, and not a 4K TV!

Why pick these three?

There’s only $300 separating these three bikes, they’re all running 27.5″ wheels, they’re almost identical in travel and are all aimed at Enduro style riding. This trio is very comparable.

Giant Reign 2 – $3799.

Merida One-Sixty 800 – $3999.

Norco Range A3 – $3699.

Read the individual reviews of the trio here.

Giant Reign 2.

Merida One-Sixty 800.

Norco Range A3.

Ploughing the rockiest trail we could find on the Giant Reign, it LOVES this stuff.

Let’s look at the spec.

It’s safe to say that the Merida – which also happens to be the most expensive – comes out on top in the spec wars, you’re just not left wanting anything more. Highlights are the SRAM Code R brakes and Super Deluxe shock which add bulk value to the overall package.

The Norco isn’t too far behind the Merida, it has a well-thought-out spec for the dollars, and if not for the awkward shifter/brake lever matching we’d be 100% content. The Tektro brakes were better than we expected on the trail, and the wide-range 11-46 SunRace cassette has a smooth range of gears that’s not far behind Eagle in terms of range.

The Giant was a little bit of a surprise to us, perhaps we’ve been accustomed to them ruling the value stakes over the last decade, but the entry-level version of the deep Reign lineup had us wanting a little more for the cash. Especially when compared to the Merida and Norco, the lacklustre brakes and 10-speed drivetrain were quite a stark contrast to the other two bikes.

The top-shelf RockShox Super Deluxe on the Merida, premium stuff!
A Shimano 11-speed SLX drivetrain and SunRace 11-46t cassette on the Norco.
Shimano Deore level brakes on the Giant. Not all bad, just lower spec in comparison to the four piston SRAM Codes on the Merida.

Chuck them on the scales.

Giant – 14.1kg

Merida – 14.3kg

Norco – 15.16kg

While this category of bikes might not be all about weight, it’s still a point worth looking at, and the Norco is a standout here tipping the scales over the 15kg mark. In fairness, the Norco didn’t feel too much like a 15kg bike when riding.

We’re merely speculating here as we didn’t strip the bikes down to their undies, but we’d say that the Giant Reign frame must be reasonably light, with an overall weight lighter than both the Merida and Norco.

Casting an eye over the frame.

These three bikes are all damn nice, beautifully finished head-to-toe and well protected. In our opinion of the three, the Giant is the slickest looking with its lovely matte finish, one-piece carbon rocker link and internal routing, it is a  very tidy package.

Merida wins the most improved award for aesthetics, this new generation One-Sixty looks fantastic, and the internal cables give it clean lines.

The Norco with its lustrous red paint had us all pouring it over it with oohs and ahhs, though the external routing lets it down a touch on the finish scoreboard. Its chunky overbuilt suspension hardware and robust linkage might look industrial to some, but we appreciate its hardiness.

Big suspension hardware, a glossy red paint job and well executed – though external – cable routing.
A fresh look for Merida, the colours are bright, the rear suspension linkage is clean and the welds are very tidy.
The only piece of carbon on any of the bikes is this excellent piece of frame construction, the one-piece Maestro Suspension rocker arm. The Giant is our favourite in terms of frame finish, attention to detail and overall appearance.

Build today, race enduro tomorrow?

The buzz word on everyone’s lips; enduro. Which of these three 160mm travel bikes would we take enduro racing?

If we were at the top of the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze, a straight out high-speed race, we’d take the Giant; it’s the most stable and grounded of the three with the most aggressive geometry and longest reach. But take it to an enduro race where you’re pedalling all day and hunting to maintain speed on singletrack, the suspension tune and super-slack steering will prove to be tiring.

The Merida with its efficient climbing position and suspension feel would be an excellent choice to race a classic enduro where there’s plenty of climbing and long hours in the saddle, but it’ll find its limit on the rougher and rocky race tracks with its shorter reach and very linear rear suspension.

The Norco just seems to strike a neat balance between the two, efficient enough to climb, and plenty stable for the descents at race pace. The suspension is well balanced and progressive enough to hammer hard, so, we’d happily take the Norco to a race track unseen; it’ll have you covered. 

Pedalling and climbing on the Merida was quite comfortable, suitable for racing enduro on the lesser aggressive courses.
Racing on gravity assisted tracks like the Thredbo Cannonball Festival or Enduro? The Giant would haul on the open and fast sections.
A neat balance of confidence inspiring geometry, balanced suspension and a solid chassis let you really lift your game when riding the Norco.

Not fussed on racing, just want to ride hard?

Want loads of travel to save your skin when things get a little crazy on the trails? 160mm of travel can get you out of a lot of sticky situations, that’s a certainty!

The Giant can be hard work, its long reach and slack steering won’t make a great trail bike for everyday singletrack rides, but turn it up to maximum speed, and you’ll relish in its stable and planted ride.

The Merida would be quite a good trail bike with some serious firepower in reserve, it pedals and climbs nicely despite the long travel. Singletrack rides with a few rock gardens and sketchy chutes? The Merida will take that on the chin, no worries.

Lugging around 15kg of Norco would be tough on the legs, but it’s a nice bike to rip turns and hit jumps on, it seems to have a lot of potential to lift the game and take your riding to the next level. When it came to big drops, loose trails and hard hits the Norco was our favourite.

The Reign is a big bike, be warned!
The Merida is happier on technical trails than the race track.

What would we do for $500 to upgrade these bikes?

Hypothetically, we reach into our jacket pocket and find $500!! Whoa, we haven’t worn this jacket since last winter and don’t remember losing any money. The joys of being a high rolling bike tester, dropping $500 like it’s nothing… 

Now let’s see what we’d do with $500.

  • Merida One-Sixty 800.

Our only real complaint about the Merida One-Sixty 800 was the suspension; we feel it wasn’t up to the task on rowdy trails especially in the hands of heavier riders. We asked Mountain Bike Suspension Centre in Sydney to see what they could do to help this bike achieve its potential.

“We would recommend doing a custom tune on the RockShox Super Deluxe, this would provide more high-speed damping, and that will help with the shock and its tendency to use all its travel too easily. We’d couple this with two more air volume spacers to make the shock more progressive. All this would add up to more grip and compliance over the rough stuff but also more support when the bike gets pushed harder.”

“For the Yari, we would add a Vorsprung Luftkappe.  Fitting a Luftkappe air piston kit improves the fork’s small bump compliance and traction while improving mid stroke support and progression.”

We would then be left with about $160, so we’d buy a 50mm stem and a matching handlebar to stretch the reach out a touch.

  • Giant Reign 2.

The Maxxis Shorty tyre on the front may excel in loam and loose over hardpack conditions but isn’t the most versatile tyre. It’s hard to go past the old faithful 2.35 Maxxis DHF or DHR tyre for a great all-rounder. 

The Reign is a plough of an enduro bike, but with 160mm of travel up front, it’s a little under-gunned when we compared it to the 170mm-travel forks on the Range and One-Sixty in this shootout. We asked ‘Mountain Bike Suspension Centre’ to let us know what they would do.

“For the Yari, we would extend it to 170mm with a new air shaft and the Vorsprung Luftkappe”

The recommended suspension tunings need to happen when the fork and shock are relativity new. Otherwise, a proper service with seals will be required and this comes at a (reasonable) higher cost.  

  • Norco Range A3.

We found the suspension on the Range fairly spot on out of the box, so upgrades would come in the shape of ergonomics and brake power.

The TranzX remote on the dropper post is functional and straightforward, but for a little more luxury we would upgrade to the Wolf Tooth Dropper remote lever, it has a silky smooth action and is excellent on any cable activated dropper post. 

The Tektro brakes performed great during our test, but to take them to the next level and handle the heat on longer descents, we would upgrade the pads and rotors to Shimano Ice Tech (the Tektro brakes actually use a Shimano Saint pad).

Finally, to give our hands and arse a little more comfort on the longer rides, we would swap the grips and saddle for something plusher.

Possible extra option for the Giant Reign and Norco Range.

The RockShox Deluxe shock (compared to the Super Deluxe found on the Merida) is tuned with trail riding in mind, and so a custom tune will help with more aggressive enduro riding.  Custom tuning the Deluxe shock, plus the addition of air volume spacers, will help to improve the small bump compliance giving the shock more support when you’re taking more significant hits instead of the damping disappearing when you need it most.

Crunch time, what’s our pick of the three? 

Did you scroll past all the chat for our final verdict? Fair enough…

Quite simply, the Norco Range outshines or comes close enough to the Giant and Merida in all aspects of what these bikes are built for, hard riding, having fun and proving reliable for under $4k. It’s also the only one available in 29″ wheels too, for going REALLY fast.

The Norco Range is our pick from the three; it impressed us in all areas assessed, has a well-thought-out spec, and rode really well.