You want a bike that will go wherever you want. Choose from our trail-tested models1. Norco Fluid 4 ($1,940; 33 lbs)
Of the bikes we tested, this ride rates as the best bang for your buck. Clipped into the Fluid, we made it up hills we've never climbed before. The components-a Shimano grouping that rarely let us down-were not as smooth as those on the more expensive bikes, but the ride quality was almost as good as on the Roscoe II and Altitude 50. The five inches of travel had a little bob out of the saddle, but the geometry and the best-in-test tires (Kenda Nevagal) made up for lost efficiency on climbs. On the way down, the bike always felt like it could go faster; in fact, we felt like we were holding it back.
Keep in mind: This is the heaviest rig of the bunch. Consider splurging for a lighter fork.
Best for: Those looking for an all-around bike that won't blow the budget.
2. Kona One20 Primo ($2,399; 29 lbs)
Kona added travel-one inch up front and 20 millimetres in back (hence the line's name)-to last year's Four line giving this trail bike enough cushioning to bump it into the all-mountain category. Combined with versatile geometry, which includes a swooping top tube that adds stand-over room without compromising performance, we were able to take this bike everywhere with confidence. It was as happy on log rides and steep descents as it was up long climbs. We were impressed with the skinny 2.1-inch-wide Maxxis Ignitor tires, which rode like much wider rubber. The bike comes loaded with Shimano components.
Keep in mind: The RockShox front forks may look wimpy, but they are anything but.
Best for: XC riders looking for their first all-mountain bike.
3. Rocky Mountain Altitude 50 ($3,499; 29 lbs)
Rocky has used what it calls Straight Up geometry on this bike, and it resulted in all-day comfort. The upright riding position was heaven for our lower back and left our shoulders, arms and hands relaxed. And comfort does not come at the expense of performance. The Altitude climbs and cruises so nicely that one tester said it felt like a Cadillac. The slack geometry was equally good on the way down: point the Altitude where you want to go and it goes without a whimper. The components were a reliable mix of mid-range Shimano and Race Face, while the light frame was the high quality we'd expect.
Keep in mind: The frame design leaves it exposed to beatings from high-clearance rocks and logs.
Best for: Anyone who dreams of riding IMBA epics.
4. Gary Fisher Roscoe II ($3,999; 30 lbs)
Part billy goat, part Bearclaw, the Roscoe 2 was a hit from the singletrack to the bike park, but was especially popular with testers who lean towards free- riding. Descents on this bike were a blast. Fox shocks front and back (providing five inches of travel) smoothed out the bumps and drops with predictability. But the bike also surprised testers with its smooth, efficient climbing and exceptional slow-speed handling. The oversized aluminum frame not only looks cool but reduces power-sapping flex. The 15 mm front axel (which screws in instead of using quick release) improves stiffness and, thus, handling in the proprietary Fox front fork.
Keep in mind: You should get new tires if you ride the wet and muddy.
Best for: The rider whose shuttle vehicle is his bike.