On Department Store "Cheapies"

Would it surprise you to know that month after month the most inquired about mountain bike models aren't uber-expensive, cutting edge, technological wonders? In fact, far from it! It turns out that readers enjoy living vicariously through the media when it comes to the experience of hammering a $9,000 bicycle for entertainment much in the way we find ourselves reading tests of Ferraris and Lambos; cars we'll likely never even drive much less own.

Yet when it comes time to buy a car, reading up on the Ford Fiesta suddenly becomes a lot more appealing and thus is the logic behind the fact that readers request, in fact beg for thorough, professional reviews of bikes available at their local big box shopping centers and sporting goods stores. We understand the desire. Times are rough and most of us are struggling just to put fuel in the car and pay for the week's groceries. $6,000 for a recreational item is simply not in the cards- So why all the negativity surrounding department store "cheapies"?

There is no shortage of such information on the Internet offering persuasive info on the subject- forums filled with threads harping on excessive weight, unreliability of components, catastrophic frame failures and horror stories of improper assembly. Last year the MBT Test Crew pulled an upset when we picked up and thoroughly tested a $75 Next Parowan rigid steel mountain bike. The results really weren't pretty! We concluded that for anything other than sidewalk cruising, the overweight steel-framed bike would have been in over its head and even with the luxury of having been built by our own professional mechanics; there were certain components (front brake for example) that never worked properly.

This all brings us up to the $199 Mongoose XR 200 being reviewed here and a company that you probably think you don't know about (but actually do). If you have no concern about the history behind the Mongoose brand and the corporate moving and shakings that resulted in this bike, feel free to skip down below for the test itself. We won't be offended, honest!

A Rich History

The Mongoose brand has a rich and colorful history in the bicycle industry that dates all the way back to the 1970s. For nearly 30-years, the domestic brand based in Madison, Wisconsin produced BMX and then later mid-level mountain bikes. Where things start to get a little fuzzy to the public is when the brand became a part of Taiwan bicycle manufacturing company Pacific Cycles (based in Hsin Wu, Taoyuan, Taiwan) back in 2001.

Pacific Cycles is actually a subsidiary of Dorel Industries; this becomes important in just a moment. After the merger, the Mongoose brand name was essentially split into two entirely separate product lines: low cost mass-market bicycles that could be found at department and sporting goods stores and higher-end models distributed through specialty bicycle shops.

For 2012 however, the plans for Mongoose have shifted slightly again. This time the higher-end bike shop models aren't going to be available in the United States. Visiting Mongoose's site reveals a pretty stellar lineup that is, sadly, inaccessible to us this year. The mass-market models are still alive and well though, and hence this very review born out of popular demand.

Dorel Industries is important because they have similarly merged with brands GT, Cannondale, Schwinn and most recently Iron Horse. More than just a brand-name conglomerate, the idea here is that the business practices of multiple brands under a single corporate umbrella could theoretically mix and match tactics to pass maximum savings onto the consumer.

Specs

The Mongoose XR 200 begins life as an aluminum one-size-fits-all tube set coupled to a 21-speed hybrid drivetrain (SRAM MRX grip-shifters mated to Shimano Tourney TX derailleur and gears). Braking comes in the form of a Promax DSK-400 manual (cable) disc brake in the front and Promax v-brake in the rear. Suspension duties are handled by a Zoom Element Racing Shocks fork and coil-over shock (3-inches of travel front & rear). Hubs and quick releases are Quando bits while the wheels and tires are presumably in-house brands.

All told the Men's 26" XR 200 (26" refers to the wheel size only; the actual bike's top tube measures roughly 21.5") weighs in at 37 pounds with included pedals installed. A model identical to ours can be had for $199.

Shop Talk

As is always the case with our bike tests, we built the bike up in our shop and spent as much time tweaking and fine-tuning it to our specific needs as possible before field-testing. In the case of the XR-200, the suspension is only (spring) preload adjustable and hence extremely effortless to set-up. Without the need to pressurize air chambers for proper sag measurement, all that was left for us to fiddle with was the bar angle, stem height (by moving the included spacers above or below the clamp) and saddle height to suit each of our test riders. The uninterrupted seat-tube is certainly appreciated, as saddle-height range is quite munificent.

As stated in the spec breakdown, department store bikes can be difficult to pin-down size wise as most offerings (this one included) forego any sort of top tube measurement info in favor of wheel size. A 21" top-tube would typically put it somewhere between the medium and large categories of most bike shop options though we should note that do to a generous bend in the top tube, the length alone can be a tad misleading (meaning it's a bit more compact in person than the spec sheet reveals). As always in these situations, try before you buy if possible, especially if you typically fall outside the norm as far as body types go.

Once set-up, the reach to the bars is fairly neutral; leaning toward the modern trail bike side of the spectrum (over the raked out stretch of a cross country configuration). The saddle is a tad bit harder than its bulk would suggest but our crew unanimously voted the cockpit as roomy and comfortable.

Blast Off

Moving out on the Mongoose XR 200 is best done in a gear-range lower than expected with frequent upshifts as opposed to starting off high in the cogs. The gearing is such where the bike's heft can be compensated for by selecting wisely and building a steady cadence. Like most bicycles at this price point, it finds its sweet spot on hard pack, paved bike paths, gravel roads and the occasional asphalt commute. There was a time about a decade ago when big brand store mountain biking equipment was so inadequate that it came with a warning label disclaiming that it was not actually intended for off-road use. We're very pleased to report that those days are behind us; at least as far as this particular model is concerned.

Does this suggest the performance goes south the moment you leave the bike path? Not at all. Despite what you may have read, heard or suspected, we were able to take our XR 200 test bike through a decent variety of off-road conditions and returned to the trail head quite unscathed (as did the bike). Among these were some sections of twisty single track, a sandy lakeside trail system and a rooty technical park with multiple stream crossings. If you were hoping we would have used this test as an opportunity to read about a budget bike snapped in half on a downhill run, we're sorry to disappoint but this is 3-inch travel territory here; regardless of cost.

The steering is sharp and precise and the bike holds a decent line assuming the ground isn't overly sloped. Climbing and descending can be a bit of a handful on account of the bike's overall weight. Surprisingly, the front brake is up to the task of getting the bike slowed down in a hurry with decent modulation after burn-in (which took several hours for us). The rear however, like most v-brakes we've encountered, can be a bit more like a light switch (off or on- and when on, dragging the tire). We found the best formula here was to scrub speed with the rear but allow the front manual disc the lion's share of bringing the XR down to cornering speeds.

Suspension is a mixed bag here.. Both the front and rear show signs of adequacy that are often drown out by a caveat. The fork is decent at picking up trail clutter once the seals break in (and this took us two solid days in the saddle to occur) but, like most of Zoom's products we've encountered in the past, tends to pack up and hang in its travel over successive hits. Considering there are only 3-inches to begin with here, losing an inch and a half can be detrimental. The simple answer in this situation would be to increase the fork's rebound to make it return to full-travel quicker but keep in mind this unit is preload adjustable only.

The rear end fairs a bit better thanks to the fact that the chassis makes use of a faux-bar linkage configuration. Remarkably the platform is decent at nullifying pedal bob and eliminating brake-jack but there's only so much a linkage can be expected to do given the low-tech shock it is attached to. The 3-inch coil over feels overly stiff and lacks small bump compliance. If you happen to have an older air shock lying around (or can even justify buying a new budget unit like a Suntour Epicon), there is massive performance to be gained thanks to the rear-end design of this chassis.

Odds and Ends

Don't let the generic tires throw you for a loop; we're convinced that a major tire brand (Kenda perhaps, based on the compound and tread pattern) provides the meats to Pacific Cycle. We found the tires to be quite capable in many of the east coast conditions we use to torture bikes of all prices and disciplines. The wheels however are definitely a budget spec and bring with them increased rolling resistance. We didn't knock ours out of true during testing but imagine it would be possible if heavy rock traversing or pavement trickery happen to describe your idea of a good ride.

Surprisingly, the first item we would upgrade would be the handlebar stem as the stock unit is fairly thin at the welds. We know from experience that Pacific Cycle stocks several of their other Mongoose branded bikes (Deception 29" for example) with much beefier stems and think the XR200 would benefit greatly by incorporating same. Fortunately a quality aftermarket stem is a very affordable upgrade.

Conclusion

Bike snobbery in the media is nothing new and purists looking to eek every performance advantage out of bicycle and body will scoff at such hardware but the fact of the matter is we're always glad when steps are taken to introduce the thrills, excitement and enjoyment of off-road bicycling to a wider reach. Years ago department store hardware could hardly survive a parking lot demo much less true trail riding but this bike is proof that technology trickle-down is making obsolete the concept of getting to sample some dirt on anything less than a high-end, purpose-built bicycle. Perhaps one of our test riders put it best: "The weight is a tough factor to ignore and makes itself felt on the trails but the bike performed better than expected in just about every category. Any complaints I had in the saddle were offset by the simple fact that the entire thing cost less than the set of pedals I bought last month for my race bike."

Of final purchase consideration, we cannot discount the fact that many of the shortcomings associated with department store bicycles throughout the years are a direct result of improper build and set-up. The simple reality is that the same guy who stocks shelves on Monday, gathers shopping-carts on Tuesday and unloads the truck on Wednesday probably isn't qualified to build your bike on Thursday. We have the luxury of an in-house mechanic here at MBT to make certain the bike, which we ordered directly from the factory, was assembled and properly tuned. While most bike shops would prefer you simply purchase your bike directly from them, it may be worth a few extra bucks to have them assemble, go over, and possibly swap out components to accommodate your body/ riding needs after picking up a department store bicycle.