We'll come right out with a disclaimer on this one: The Trek Fuel EX series represents the epitome of MBT's quintessential trail bike. Make no mistake, we appreciate 29" wheels, hardtails, downhill bikes, and so on but for the majority of our testers, 26" hoops, an aluminum frame, and a little over 5" of root-gobbling full suspension are the precise combination for maximum east coast trail enjoyment. We're not talking brand loyalty here either as none of our riders actually own a Fuel EX 8; so much as this configuration tends to work wonders on the trails we frequent.
The said, the Trek Fuel EX 8 is the second from the top of Trek's aluminum Fuel offerings (just behind the $4200 EX9; above that you get into the carbon fiber versions). It boasts a well-rounded spec sheet including a Shimano SLX drivetrain, suspension in the form of Fox Racing Shox (Fox Float 32 DRCV/ CTD with 15QR 130mm fork up front and a Fox Float DRCV/ CTD shock in the rear). Braking comes in the form of Shimano SLX hydraulic discs at both ends. Bontrager XR3 tires come wrapped around Bontrager Duster Disc tubeless-ready wheels. Odds and ends are all Bontrager as well (saddle, post, bar, stem and lock-on grips).
All told our 18.5" size test bike (Trek doesn't really do the small/ medium/ large thing instead opting for 15.5, 17.5, 18.5, 19.5, & 21.5" variants) weighed in at 29.2 pounds and a bike identical to ours can be had for $2839.
When you first take a peak at the EX 8 with its fancy-looking shock canister and alphabet soup of acronyms, natural human instinct is to run and hide. Rest assured, setting up the bike is nothing to fear. In fact Trek tosses in a fork & shock sag meter with each bike purchased as well as a Bontrager shock pump. You simply pressurize a single chamber in the fork and one in the shock to the recommended sag level, which is fool-proof given the clip-on measurement tool and away you go.
The alphabet soup game Trek and Fox have going on is also nothing to fret: DRCV means dual rate control valve and in short that means there's a secondary air chamber in there that opens up when you get into the last part of the travel. The goal here is to provide a bottomless sensation for hard hits and flat landings without compromising the sensitivity of the early regions of your travel responsible for picking up trail clutter.
CTD means Climb, Trail and Descend which is a Fox gimmick that essentially offers three valve settings, adjustable on the fly, to suit the conditions in question. Climbing being the stiffest, descending being the plushest and trail settling in the middle.
Finally ABP is Trek's Active Braking Point technology; which places a pivot at the dropout and attaches the shock to the swingarm at both ends (rather than directly to the frame); essentially "floating" the real suspension.
Confused yet? Don't be. The engineers did all the worrying for you. Pump up your air chambers between 25 and 35% sag, adjust your bars and levers and go hit the trails.
Right from a dead stop the Fuel EX 8 is a peppy accelerator. No, we aren't talking about the type of "pop out from under you" spurts of forward momentum a wispy XC bike will instill but crank pumps are rewarded with nice, steady bursts of traction.
Body positioning is very close to our definition of the "sweet spot"- none of that flat-backed XC stretching but not quite all-mountain vertical either. We were rather surprised that Trek sourced so flat a handlebar for this application, as a slight riser would likely have positioned rider weight a tad further rearward. No worries though, the position is both comfortable and effective in providing traction to both wheels.
On The Trails
The Fuel EX 8 is lively and comfortable enough in parking lot demos and on the flats but the real question is how it delivers on the trails. Fortunately there's a lot to like here. If you're anything like us, you'll likely forego messing around with the CDT function, instead leaving it on the middle (trail) position for a majority of your riding. Thank Trek for this, as their floating suspension package is a very effective pedaling platform.
Climbs are surprisingly painless on the 8 and a lot of this can be attributed to that flat bar coupled to a steep seat tube angle that goes a long way in putting you in a position to hold a smooth cadence even on those climbs that seem to go on forever.
Coming back down is quite enjoyable as well for a bike that climbs as well as the EX 8 does. This is the only time we were tempted to flip the shock into Descend mode for maximum plushness. Normally we might fear bottoming out on a slapper landing with the shock so free but take comfort – you have two additional factors working in your favor here. First Trek's floating suspension linkage is wonderfully effective at keeping the leverage ratios in check in even the roughest conditions. Secondly the DRCV system (that extra air chamber for when you blow through all your travel) all but eliminates any chance of hard bottoming.
Cornering is nice and snappy- good frame geometry coupled to 26" wheels is a reminder as to just how responsive a bike can be. The Bontrager tires are finally getting up to speed with the competition as well. There was a time where finding the limitations of the rubber was a major factor on Trek's bikes; which was tragic considering the attention to detail they include elsewhere.
It's tough for us to find fault with the Trek Fuel EX 8; it's an extremely versatile trailbike that excels in just about every aspect of the off-road bicycling experience. Of course we may be a bit biased when you factor in that this is the precise combination of traits we appreciate for our east coast trail conditions. The full floater linkage coupled to the DRCV system results in what could very well be the most bottomless-feeling suspension we've ever tested. The EX doesn't excel in one particular condition or discipline but it does do everything you throw at it without complaint. A lot of bikes claim do-it-all performance but the EX 8 comes about as close to delivering on such claims as any we've encountered.