Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us sell plenty of bikes from brands such as Huffy, Mongoose, Roadmaster, and Schwinn for $100 to $200. They seem like good deals, so why would we advise you to spend $300 or more for a bike in the Ratings?
Because you get what you pay for. Mass-market bikes have cheaper construction than higher-priced bikes and can weigh 7 or 8 pounds more. They come in only one size, so you’re not likely to get a great fit. And mass merchants can’t match bike shops for quality of assembly, expert advice, and service.
In the long run, performance matters most, so we tried out two full-suspension bikes and one front-suspension model from the big-box stores, priced at $120 to $230. Shifting of the full-suspension bikes’ 21 speeds wasn’t nearly as smooth as on bike-shop models. Shock absorption and handling were fair to decent on pavement and on smooth dirt paths, but these so-called mountain bikes couldn’t handle rough off-road terrain. On steep paved roads, the extra weight, poor gearing, and mushy suspensions made pedaling uphill very hard.
The front-suspension model, also with 21 speeds, did much better on pavement and on fairly smooth dirt trails--but only after we adjusted the sloppy setup to make it roadworthy. Plus it comes in only one size, so fit will be hit or miss.
Consider cheaper bikes from a department store only for the most casual adult use, and stick with a front-suspension model, which is likely to be better than a cheap full-suspension bike. You may want a mass-market bike for kids who will outgrow a bike quickly or toss it about.
Still, if your budget allows, we’d recommend that you buy one of the $300 comfort bikes in the Ratings. You’ll get a lot more bike for the buck.