This thread has lost it's initial focus and is several years old. The key points of relevant advice can be found in the Please Read Before asking Question: MTB FAQ. at the top of the Mountain Biking page
Please Read Before asking Question: MTB FAQ.
OK I know I've been a major proponent of starting a thread to answer the constant "I have $500 what MTB should I get ?" threads that seem to pop up here EVERY TIME WE TURN AROUND. So I thought rather than continue to type my infinite disdain for the new posts rehashing the same question I'd start a thread in the hope that it will become a sticky and eliminate the incessent new threads on the same subject. If we could have members post there favorite bikes from this catagory we could speed the process for a lot of newbies.
To get the ball rolling here's my pick in the 5 bills and under catagory. the Specialized Rockhopper]