The Marin Bobcat Trail 4 is Marin's entry level hardtail offering. Entry level can often mean loud in looks but low in terms of geometry and riding said bike on anything other than a canal toe path. However, Marin has delivered something genuinely fit for purpose in the Bobcat.
Regardless of your ability or budget, mountain bikes need to be just that, a bike that is capable of riding off-road, on technical trails and for extended periods of time.
Fortunately for us, the Bobcat does pretty well on all counts. With a 68 degree head angle figure and a reach of 450mm on a large, it's heading in the right direction. When you consider some brands are still using similar numbers on their £2,000+ full suspension rigs, the Bobcat Trail embarrasses them massively with it's modest £600 price tag.
The chainstays on the large are a reassuring 445mm, due mostly to the fact that the large uses 29" wheels rather than 27.5, but for me, that's a welcome coincidence. The longer stays offer confidence on faster descents and way more traction on the ups, placing your weight further over the front wheel when winching up hills. Seat angles are notoriously slack on hardtails, the Marin's is slightly steeper than many brands at an effective 74 degrees but still could be steeper for improved climbing efficiency. That said, you'll run out of traction on the plastic-like Schwalbe Tough Tom tyres way before that seat angle becomes an issue. The heel dragging BB height of 311mm on the 29er model induces a riotous mood when cornering as hard as those cheap tyres will allow.
The bars are comfortably wide enough for an entry-level hardtail at 720mm and the stem a trail-friendly 60mm in length. With functional Suntour forks offering adjustable preload and a mechanical lockout, there's plenty on the front to soak up trail buzz and rutted out puddles.
Those cheap Tough Tom's offer adequate front end grip when the ground gets loose or soft and the Shimano stoppers deliver more than adequate braking for, well, doing skids right? Grab that front brake hard though and you'll naturally notice a decent amount of flex from the skinny forks, something to be expected at this price point.
The drivetrain uses a triple chainring up front paired with a nine-speed cassette. The Shimano Altus rear mech, SunRace 11-36t cassette and a Suntour 44/32/22T crankset means you're always geared for the job at hand.
That said, we'd prefer to see the use of 2x cranksets even at this price point, which coincidentally is the case on the newer, 2018 model Bobcat*. Even the Marin own-brand rims have been thought about, with a 25mm internal width, they're great to see on an entry level bike and offer a nicer profile to the tyre than other, narrower incarnations.
I was increasingly encouraged when I saw the quick release style seat clamp fitted to the bike (allows quick adjustments of seat height), due mainly to my partiality for a gnarly descent or three! Which leads me on to the one thing that really frustrated me about the Bobcat and that's the bottle boss mounts. Now, I know what you're thinking - 'you just mentioned a QR seat clamp, what's that got to do with the bottle bosses'? Well, those mounts on the seat tube, unfortunately, foul the seat post when wanting to drop it for steeper descents. This is particularly frustrating on a bike with such good trail geometry numbers. Not a problem if you intend on an externally routed 27.2mm dropper post at a later date or are content with riding everything with the post fully extended. It's just an irritant as far as I'm concerned.
The aluminium frame is a stiff bugger, no worse than others, but get it on some really rough stuff and you'll know about it. Tyre clearance is adequate and standover is comfortable. The aforementioned geometry numbers mean it's a confidence inspiring bike considering its price-point. Long enough to allow you to happily move around and find your centre-point on steeper trails and slack enough to lower chances of tucking the front end when the going gets tighter. Razz around a trail centre or cross-country loop and you'll quickly find yourself pushing on with real intent, the Bobcat encourages you to improve. You'll soon reach the edge of the basic spec's capabilities, but that's the point, right?
Whilst some of the comments made above will seem overly critical of a bike of such value and price-point, it's important, and here's why. If you, like I once did, are starting off your mountain bike journey on a bike such as the Bobcat (actually, mine wasn't anywhere near as good 20+ yrs ago!), you'll be aware that this is potentially the beginning of something. The first foray into the wonders of ending relationships due to bike obsession, selling the kids to fund a new set of wheels and remortgaging your house for the newest suspension fork. All jokes aside, the bike you buy now, has to be upgradeable. It's obvious that the less you spend, the lower the spec or sum of its parts (usually). The parts can be broken, worn-out or discarded and then replaced with newer, more technically capable products at a later date. However, buy a bike with a low spec and poor geometry and you'll quickly realise your faux-pas.
Fortunately, the Bobcat has that under control; buy cheap, buy once in this case. If you like the idea of commuting to work on fatter tyres, razzing along the toe path with the kids at the weekend or even entering your first cross-country race, the Bobcat is ready for you, and ready for shiny new bits when you wear the originals out.
For more go over to www.paligap.cc
* Although we tested the 2017 model here, the only changes for 2018 are a 2x9 drivetrain rather than a 3x9 and a small hike in price to £600. The bike will also be painted in a rather striking black and neon yellow rather than this blue and orange outfit. That said though, Paligap says there are a few 2017 models left, so if you are quick you can get one in your shed.