Cheap vs expensive MTB — the age-old question. Is it worth spending the extra money for a high-end carbon build? We’re going to find out. We have two transition Sentinels for this showdown. The contenders are the carbon GX build vs the aluminum NX kit. We did some back-to-back testing to help you decide if it’s worth splurging for the carbon bike. Stick around to find out.
Cheap vs expensive MTB: Price and Build
Let’s quickly break down each build and rice tag. Starting with the GX carbon Sentinel which retails for $5,899. What does your money get you? Well, a carbon frame for one. And as the name implies, a Sram GX Eagle drivetrain. You also get top-of-the-line Rockshox Ultimate Suspension bits. You’ll get high-end Sram Code RSC brakes for slowing things down. The cockpit is Transition’s house brand alloy bar and stem. The wheels are the tired and true, Stan’s Flow rims laced to Stan’s Neo hubs. And we’ve got a Oneup Components dropper for the seat post. All-in-all it’s a solid build kit. It’s pretty close to top-of-the-line, especially where it matters.
Next up we’ve got the NX alloy Sentinel which retails for $3,899. The alloy frame is new for fall 2021. It comes with a more entry-level Sram NX Eagle drivetrain. The fork is Fox’s 36 Rhythm paired with a Float X Performance shock — lower-end components, but keep in mind, most of the suspension feel is determined by the frame, not the shock. We’ve got Sram Code R brakes and a RaceFace alloy cockpit. Interestingly, we see the same Stan’s Flow rims, although paired to a Novatech hub. We also see the same OneUp Components dropper in this build as well. So, a much more entry-level build, but how will it compare?
Cheap vs expensive MTB: Ride Impressions
Carbon GX Sentinel
Since the Carbon GX Sentinel lives in my garage, I’m very familiar with how it rides. I also have filmed and written two reviews on the bike. I’m not going to review it again here. If you want to learn more about the actual Sentinel and how it rides, visit our Transition Sentinel review. All I’m using this bike for today is setting a baseline lap with the trail conditions so I have somewhat of a benchmark for comparing the more entry-level NX Alloy build.
Alloy NX Sentinel
Now that I’ve set my benchmark, it’ time to give the alloy bike a proper thrashing. The things I’m paying attention to are suspension, weight, lively factor, and overall performance. The meat and potatoes of the two bikes are identical — suspension kinematics and frame geometry. I’m a firm believer that those two things make a bike what it is. I don’t think individual components make a huge difference in overall ride quality. They can certainly make a small impact, but I don’t foresee a night and day difference here. Will this test prove me wrong?
The very first thing I noticed aboard the alloy build is that it unsurprisingly felt just like my carbon Sentinel. Had I been blindfolded, I would have had a tough time telling the two apart. As the ride progressed I started to find a couple of subtle differences. Weight was probably the biggest measurable dissimilarity between the two. On paper, the Alloy NX is about 4 pounds heavier than the carbon GX build. That’s pretty significant. While I could certainly feel the weight difference lifting the two bikes in and out of my truck, I couldn’t detect it too easily on the climbs. Keep in mind, the suspension curves are the same between the two bikes. The alloy bike felt every bit as efficient as the carbon one. Over a long climb or a particularly steep one, that weight difference is going to become more noticeable. For my test climb, it didn’t jump out at me as being that much slower. Where I noticed the weight more, was on the descents. The alloy bike took a bit more wrestling around a corner or to get it off the ground. I felt like it required a bit more upper body input to get the bike to do what I wanted it to do. I don’t know if this came down to strictly weight or if a difference in frame material had an impact — I’d suspect both. On the flow trail, the alloy bike lost a bit of its playful factor when compared to the carbon one. It was quite a bit tougher to get airborne or to pump the terrain, which is something I really appreciate about the carbon version.
On the rough and rugged trail, the alloy bike felt every bit as good as its carbon counterpart. In fact, the suspension performance may have edged out the higher-end bike. I don’t know if it came down to the difference in alloy vs carbon or the sprung to unsprung ratio from the additional weight. Either way, the alloy bike felt a bit smoother through the chatter. Not only did the bike feel more grounded, I felt like I had a bit more control through the rough stuff. And while we’re at it, the Fox 36 Rhythm actually felt pretty great. I never once thought I was on a budget product. The damper worked surprisingly well.
So now let’s answer the big question. Is the extra money worth it?
Cheap vs expensive MTB: Analysis and Conclusion
The three big takeaways I had from this test were: the two bikes were tough to tell apart, the alloy bike felt heavier, especially on the descents, and the carbon bike felt more lively.
So to answer our question, I think we need to figure out what makes one bike better than another one. My biggest priorities for rating a bike are: it doesn’t call attention to itself or impede my riding, it is reliable, and it’s fun. So, going down the list of my criteria, the alloy bike didn’t call attention to itself or get in the way of my ride. While this isn’t a long-term test, most of the components on the alloy bike are reliable and durable. The NX drivetrain might not last as long as the GX, but when it breaks you can replace it with something a little nicer. Lastly, I had a great time riding both bikes. The cheaper bike wasn’t any less fun and didn’t ruin anything about riding bikes for me. So am I going to give up my Carbon GX Sentinel in favor of the Alloy NX version? The short answer is no. One of my favorite things about that bike is its lively and playful ride quality, while also being incredibly capable. I think the alloy bike lost a bit of that character. That’s something I don’t want to give up. But here’s the kicker. If the carbon bike is out of your budget or is going to be a financial strain, don’t sweat it — get the entry-level bike. Buy the bike you can afford. Maybe make some upgrades over the years if you feel the need. Sure, there’s a slight edge to the carbon frame and nicer components, but it’s not worth putting yourself in a tight spot financially.
Hopefully, this showdown helped you decide if a high-end carbon build is better for you. Thanks for sticking around!