Usually when you read a review on a mountain bike it's generally on the top spec or near top spec models. Very rarely can you find something that focuses on the bike that's at the bottom of the range. Which is one of the reasons I chose the Merida eOne Sixty 500 - it is the bottom spec ebike in the line up that runs Shimano's new EP8 motor. And if I'm being truthful, I did seriously consider going for the 700 instead of the 500 due to the specification of components appearing to be significantly better for not a whole lot more money, relatively speaking. But realistically at a recommended retail price of $6,999 AU for the 500 versus $8,399 for the 700, the jump is still very significant for anyone contemplating their first ebike purchase.
Now, for those of you that don't want to read through what I suspect will become a fairly detailed, potentially long winded review I'll give you a quick summary of the question that's probably on your mind: Is the eOne Sixty 500 a bike worth buying? I will say for those of you that are after a "good" bike and aren't too concerned about finding its limits, the answer is a definitive yes. It is a great bike for the average punter who wants mountain biking to be a whole lot of fun without investing a bucket load of money (at least in terms of spending it on an ebike). But for those of you who enjoy finding your limits and eeking every last ounce of performance out of your bike, my suggestion would be for you to invest in the higher spec models. Without making at least a few small changes you're going to very quickly find the 500's limits, even though the base frame and motor themselves make for a very potent combination. And now that's out of the way, if you'd like to know a little bit more, read on...
I'll start with the first thing that caught my eye: the computer that came with the 500. The SC-E5003 cycle computer that is mounted to the left side of the handle bars stands out like... well, use your imagination. To be fair, some other e-bike motor manufacturers do utilise this type of format and layout. But this is the first time I've seen this style computer on a Shimano outfitted eMTB - and it surprised the hell out of me. Previous generations of 500 series eMTBs had always been accompanied by the SC-E7000 computer as a minimum, a low profile computer that sits near the stem of the bike and is well protected from potential damage. After all, lose the computer and your eMTB becomes a very heavy analogue mountain bike.
And if you're thinking that it's highly unlikely that the computer will get damaged in the position shown in the above photo, bear in mind that I'm someone that's broken my dropper seat lever in a crash before, something that's in a much more protected position. Sitting high above the handle bars in a crash situation, the computer certainly has the potential to be wiped right off then handle bars. It also makes it really difficult to flip your bike upside down on the trail to perform any bush repairs - such as fixing a flat tyre. Ironically getting a flat happened on my very first ride out on the 500 which resulted in the bike hanging from a tree so I could get the wheel off without damaging the computer.
Aesthetics and risk of damage aside, after riding with the SC-E5003 I have actually noticed some positive things. Firstly, whereas the other Shimano cycling computers I've ridden with are so small that trying to read the display while riding is challenging to near impossible, the SC-E5003 is enormous. It's impossible not to easily see what speed or power level you're currently on. Not only that, it manages to squeeze some additional useful data, namely your range or odometer on the display at the same time. It's nice being able to see the semi-accurate range to empty number without having to flick through the menu options which is what I've had to do on the other computers.
The SC-E5003 also has a dedicated light switch which is also a handy feature and activates a backlight so you can see the display at night - something else I wasn't expecting. So there are definitely some positives to this particular computer that I think would be handy on the more mountain biking oriented computers that Shimano makes. But those positives aren't strong enough to outweight my concern around the potential risk of the computer being ripped off in a crash, so I have ordered a new computer - which isn't in the country unfortunately. In addition to the damage risk, the SC-E5003 doesn't come with bluetooth so I'm unable to use Shimano's eTube software to customise the power settings. So for now, I have to ride a bit more carefully using the factory default power settings, which makes my wife, Kerry, very happy.
The contact points between your bike and the ground is naturally one of the most important, if not the most critical aspect of a mountain bike - where the rubber literally hits the road, or trail as it were. It's been a while since I've run anything other than Maxxis Minions in either DHR or DHF format and it took me a while to land on this particular tyre choice. So I was curious to see how the Kenda Regoliths would go in the different types of terrain that I normally ride.
The first thing that's probably worth noting is that the Regoliths supplied on the 500 are the wire bead rather than the folding type meaning that you can't use them to convert to tubeless, even though the Merida Comp rims that come with the bike are pre-taped and ready for tubeless conversion. Secondly, while the rear tyre comes as a 2.6 inch wide variant similar to higher specced models, the front is actually a 2.4 rather than a 2.5 inch wide tyre. In practice that probably doesn't seem very different but if you look at the photo above, the variation in tyre width is pretty noticeable.
Compared to the Maxxis Minions I normally run the tread pattern has smaller, well spaced out blocks including corner transition knows which in principle makes it a reasonable all weather trail tyre. Out on the trails provided you don't push too hard the Kenda's are probably what I would describe as adequate - you'll get by on anything that isn't too technical provided you're not charging too hard. Get the bike leant over and let's just say I didn't have the sense that the tyre would hold firm very well. Point the 500 down something moderately steep and all confidence goes straight out the window - a combination of the narrower front tyre and small tyre blocks. Suffice to say that the very first upgrade I did was to change the tyres over to something that felt like they would actually grip in technical terrain.
Speaking of pointing bikes downhill, the brakes on a mountain bike can make or break a bike and, well, the rider as well, depending on how effectively they stop. And on the 500 series of bikes, it's another example of the downgrading trend that has unfortunately affected this line up. While the eOne Sixty does come with 203mm brake rotors front and rear they're the lower spec Alvio versions. Additionally the RT30 rotors are only able to use resin pads which will run warmer and wear faster than metallic pads. And whereas the previous year's line up were fitted with Shimano's M500 brakes which worked remarkably effectively, the 2021 variant is unfortunately fitted with the next variant below.
To be fair, when you use the brakes in general riding they do feel okay. Other than the unnecessarily long lever which places your finger in the wrong position for the best leverage, the M4100 series brakes (yes, it's a bigger number but it's the first digit that matters!) will stop the sub 24 kg e-bike with Shimano's traditional on / off feel. But point the eOne Sixty 500 down anything remotely steep and you'll likely find that the brakes go from adequate to feeling like wooden blocks with less than inspiring confidence stopping power rather rapidly. Without doing a detailed diagnosis I'd put this down to the brakes heating up very quickly when used in challenging situations. In testing I had a few near misses where I felt I had to come to a complete stop to let the brakes cool down before continuing on down a steep trail, lest I run into a tree.
And let's be real - I'm more than capable of running into a tree without getting help from poorly performing brakes. New brakes can't come soon enough. Now... if I could just find some...
But enough of the negative stuff. Let's talk about something positive. Such as the Deore 11 speed drivetrain. With pedal assist I really don't understand why manufacturers insist on putting a more fragile 12 speed drivetrain onto an eMTB. In fact, Shimano seem to specify 10 and 11 speed drivetrains as the options for their EP8 motor. And while the 500 doesn't come with the e-bike specific drivetrain that Shimano specifies, it does at least come with not only a stronger 11 speed drive train, but one that has a ridiculously wide 11 to 51 tooth gear range - a range previously only seen on a 12 speed drive train.
Having had Shimano's 11-46 drive train on my analogue bike, I have to admit to being a bit dubious about the smoothness of such a wide cassette, particularly when shifting into the wider ranges. Much to my surprise, the Deore 5100 series drive train is as good as the older model XT drive trains I've ridden in the past. Offering crisp shifting and gear step changes that feel perfectly natural, I have to say that I'm super impressed with what is known to be Shimano's entry level proper mountain biking drive train. The derailleur offers more than enough spring tention to ride without skipping a beat, even on the roughest of terrains. And the shifter, although only downshifting one gear at a time, does provide you with the ability to upshift two to three gears at once which is generally when you need that sort of capability. It's a drive train that I would have no qualms continuing to use without ever changing.
Suspension duties are handled by Rockshox - a 35 Gold RL at the front and a Deluxe Select+ at the rear. Both of these are at the budget end of available suspension componentry, which generally means there's a bit of a compromise somewhere in the ride or handling quality department.
In the case of the front, I'll say outright that the rigidity or lack thereof by having 35mm stanchions versus a 36mm or even a 38mm chassis isn't something that's bothered me too much. On front wheel landings the 160mm gobbles up potentially hard landings with minimal fuss. Where it struggles a bit is smoothing out low speed chatter, but I do have a bit more playing to do with the rebound.
On the rear, at the standard sag setting of 30% the 500 is super plush, gobbling up both low speed bumps and big hits easily. What caught me off guard though was a lack of mid stroke support, with small to mid size jumps and hops feeling like they were blowing through way too much travel. It's something that I might be able to resolve by adjusting any volume spacers that might be installed. But for now, I've added more air to take sag up to about 22%, giving me that mid-stroke support that I'm after at the expense of small bump absorption. Honestly if I wasn't running a smoother set up on my Norco with the DVO Topaz shock on it I probably wouldn't be aware of the sacrifice. I've just been spoilt by a suspension set up on the Norco Sight that is twice the cost of what's on the 500.
With the suspension set up for my riding style and combined with the more capable Maxxis Minion DHF tyres which I have front and rear at the moment, I've been pleasantly surprised by the 500's capabilities. While not super smooth over chattery trails, it's certainly more than adequate, but also combines a very responsive and poppy feel to get all 24kg easily off the ground when enough compression is applied. I will say that if I'm being lazy, I'll know about it because the bike will resist getting off the ground due to its weight, which is noticeably heavier than the 500SE with its external battery. But as it stands right now, I'm in no rush at changing the suspension - I might just do a bit more tweaking.
The motor is probably the other main talking point of the 500, although it's no different to what is used in the higher specification bikes other than the fact that I can't easily reprogram it due to the computer that it's mated to. There's plenty that's been said about the EP8 by others so I wasn't going to spend a whole lot of time on the motor's characteristics other than to say that Shimano have taken what was a fairly natural feeling motor in the E8000 and somehow made it even more seamless. Taking off I've found the power delivery to be remarkably smooth, responding to pedal inputs without thrusting you off the bike. And while some people might be after a more instantaneous power delivery system, I really prefer Shimano's implementation of making the motor feel more natural. Also, whereas I used to feel a distinct cut off the when the motor hit the speed limiter, now it's really not noticeable at all, except for the fact that all of a sudden I'm pedalling a 24kg bike unassisted.
The other point worth mentioning is the EP8's clatter that is often spoken about in many circles. Based on videos I'd watched previously I'd actually expected it to be really loud. In reality, at least on the eOne Sixty, it's quite a muted noise when you're free wheeling down rough terrain. It's still there, but nowhere near as loud as I'd heard on YouTube. I think this is in part because Merida have inserted some noise absorbing material - that is some foam around the motor housing and into the frame. You can see it in the photo above and I'll admit to it looking really odd when you're staring at it. But generally speaking it's not something anyone will ever notice and it does actually seem to do a good job of reducing the unwanted clatter.
There are other bits and pieces I could mention - the grips are okay without being great, the handle bars have those nice touches of being able to hide the motor cables but the quality of the paint powder coating is poor so they seem to scratch easily. A decent chain guard and a solid chainstay protector is included as standard. And the speed sensor is hidden out of sight (I still haven't actually figured out where that is).
But the platform itself is well proven and when set up for it, the Merida eOne Sixty performs exceptionally well. It's plenty playful and loves getting in the air, rewards aggressive cornering (and I mean really getting over that front wheel) and loves heading down hill, provided you have the right set of tyres and don't want to stop with the pre-installed brakes. I will say that the extra weight of having the battery enclosed within the frame rather than the external battery is much more noticeable than I had expected, but it's something you do get used to.
I want to say at this point that once upon a time the Merida range of bikes represented exceptional value, especially the 500 series of ebikes. The 2021 eOne Sixty 500 is actually the third 500 series ebike that has joined my family and I have to say that I'm somewhat disappointed by the down speccing of componentry that has happened to this particular line up over the last three years. Not only has the quality of componentry reduced, but the price has also steadily increased. Excellent value has been replaced by what I'd probably say is fair value compared to the competition that's out there now, which means that it's worth checking the equivalent base models of other brands if you're looking for the best bang for buck.
The crazy thing is that using componentry that is just a little bit better than what has been supplied on the 2021 eOne Sixty 500 would have completely transformed the riding capabilities of this bike. More aggressive tyres, Deore 5100 level componentry throughout and a computer that you didn't have to worry about being ripped from the handle bars would have ensured that the 500 series bike would have remained an enduro capable bike. In its standard form however, it's really just suited for someone wanting to ride you average blue trail.
That's not to say that the current eOne Sixty 500 is a bad bike or a poor performer. On my fifth ride on it I was able to convincingly beat my previous personal best on Pete's trail, a well known trail in Nerang. Whereas my PB was 6:28 on a Merida eOne Twenty 500 I managed to get down in 6:15, and that was without trying too hard plus one instance of a foot flying off a pedal. I don't think it would take too much tweaking of my riding on the new bike to improve on that time a bit more - but then again I'm not too bothered about riding fast these days.
But realistically, whereas the 500 series of Merida's ebike range could be used by a hard charging rider once upon a time, with the downgrading of componetry that has occurred over the years, the range is now really targeted for that entry to mid-level rider who will mostly stick to terrain that isn't too challenging. Which in a lot of ways is a shame, but also makes perfect sense - after all, an entry level bike is really targeted for entry level riders. And for that level of rider, the Merida eOne Sixty 500 will do everything that is asked of it and probably quite a bit more.
And so while Merida perhaps isn't that brand anymore that represents a stupendous amount of value, that's probably okay. Given how capable the actual base design of the eOne Sixty actually is, it's not really a bad thing that Merida is moving away from the cheap and cheerful image and towards creating bikes that suit different levels of riders best. It's just that I miss a time when getting a base level Merida bike was something to be really excited.