I too bought a bike this year. After doing much research I decided to go with the Raliegh M-400. I even bought it over the net from Bike Pedalers in Lincoln Nebraska (they were $80 cheaper than the lowest of the 5 shops I looked at. I live in the Chicago suburbs) I entered the process with little initial knowledge and spent 6 to 7 months getting information. Bottom line for me is that Raliegh is the #1 bike producer in the world in terms of total volume.
However, when you look at types of bike, they are way down the line in the mountain bike category, mostly because they have been number one for a long time and were slow to embrace this genre of cycling until the early 90′s. They want to correct it. Thus, they overload there bikes in terms of componentry. The Raliegh M-400 for instance is a full STX-RC package (down to the hubs) with shimano v-brakes. All the other bikes I saw with this feature were $200 more. I simply could not find another bike with that componentry and an aluminum frame for the $615 price I paid.
Now that I have been riding it a while (I initiated the new bike in Moab for a week) I can say that it was the best purchased I have made in my adult life. My wife and I were going to try and upgrade her 91 specialized to a front suspension fork, but after seeing that the bike would not take it well and it would cost $350 to do it, we decided to get her a Raliegh also (Again from Bike Pedalers). She loves the thing. We have put 200 hard off-road miles on them since April and love them more and more each time we go out. Any crappy bike you find in discount stores or Toy stores such as Toys R’ Us or Wooloworth stinks. When you ride junk like Huffy or Murray hard, their handlebars bend down. Their brakes become non-functional in wet weather. Any bike can feel cofortable if you’re not attuned to the small differences that are not very small at all. Get a Specialized Hard Rock. It’s the least expensive bike that is excellent in terms of price. Roughly $300. It’s about 10 pounds lighter than the Raleigh and 10 times stronger.