Pros: Light, relatively affordable, TPC sport damping.
Cons: poor air spring design, no oil bath, sticky bushings, its a Manitou
I won't make it secret that I do not like Manitou forks. They have always felt sort of dead at the bottom of their travel, as if you had a great fork for the first inch and then all the sudden your suspension regressed back to 1995. This years MARS series is different however, the forks actually feel very good, perhaps even better than their Rock Shox SID competition.
The MARS is an air sprung, oil damped fork that divides the two unique duties between each leg. In the right leg one will find a very simple air spring system that uses a coil spring to overcome the initial stickiness inherent in air spring systems. The coil manages the initial feel of the fork while the air spring suspends the remainder of the travel. In the other leg one will find a simplified, non-adjustable version of Manitou's Twin Piston damper system which for the past years has been the greatest highlight of Manitou forks. Structurally speaking Manitou went to a lighter all magnesium casting, alloy steerer tube and the hollow MRD crown this year.
This fork is a solid performer when set up for light to middle weight riders (140-175 lbs). Unlike last years version of the MARS it is really difficult to tell when the suspension transitions for coil to air spring. If the rider is lighter or heavier than the ideal weight they will need to replace the coil spring to match their weight, which I find a little silly because one of the whole ideas behind an air spring fork is versatility.
The two-stage nature of the spring makes tuning this fork difficult. I found that heavier riders complained that the stock setup was too plush even when the air spring was pressurized to a dangerously too high 300psi. When feeling the fork at this setting the first inch of travel was super plush and then it would ramp up so severely that it was impossible to get maximum travel out of the system. Not exactly what you want in a suspension fork. Larger rider will find that the fork becomes far more progressive when preloaded to accommodate their weight. This is due to the small size of the lone air chamber. Hmmm perhaps there is a reason why SIDs and Marzocchi air forks have two air chambers that for a combined volume that is more than double the Manitou.
Durability wise it is to early to tell how long this fork will last. From previous history with Manitou forks and service on 2000 Mars I have found that the micro lube system lags far behind the open bath lubrication now standard in the industry. Sure you can squirt grease into the fork, but all it will do is settle in the bottom of the legs. The result as I have found it is a sticky residue that accumulates on the tops of the legs, especially on the front of the legs opposite the grease ports. All this means is that while micro lube does help it does not really negate the need to tear the lowers off and clean the legs every 40-60 hours of riding.
The biggest hurdle that this fork has to overcome is a bad reputation on the part of Manitou. Metilurgical snafus that are alarmingly frequent and short bushing life have been apart of the Manitou name since they unveiled the Mach 5 series in 1996. Does the mars follow suit, it is too early to tell. All I can tell you is that every Manitou I have ever owned has broken within a couple of years of riding.
Does this fork hold a candle to a SID XC? Not really, it lacks the sophistication of the Rock Shox making it less versitile and less durable. So who is this fork for lightweight riders who want a light simple fork that has a smooth linear rate. If you are really into riding or racing you will want to go for a fork that is more adjustable like a SID SL or the MARS Elite. Larger riders definitely want to avoid this fork opting for one of Manitou's new Black Super (which are amazing), Rock Shox Duke or Marzocchi Z.3.