2010 Kona Sutra Review - October 13, 2009
The Kona Sutra is a steel-framed road touring bike with a mountain heritage - it brings the best of both worlds together into a tough, adaptable tourer that comes equipped to tackle pretty much anything you can throw at it. Like its namesake, the Sutra is all about versatility. At an MSRP of $1199, it won't break the bank, but that price point puts it up against some other popular mid-level tourers. Despite the stiff competition, the Kona stands tall with its good design, nimble-but-stable ride quality, and smartly-chosen components.
My Background & Purchase Decision
Let me first say that over the years, I've owned more bikes than I can count - mountain, road, cruiser, and even a freestyle BMX with pegs and a gyro (locking brake levers anyone?). These days, I am a regular bike commuter, and my vehicle has been an older aluminum mountain bike turned into a commuter - racks, fenders, lights, and 'street' tires. The ride is a solid 15 mile round trip which includes some significant elevation changes - mostly downhill on the way there, and mostly uphill on the way home. I live in one of the rainier cities in the USA, Portland, Oregon, where we have, on average, 152 rainy days a year and an average annual precipitation of 36.30 inches (92.2 cm). It's not the rainiest place in the USA, but the rain does fall often. In fact, it's raining as I write this.
The mountain bike has been wearing out, and was never meant to be more than a cheap around-towner anyway. It's also been wrecked into a car and has a bend in the top tube. After commuting with it for a while, I decided it was time for a real road bike - one that could carry the weight of my work gear and double as a weekend road bike as needed. So, I began to search for a new bicycle, while keeping in mind what my daily ride was like and how much I could afford to spend.
My screening process was simple - I began with the "must-have's": 1) Steel touring frame for durability, comfort, and utility; 2) Disc brakes for the morning descent and wet weather; 3) Triple front gears for the evening hill climb; and 4) A price under $2000 (for the wallet).
These requirements, particularly the disc brakes, thinned the list considerably. Popular steel touring bikes like the Trek 520, Fuji Touring, and Surly Long Haul Trucker were out (no disc brakes). Many mountain-touring hybrid bikes like the Trek Portland, Cannondale Touring 2, and Novara Safari were out (aluminum frames). All sorts of fun commuting bikes from Electra, Globe, and the others companies mentioned here were out (lack of gear range for climbing steep inclines). High-end customish touring bikes from Rivendell, Waterford and Bruce Gordon were out (no disc brakes, price). Locally made, hand-built touring frames from Vanilla Bicycles, Ahearne Cycles, and others were out (price & multi-year wait time).
After the winnowing process, I ended up with three candidates, all of which are good bikes - The Raleigh Sojourn, the Salsa Fargo, and the Kona Sutra. All three bikes met my must-haves, so the final decision was very difficult. I finally settled on the 2010 Kona Sutra, mainly because of the value/money ratio - for me, it provided the things I wanted most at the most reasonable price. Like several of the other bikes listed here, it was also available at my local bike shop, Bike Gallery.
The Bike - An Evolution over Time
The Kona Sutra has evolved considerably since it was first introduced in 2005. One thing that's always impressed me about Kona is that they pay attention to reviews of their bikes and make changes accordingly. While the 2006 bike was largely unchanged, the 2007 saw an upgrade to 36-spoke wheels (important for wheel strength on those long hauls), and the 2008 saw a change to bar-end shifters and the addition of front and rear pannier racks. When owners asked for a stronger rear rack, they got it in the 2009 model. The 2010 model is further evolved, with included fenders and a redesigned rear dropout (and seatstays) that makes mounting the included rack, fenders, and rear disc brake caliper a much simpler process. This was achieved by mounting the rear disc brake caliper between the chainstay and the seatstay. Another change for 2010 are the Alex XD-Lite rims, which replace the Mavic A317 rims that had been used for all of the previous models. While these wheels are similar, the Alex XD-Lite appears to be the lighter of the two, so this change may have been to shave some weight.
Speaking of which, a primary criticism of the Kona Sutra in the past has been that it is heavy - the 2009 model weighed in at around 30 lbs. While this is certainly heavy compared to a carbon fiber racing frame, it's not surprising for a steel frame touring bike with two racks and disc brakes. Also, check out the size of the downtube compared to other touring frames - big and super strong. Personally, I would rather have a tough, durable, go-anywhere frame and component setup rather than a bike that is ten pounds lighter but becomes ten times more fragile when carrying 30 pounds over each wheel. Since planes, trains, and automobiles are all weighed with their engines included, it makes sense to weigh the bike that way too. For example, since I'm 170lbs, the 200lb total weight would only be reduced by 5% if they could cut 10lbs off the weight of the bike.
This brings us frame construction. The Kona's frame and fork are TIG-welded butted chromoly steel. From 2005 to 2008, the Sutra was built with Italian-made Dedacciai butted chromoly tubing, but a change was made in 2009 for Kona's in-house chromoly. Whether this was a change for better or worse, it's hard to say - the build quality seems fine to me.
Some riders, however, reported problems with frame quality on the early Sutras, mainly with braze-on attachments breaking off or being poorly aligned. From what I've read these were covered under the warranty. So far, I don't have any problems to report, and all of the braze-on points look fine and line up well. On the fork however, a Kona Project II, the braze-ons are a little crooked - nothing that's going to get in your way, but not perfectly dead-on either.
Regarding looks, the 2010 is a bit of a departure for the Sutra. While it retains the retro-style banded Kona logo on the downtube (introduced in '08), this is the first time the bike has been equipped with dark brown tape and a brown saddle (previously all black). Given the beautiful metallic brown and powder blue color scheme, I can see why - the saddle and tape only add to the retro appeal and they really do help complete the look of the bike. For big spenders, an upgrade to a brown Brooks Saddle and Brooks leather wrap would look great as well.
All of the frame essentials here are Kona's own - frame, fork, stem, handlebars, and seatpost. As this is the 'third generation' Sutra frame (compare the pictures of each year's model), there are no longer extra posts for cantilever/linear-pull brakes on the seat stays, of which I fully approve. There are still three water bottle mounts (although the bottom one had better be a small bottle or pump), and plenty of eyelets on the fork, seatstays, and rear dropouts. In fact, the fork has two pairs of side eyelets, plus front and rear eyelets at the dropout, plus the unused brake posts, so you're looking at ten mounting points on the front fork alone.
As I mentioned above, the rear dropouts are different for this frame, and the seatstays are curved toward the ends instead of straight. The handlebars are Kona's take on the classic drop-bar randonneur design, with an angled grip for the drop position (as opposed to the retro smooth curve look, which I find less comfortable). The bars are wrapped in a stylish brown gel from Velo, which appears to be a faux-leather material - good for those rainy days.
As usual, Kona has done a great job in specifying different components sizes for different frame sizes. The crank length, handlebar width, and stem length all change as the frame size changes. Due to the sloping top tube, the bike has a very comfortable and confidence-building standover height. As a side note, the change in the rear dropout for 2010 changed the frame geometry slightly for the first time since the Sutra was introduced. The change caused the bottom bracket and standover heights to increase by about a half centimeter over last year's measurements, which in my opinion
is a negligible change.
Kona markets the Sutra as a Touring frame, so I decided to take a look at how its frame geometry stacks up against some competitors. Based on the various web charts, my own measurements, a test ride of a 2009 Sutra, and my own bike history, I bought the largest size available, the "60 cm". For the record, I am exactly six feet tall (183 cm) with a 35 inch (90cm) inseam (measured up to the bone) and the 60cm Sutra fits me fine so far, although due to my weirdly-proportioned body, my long inseam dictates the larger size more than anything. I may downsize the stem from an 11.5cm down to a 9 or 10cm in order to accommodate my short torso.
Things I looks for in a touring frame are long chainstays (to avoid hitting panniers with your heels), a long wheelbase (for stability on those long rides), a 'right' amount of trail relative to the wheelbase and how I'm going to load the bike, and, if possible, a low standover height (for help getting on and off the bike when fully loaded). Because of the Sutra's mountain bike parentage, Kona already has the standover nailed, so let's look at the other three. The peer group I used for comparison includes the following bicycles: Cannondale Touring 2, Fuji Touring, Raleigh Sojurn, Salsa Fargo, Surly Long Haul Trucker, and Trek 520. I chose these because they are popular, in the right price range, and the geometry was available online. I then gathered frame geometry data the manufacturer websites, always using the closest available frame size to my 60cm. The average of these six bikes was 59.2, so I think I got it pretty close (not all companies make exactly a '60' frame).
Regarding chainstays, the Sutra's chainstays are 44 cm long, regardless of frame size. In my opinion, 44cm is about the shortest you would want for a touring chainstay, but it is still much longer than an average racing bike's chainstays of about 40cm or less. So far, I have attached my two very large Trans-It waterproof panniers to the stock racks and have had no problem at all clearing the panniers with my heels (foot size 11.5 US). In fact, despite sitting in the middle of the rack, I have far more clearance than on my old mountain bike. By the way, those panniers are well-designed but poorly constructed, and have worn out completely (broken rivets, attachments, seams) after only a few months of regular use. Avoid them.
Peers: 45.5cm (average)
High: 46.5cm (Salsa)
Low: 44.0cm (Fuji)
One of the reasons for these relatively short chainstays is probably Kona's 'compact rear triangle,' for which they list the following advantages "Short chain stays and seat stays provide a perfect balance of stability and power transfer when out of the saddle and hammering. Shorter seat stays also have less deflection during braking and accelerate quicker than longer stays." So there you have it: the rear triangle was designed with shorter chainstays in mind, which in turn affects the total wheelbase.
Naturally, the wheelbase decision is a trade-off. A short wheelbase will make a bike more maneuverable and quicker to dodge obstacles than other, longer-wheelbase bikes. Conversely, a longer wheelbase bike is usually more stable on the long haul and at high speeds. Just like cars, a longer wheelbase means that the bike tends to travel in a straighter line. For example, it's a lot easier to spin out in a Mini Cooper than in a Mini Cooper Limo.
As far as wheelbase goes, the Kona is also on the shorter end of the touring bike range. For the largest available frame (60cm), the Sutra's wheelbase measures 104cm, shorter than the wheelbase of the other bikes in my peer group, where the average of the peer group was 107.6cm. Granted, we're only talking a difference of three centimeters or so, but this is important to know for those of you who have size 17 feet or just prefer a long wheelbase. That aside, the Kona's wheelbase is still longer than your average racing road bike, which is typically around 100cm for a 60cm frame, and is similar to many commuter bikes.
Peers: 107.6cm (average)
High: 109.9cm (Salsa)
Low: 106.4cm (Raleigh)
So what causes that shorter wheelbase? The Sutra has a relatively short top tube when measured horizontally (TTH), which is measured from the top of the head tube back to the seat tube, on center, pretending that the top tube is horizontal and not sloping. Kona's '60cm' Sutra has a TTH of only 58.5cm, whereas most other touring bikes seem to have little difference between TTH and their advertised size. So basically, it would appear that the Sutra frames run a bit on the small side, at least when measured by TTH.
Another factor affecting wheelbase is that the Kona has a straight mountain-bike style fork, rather than a curved road-bike-style fork. I noticed that the other bikes equipped with disc brakes all have straight forks, while those not so equipped all have curved forks, so I can only assume that this fork choice has to do with the brakes and the strength needed to bear the load they place on the front fork. Depending on the fork offset, a curved fork could easily add a centimeter or more to the overall wheelbase, assuming all else equal. So there you have it - the wheelbase comes from a few cm less in the compact triangle discussed above, a few from the fork offset, and a few from the smallish frame.
Besides overall stability (where the Kona excels), wheelbase also can come into play if it results in a short front-to-center measurement. This will cause your toes to hit the front wheel when you make sharp turns at low speeds. While I have occasionally notices this, it only happens when I'm going about 1 mph, so it's not much of an issue. The front-to-center does decrease by about a centimeter from the largest frame to the smallest, your shoe size would decrease as well if you needed a smaller frame.
A bike's trail is one of the key factors affecting its stability, especially at high speeds. In brief, the higher the trail, the faster you can go without getting front wheel shimmy. Trail can be increased with bigger wheels/tires, decreasing the head tube angle, and decreasing the fork offset (a.k.a. fork rake). From my experience, most bikes have trail measurements in the 5.0 to 6.5cm range.
However, trail is a complex issue. As you increase trail (holding all else equal), the bike will remain stable at a higher speed, but it will also increase the minimum speed that you need in order to ride hands-free without wobbling. So adding more trail increases your minimum stable speed, but also your maximum stable speed. Many geometry wonks will tell you that a trail of 5.7 to 5.9cm is ideal for an average road bike, where you have a good trade-off between lower speed stability, maximum stable speed, and easy of cornering.
However, this "5.7 - 5.9cm" number is assuming that everything else is equal - you have an average wheelbase and no load on the front end of the bike. If you load up the upper portion of the front end, either with a handlebar bag, high-riding panniers, or by riding on racing aero handlebars, then you would want less trail, all else equal. Many randonneuring bikes have a very short trail (around 3cm seems common) because they typically carry all their weight on the handlebars. This weight would cause a bike with high trail to swing the handlebars about in a wobbling way, especially at slow speeds, due to the 'correction effect' of trail.
If you have a particularly long wheelbase, you need less trail to achieve the same stability. For example, tandem bikes often have trail measurements of about 5.0cm. Earlier, I took a look at the wheelbase and trail measurements of the six bikes in my peer group, and the Kona came out with the shortest wheelbase. However, regarding trail, it was in the middle of the pack either when measuring trail using rim radius alone (31.1cm radius for all bikes) or when measuring trail using the specified tire radius for each bike (33.5 to 36.5cm radius, depending on the tire). The Salsa had the highest trail due to its huge "29er" tires; mounting regular 700cx32 tires would place it closer to the middle of the pack. With tires included, the average trail of six peer group bikes was 6.42cm, and the Kona near the middle at 6.16cm. Likewise, the peer average with no tires was 5.07cm, and the Kona was near the middle with 5.09cm.
Trail with Tires (r=33.5 to r=36.5cm)
Peers: 6.42cm (average)
High: 7.28cm (Salsa)
Low: 5.87 (Trek)
Trail with No Tires (r=31.1cm for all)
Peers: 5.07cm (average)
High: 5.95cm (Salsa)
Low: 4.75 (Trek
Overall stability is much more affected by trail than wheelbase - note that an average tandem bike has a wheelbase about 50% larger than that of a conventional bike but only sees a 15% drop in trail, if that. With just a bit higher trail than the 'ideal' for an average bike, and just a bit longer wheelbase than the average road bike, the Kona should remain very stable without sacrificing too much low-speed handling. Indeed, I found this to be the exactly the case - the geometry of the Kona is perfect for its intended purpose.
While the 60cm Surly Long Haul Trucker, with its 6.8cm trail and 108cm wheelbase, is renowned for its stability, it felt too wobbly to ride without hands, and I would definitely not want to ride it with a loaded handlebar bag. Where the Surly shines is at high speed on the open road, where that long trail and long wheelbase is really going to keep you plowing along in a straight line. However, the Kona is still very stable on the flats, and unless you were going really fast downhill, I think I would choose the Sutra's handling over that of the LHT. Interestingly, the venerable Trek 520 had the lowest trail of the peer group (5.9cm), and an about average wheelbase, and yet it is still a very stable and popular long-distance touring bike.
I know this has been quite a bit on geometry, but in my opinion, frame geometry is very important for ending up with a comfortable, long-term bicycle, especially one as versatile and useful as the Sutra.