Kona Honzo AL/DL
Kona first introduced the Honzo in 2012 as an aggressive all mountain 29er hardtail designed to tackle terrain generally reserved for bigger dual suspension bikes. The bike was an immediate success and gathered a cult following of hard tail loving trail rippers. The long, low, and slack chromoly 29er also spurred a host of copycat bikes (i.e Transition Transam, Canfield Nimble Nine, Trek Stache to name a few) looking to cash in on a good thing. I too was convinced and last year decided to give the 2015 Kona Honzo a shot. And like many other riders to swing a leg over the Honzo I was enamored with it's confidence inspiring stability and general excellent trail manners. Adam Newman formerly of Dirt Rag now editor of sister publication Bicycle Times wrote a nice review of the original steel beast you can find here. And although I very much enjoyed the original Honzo I like many of the early reviewers and riders of the original steel Honzo found it to have the same inherent flaw. Its weight. The original steel Honzo was heavy, especially for a hard tail with my size large weighing in over 31lbs. The frame itself weighed over 7lbs due to its oversized steel tubing and sliding dropouts. And as much as I loved the handling of the original and the ride quality of the steel frame the weight of the bike made if feel slow when climbing and accelerating, harder to change direction, and harder to slow from speed.
Kona listened and for 2016 delivered a completely redesigned bike. The biggest change, some might even argue shocking given the bike's cult status, would be the change from a chromoly frame to an aluminum frame (don't fret too much hardcore steel lovers Kona is still offering the steel bike but now as a frame only option). Kona knew the Honzo's weight was really holding the bike back and found that by using an aluminum alloy they could cut the frame's weight nearly 40% from over 7 lbs to 4 lbs. Kona also used the redesign to update the geometry to mirror the fit characteristics of Kona's incredibly popular Process line of bikes by slightly lengthening an already long top tube. The new frame retains the slack 68 degree head tube angle, low bottom bracket, and super short 16.3" chainstays of the original. The Honzo does see the new boost 148 X 12 frame spacing which is the newest emerging standard for mountain bike rear ends. The claimed benefits include stiffer wheels (especially for 29ers) and frames as well as better chain lines for shorter chain stays and wider tires. Bike Rumor has a good article here on the new boost 148 hub standard if you feel like reading further into it.
Kona offers the new aluminum Honzo frame or as they call it the Honzo AL in two build options. A value focused build comes in at $1599 and a deluxe (DL) model is offered at $2199. I was able to get my hands on the Honzo DL. Componentry highlights include the new for 2016 Fox Float 34 dialed in with 120mm of travel and the new Fit4 damper. The fork is getting great reviews and may signal a comeback for Fox who has lost ground in recent years to Rockshox. The drivetrain is mostly no nonsense Shimano Deore componentry paired with a Race Face effect narrow wide crankset to offer a 1 X 10. The stock ratios see a 32t chainring paired with an 11-36 cassette. The Shimano Deore brakes are true and tested if not fancy. I also want to commend Kona making great wheel and tire choices. The Novatec rear hub and Shimano front Hub are laced to WTB's tubeless ready STp i29 rims. They are far from light but are easy as pie to set up tubeless and delightfully wide. The 29mm internal width of the rims give the stock Maxxis Minnion DHF 29X2.3 front and Crossmark 29X2.25 rear tire excellent profiles and have allowed me to run lower pressure than I ever though possible on a true 29er (currently I found 21 psi front and 24 psi rear to work well for my 215 lbs frame). The traction is sublime. The big omission by Kona is the lack of a stock dropper post although the frame is ready for stealth routing. This bike is just begging for a dropper post.
The big question of course is do all of these changes make an all around better bike and having ridden the steel Honzo recently I feel that I am in a good place to compare the two bikes. Within the first few pedal strokes of the new Honzo it is immediately apparent that although this bike feels very familiar in terms of fit and geometry something has fundamentally change. Not only is the bike much lighter (31 lbs to less than 28 lbs in my size large about 10%) if is much much stiffer. The increased stiffness and lower weight affords the bike a much racier feel with each pedal stroke being rewarded in immediate forward motion. The increase stiffness also serves to bolster confidence in the bikes handling as it responds to steering inputs quickly and efficiently completely devoid of frame flex. There are very tangible benefits to the increased frame stiffness however there are also significant sacrifices in vertical compliance. This baby is stout! Not helping things is the interestingly spec'd super wide 34.9 seat post which only serves to hammer the rider over roots and rocks. During a longer 23 mile ride out at Raystown's renown Allegrippis trail system I could definitely feel the frame's stiffness in my lower back towards the end of the ride. As the miles pile up and fatigue begins to set in having to stand over smaller roots and rocks wastes precious energy. Not that the older Steel Honzo was know for being overly compliant. It too was known for having a relatively unforgiving ride quality, especially for steel, but the new aluminum model takes the unforgiving nature another notch up. I think the girthy seat post is the main culprit and when I asked Kona about the 34.9 seat post diameter they pointed towards trends in dropper posts heading to 34.9mm and indicated that 34.9 seat posts will become more prevalent among their bikes as time goes on. Kona feels that dropper post manufacturers are beginning to embrace 34.9 mm and we will see more availability in the future. Currently KS and Rockshox are the only dropper post manufacturers to offer 34.9 mm posts. All of that said I feel very conflicted begrudging the Honzo for its overly stiff frame. It's that very stiffness that leads to more confident handling and pedaling efficiency.
Being lighter and stiffer the new Honzo climbs better than ever and I find myself clearing trail obstacles that I have struggled with in the past. That said this is not a sit and spin kind of climber. To get the best out of the Honzo going up the rider must be willing to shift weight forward and back to maintain traction between the front and rear wheels. The super short chainstays place your weight squarely over the rear wheel making lifting the front wheel over roots and rocks a breeze. This also means that when climbing steeps it is necessary to use a substantial amount of body English to keep the front wheel planted and not wandering. The stock gearing is a little narrow and some may find the low gear of 32-36 to offer problems on some climbs. I know of some people swapping the 32t chainring for a 30t. That said I find the gear range adequate and as long as you are an willing participant the new Honzo climbs great. The Honzo has always been a fantastic descender and this new iteration is no different. The slack head tube angle and low bottom bracket coupled with a rider position that places weight back over the rear wheel make this a point and shoot descender. I have found myself worrying less about line choice and just letting it all hang out. The bike is very at home at speed and in descending looses nothing to it's steel predecessor. I also find myself making smoother transitions over log piles and big root nests on flats and climbs. Again this is due to the Honzo's super short chainstays making lifting the front wheel a breeze.
For me it's clear the new Honzo is a substantial improvement over it's predecessor. I just enjoy riding the bike more. The substantially lower weight changes the bike dramatically enough to offset the extremely rigid ride quality. For me this is especially true because the bulk of my rides are sub 2 hours. The bike just feels like way more responsive while retaining the descending prowess that made the original so popular. It does have it's issues. The lack of a dropper post is disappointing as I feel the bike really deserves one and is almost a necessary upgrade to get the true potential out of the bike. Another nitpick is the super short chainstays are also aggressively shaped and limit tire clearance. Coupled with the really wide WTB STp i29 rims the 2.25 Maxxis Crossmarks use every bit of clearance the frame allows. This means we won't be seeing any 27.5 + conversions (I have been riding the bike with a front 27.5+ wheel and tire WTB scraper and 3.0 Bridger...super fun). That said the short chainstays are one the of the main contributors to the bike's great riding characteristics.
If you liked the older Honzo I think it's a pretty safe bet you'll be really into the new one. I find it an exciting and capable ride. The weight savings allows it to be more well rounded than it's predecessor despite it's harsher ride characteristics. Kona did a really good job with the parts spec especially considering the Fork and Wheels whose character match the bike well. Riding the Honzo has me hooked into the Low Bottom Bracket, Long Top-Tube, Slack Headtube Angle thing that is happening in the mountain bike world.