The original Kona Honzo was a pioneering hardtail. The latest version follows in its hallowed footsteps, but a few spec choices mean it also rolls in its shadows.
Long, low and slack was a phrase rarely used in 2012 when the original steel Honzo was launched with the aim of becoming the best hardtail on sale. But with a hardtail history dating back to the 1980s Kona was in a good place to push forward with fresh thinking. The Honzo’s frame design breaking new ground back then, with 1×9 gearing, super-short chainstays, a 68º head angle and a stubby stem. Oh, and it was a 29er too… It proved such a successful formula it paved the way for the brand to evolve the entire range – in Kona’s words it was ‘The hardtail that started a revolution’.
Fast forward 10 years and the entry-level aluminium Honzo (the cheapest bike on test at £1,599) costs just one pound less than the original. It comes specced with a 120mm travel RockShox fork and a no-nonsense Shimano 11-speed Deore drivetrain. And while the Honzo DL, with its longer travel fork, premium Maxxis rubber and 12-speed gearing looks more comparable to the other hardtails in this test, it’s a huge jump up in price at £2,399.
Kona was an early pioneer of the sloping top tube frame design and it’s a key part of the Honzo’s DNA. It gives the 6061 butted aluminium frame an exceptionally low standover height, which considering it rolls on 29in wheels for all four frame sizes, is good to see.
When it comes to geometry, the Kona doesn’t exactly mirror its three rivals; its 66.5º head angle is a touch steeper and the 415mm chainstays are notably shorter. However, the 479mm reach on the size L is on point, as is the short 455mm seat tube that allows you to run a longer dropper post on each frame size. In fact, Kona even fits an adjustable stroke TranzX + Rad dropper, which makes moving up a frame size a genuinely viable option.
Kona uses a RockShox Recon RL Solo Air fork to the Honzo, where its 120mm travel matches the Whyte 629’s burlier built fork. Yes, the slimmer 32mm steel upper legs and a more basic air spring made us question whether the Recon would compromise the Honzo’s ability, especially with a 90kg test rider on board.
We needn’t have worried though as out on the trail any reservations soon faded. Considering its stature and price, the Recon held its own with a solid performance in rough, twisty singletrack. However, we did need to add an extra 20-30psi of pressure to the RockShox guidelines to give the support needed in steeper terrain.
To stay within the tight budget Kona fits a 1×11 Shimano Deore drivetrain, where a combination of the 11-51T cassette and 30T chainring actually gives it the lowest climbing gear ratio in this test. Shifting was superb throughout the test and we didn’t miss that extra cog one bit.
The build kit isn’t without fault though. And while even Shimano basic hydraulic brakes are ultra reliable, the twin-piston calipers on the Kona use resin pads and specific rotors which don’t give the bite or modulation needed in wet or steep terrain and you can’t simply upgrade to sintered brake pads to increase the stopping power. Also while the Kona bar, stem and saddle are all first rate, we’d recommend upgrading the stock grips for something softer before leaving the shop.
The silent and smooth ride quality of the Honzo was instantly noticeable – even in the rough – the securely harnessed external cable routing was completely rattle-free. Vee Tire’s Flow Snap rubber impressed us too – not only did the tyres dish out impressive grip, they also gave a noticeably well-damped feel to the ride.
Being the only size large bike on test, the Kona has the shortest wheelbase by some margin. It’s mostly down to the ultra-short 415mm chainstays though, as the front centre measurement is only 3mm shy of the XL Merida Big Trail 600 and the reach is actually longer. The tight back end lets you pop the front wheel up easily, giving the bike a lively and playful feel even though it is the cheapest and heaviest bike in this test.
A decade ago, the Honzo was a step in a new direction for 29in hardtails and even today the geometry isn’t too far removed from the original blueprint. With that in mind, we do see some limitations, the most obvious being the short chainstays restricting larger tyres from being fitted and a more rearward weight distribution on the L and XL sizes. It’s part of the bike’s appeal though, as it’s the shorter stays that make the entry-level Honzo such a fun, snappy ride. At £1,599 the Kona Honzo is the cheapest bike on test and stays true to its original concept – it’s manoeuvrable, fun in the tight stuff and has bags of personality and pep. The only thing that’s really missing is a model that sits between this entry-level bike we tested and the top end Honzo DL at £2,399. We’re cool with the 11-speed transmission but feel the frame deserves a spec with more powerful brakes and a stouter fork that still comes in below the £2K mark.For a size L bike the reach measurement is still pushing boundaries and with more powerful brakes the Honzo could easily up its ratings.