Tester: Scott Williams
Weight: 175 lbs
Back in 2012, Kona unleashed the Honzo, an aggressive all-mountain steel hardtail featuring geometry that was long, low and slack before those aggressive angles were common among trail bikes. After spending some time aboard my friend’s Honzo, I felt like it suited my riding style more appropriately than the cross-country hardtail I was riding at the time. But at 30 pounds, even sans dangly-bits and doodads, it struck me as simply too heavy for a cross-country hardtail.
When I first caught wind that Kona was going to bring the Honzo to the Space Age with a carbon frame option, the savings plan quickly commenced. However, once unveiled to the public, there was a major problem; the carbon Honzo wasn’t singlespeed capable. I ended up deciding to purchase a Pivot LES but often found myself continuing to admire the Honzo CR from the interwebs.
Needless to say, the level of excitement I had when the Honzo CR Trail DL showed up at DRHQ was off the charts. Pulling the carbon Dee-Lux Honzo from the box, I was greeted by a clean Darth Vader matte black finish. Weighing just under 26 pounds, this hardtail is ready for the climb to the top as well as the descent. It’s one the sharpest- looking bikes I’ve seen in a while.
Most companies focus hardtail efforts towards the Lycra-wearing cross-country racer, with frames characterized by steep head angles and short head tubes paired with long, slammed stems. Kona goes the opposite way with a long top tube (25.5 inches for a large), low bottom bracket, fairly slack head angle and super-short chainstays. It’s no surprise this hardtail instills invincibility on the descents. After all, if you’ll notice, the geometry closely resembles that of the Honzo’s full-suspension cousin, the Process 111. When Kona hit the drawing board for the Honzo CR, the 16.3 inch chainstays were a must-have and rightfully so. “The low bottom bracket coupled with very short (415 mm) chainstays is the hallmark of the Honzo range and gives the bike its character and identity,” said Ian Schmitt, product manager for Kona.
Unfortunately, these uber-short stays have created limitations within the world of the dual-identity 29er. The Honzo will not fit a 27plus wheel, and frankly, I support this bold move by Kona. It does not take an engineer to understand that the geometry changes when you try to accomodate a 2.8-3.0 inch, 27plus tire in a purpose-built 29er frame. Somewhere a sacrifice was going to have to be made, and Kona wasn’t stepping down. Schmitt said, “this wasn’t a concession we [Kona] were willing to make at the time that we were developing the bike.” Kona wanted to retain the stability and exceptional cornering characteristics that the relatively low bottom bracket offers, and with the 27plus wheels, either the bottom bracket would be too high with 29 inch wheels, or too low with 27plus.
Similar to the Process line-up and the rest of the Honzo lineage, the Honzo CR limits its rider to carrying a single frame-mounted bottle. Again, the short stays played a role here as it required a curve of the seat tube. “This curve lands in the same space as the lower bottle mount. Since we [Kona] have the super short stays, curved seat tube and low standover, the bottle fit was less than ideal,” says Schmitt. Thankfully, there are a number of packs with integrated bladders and bottomless storage compartments available. Having to resort to your Bat Belt or your fifth-grade book bag just to bring an extra 22 ounces seems like an unnecessary problem to have, as there are a number of bikes with similar geometry with a second bottle mount.
So, why no singlespeed capability?
Schmidt replied with the following: “We have a dedicated group of folks who enjoy partaking in the irreverent silliness surrounding one gearing the hills and as such make several different singlespeed-compatible bikes. The Honzo CR frame was developed using our Honzo AL frame as a platform. The shaping of the Honzo AL tube set doesn’t work well with our existing dropout design. Rather than go back to the drawing board and build a new adjustable dropout, which is a very long process involving several iterations and testing cycles, we elected to move the project forward with a fixed dropout.”
I am not certain if it has to do with the carbon layup, rear triangle design or a combination of both, but for a hardtail, the rear end has a ton of supple goodness. Riders coming from a full-suspension background may not take notice, but with hardtails being my daily drivers, the buttery smooth, dare I say … softail-esque rear end was evident early on in my initial ride. Being the Lycra-wearing cross country rider I am, long front end geometries are typically still something that takes an adjustment period for me, but not with the Honzo CR. The 35 mm stanchions of the Pike and “oversized” bar and stem combo provided a stiff front end, which is a good thing.
In combination with the long front, the seat tube angle is fairly steep, which puts the rider’s weight forward over the bottom bracket. However, that bottom bracket feels lower than the stated numbers. It’s great when you’re flowing from berm to berm, but when you get into the technical rock gardens, pedal strikers beware. If you are accustomed to riding short- to mid-travel full suspension bikes, the bottom bracket height may feel natural as it is on par with suspension bikes in their sagged state. The longer-than-a- cross-country-bike wheelbase might have something to do with it as well.
Climbing on the Honzo CR was not cross-country-race-bike fast, but then again, it’s not meant to be either. Out of the saddle mashing or seated spinning, the bike responded as a hardtail should: efficiently. Even with the long front and tightly tucked rear wheel, the front end remained planted even on steep, loose pitches in the biggest cog. The long wheelbase adds to the challenge of maneuvering through ultra tight switchbacks going uphill.
Descending—just drop it, and rip it. The stiff front end kept the handling predictable and … comforting. I did not notice how twitchy the front end of my personal race bike was until going back to it after a steady month on the Honzo. My timing was off, and I never noticed how the steering aggressively progressed through the turn. And the dropper, man oh man, they are so good on fast-charging descents and tackling technical sections of trail where you need your weight back as far as possible. Long, low and slack. It works. With the relatively low bottom bracket and short stays, the bike cornered exceptionally well. There was no concern letting loose on unfamiliar terrain with the SRAM Guide brakes; these are the real deal. The lever pull is incredibly smooth and predictably progresses providing seamless braking. I’m looking to put a set of Guides on my own bike after spending time with these stoppers.
I’ve cycled through my fair share of personal bikes and increasing number of review bikes. There have only been two bikes that I immediately felt at home on, my personal bike being one of them and now this Honzo CR Trail DL. It has been a while since I rode my singlespeed; actually, it may be the longest stretch of time that I have not thrown a leg over it, which speaks to how much I enjoy riding the Honzo CR.
If you are in the market for a trail hardtail, I would highly recommend you find your local Kona dealer and throw a leg over a Honzo. There is a model to fit almost any budget including the aluminum-framed Kona AL, which starts at $1,599. If you really want to run 27plus, Kona offers two “Big” Honzo options starting at $1,699. The frames are built specifically around a 27plus wheel and offer a 55 mm bottom bracket drop compared to the 29er’s 65 mm drop. And if you are looking to get racy, there is a Honzo CR Race with a Fox 34 fork, skinnier tires and rims, no dropper post and a $3,499 price tag.
Price as tested: $4,599
Sizes: XS, S, M, L (tested), XL