Review: Kona Unit

Tester: Adam Newman
Age: 36
Height: 6’ 1”
Weight: Gaining
Inseam: 33”

It’s steel. It has wheels. It rides like a bike.

To be honest, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to say? I mean, a rigid singlespeed is about as bare bones as you can get, and you’ve probably already decided if riding one is a bonehead idea or not.

But let’s take a closer look because, even though the Unit has been a mainstay of the Kona lineup for years, this here version has a few changes from years past. To start, it’s rolled on board the latest wheel size with 27.5 x 2.8 rubber – in this case WTB Trailblazers. You’ll also notice a few extra holes in the frame, though you might be happy about that, as Kona has added bottle cage eyelets to the underside of the downtube and each fork leg to bring the Total Bottle Capacity to five. Note the absence of the “three-pack” eyelets like some dedicated bikepacking bikes are sporting these days – Unit riders will need to stick to standard cages or bust out their DIY skills. Kona didn’t want a fork that looked like it is covered with barnacles, so ascetics trumped absolute utility here.

The Bike

Like I said, there’s not a ton to go over here. The Reynolds 520 steel frame is paired with a classic Kona P2 steel fork mounted in a 44 mm head tube. Out back you’ll find Kona’s sliding dropout design that makes for easy tensioning of the chain and can be swapped out for a couple different versions. (More on that in a bit.) In between is a tried-and-true 73 mm threaded bottom bracket shell welded up to a special chainstay yoke that will clear the wider tires. Even though the Trailblazers are on the small size of “plus,” you can still fit a traditional 29er wheel in there too. Finally, in what at this point seems almost like a “throwback” design, the Unit has 100/135 mm quick release hub spacing. Neato!

Components include house-brand bars, stem, grips and seatpost, all of which are A-OK. The TRP Spyke mechanical disc brakes are easy to adjust thanks to their dual-sided pad actuation. Wheels are Joytech hubs laced to Alex rims and come pre-taped for ditching tubes and adding sealant. Stock gearing is 32×18, and the FSA cranks come with a narrow-wide chainring. Why do you need a narrow-wide on a singlespeed? You don’t, unless you want to build this bike up with gears.

Which leads me to a very cool aspect of this bike: Kona spec’d this bike as a singlespeed, but because of the chainring and the full width cassette hub on the rear wheel, putting gears on this bike is as easy as buying a chain and cassette, trading for a used derailleur (thanks T!) and pulling an old thumb shifter out of the parts bin and hooking it all up.

Oh, except for one thing: No derailleur hanger. I don’t think any of the folks who ride this bike stock would mind a little extra metal hanging off the back, but anyone who wants gears needs to add $30 to the price of admission to swap out the stock singlespeed-only dropout at their local Kona dealer.

The Ride

Once you get your Unit built up the way you like it, you’re not likely to be overly surprised by any of its characteristics. It rides like a rigid bike with big tires. The Trailblazers would not be my first choice for aggressive mountain biking (or my fourth), but they work well for mixed-terrain exploring. Kona is marketing this generation of the Unit as an adventure bike, so fair enough.

One adventure I wasn’t expecting was having a hard time getting a comfortable position. The steel fork is fairly short, with a 470 mm axle-to-crown measurement, and the low headtube left me feeling like I was doing pushups on the bars. The geometry chart claims a stack height of 23.7 inches for this size XL, while a Honzo measures up at 25.6 inches. I ended up adding a less-than-cool riser stem and hoped no one would notice.

Despite the forward posture, the Unit doesn’t steer like a road bike on steroids. The 69 degree head tube angle and 17.4 inch chainstays keep things smooth and steady. Don’t mistake this for a sick trail weapon – it’s really more of a classic cruiser.

Conclusions

Built up the way I wanted it and rolling smooth there isn’t much to say except the Unit represents a good value and great starting point for your adventures. There are a lot of competitors in the 27plus hardtail category these days, including Kona’s own Big Honzos, so it’s nice to see Kona going after a separate segment of the market rather than just churning out a “me-too” bike. The dedicated diehard bikepackers out there might come looking for a few more ways to attach racks and bottles and other accessories, but offering a straightforward platform for modification is a pretty cool idea. I hope to never see two alike.

Specs:

Reach: 19.1”
Stack: 23.7”
Top Tube: 25.8”
Head Tube: 69°
Seat Tube: 74°
BB Height: 12.0”
Chainstays: 17.4”
Weight: 29.9 lbs.
specs based on size tested, without pedals

Sizes: S, M, L, XL (tested)
Price: $999

Update:
The 2018 Unit has a few spec changes and will switch to a 31.6 mm diameter seatpost with internal dropper post routing so you can take it #shredpacking. There is also a Unit X model that is sold with gears, so shifter fans can skip the DIY and go right from the store to the trail. Expect to see a derailleur hanger stock on both models as well. Still has a crazy low stack height though.


This review originally appeared in Dirt Rag 201Subscribe today to be the first to see all our reality-tested bike reviews, and while you’re at it, sign up for our weekly email newsletter to get the latest web stories in your inbox every Tuesday! 

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I am thinking of getting the kona unit as my first mtb bike. Any thoughts on how it compares with the surly karate monky?

  2. I am a novice, so please do not yell at me because I do not know your hard core bike terminology. I came across an orange Kona Unit at a pawn shop with a matte black fork, 29″ wheels, a Deore rear hub, and it has a rear cassette that has ten (10) gears. It is in great shape, and I can get it for $400 out the door tax included. Is this a decent deal and is it a decent bike?

    • I am not an expert, just another rider…but that being said, I have the Orange Unit, single speed, with the black fork and 29″ wheels, which I bought new about four years ago. I believe the Unit has always been sold as a single speed–so someone must have added the cassette to the one you are looking at. For what its worth, I think its a decent bike and I have a lot of fun on mine!

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