UPDATE: In April 2014 I published my review of the 2014 Sutra, which supersedes this model. Click here to read it.
Full disclosure: Kona supplied me with their flagship Sutra touring bicycle for my U.S. West Coast ride in 2012. In return, I agreed to supply feedback (good or bad), photographs, an objective write-up here on my blog, and a video review (coming soon). Thus my opinions about the Sutra are published in absolute honesty; I’m not obliged to endorse the bike unless I feel it deserves it.
I wouldn’t test anything that didn’t fit my criteria on paper first. The Sutra did indeed fit my criteria on paper for this, primarily a road tour of a developed nation. It’s been a pleasant surprise to ride and has exceeded my expectations.
The Kona Sutra has been aimed at the mid-range touring/expedition bike market, and has been in production for a long time now, changing little in design over the last few years. Rather than take a road bike, beef it up and add some racks, Kona’s designers started from the ground up, and it’s easy to see the results.
Put next to my steel Honky Tonk road bike, the tubing is far beefier, particularly the weight-carrying rear triangle; the wheelbase is longer and the bottom bracket lower, the top-tube sloping off towards the seat tube in a style recognisable from Kona’s mountain-bike range – all in all, a very different geometry.
The centre of gravity is nice and low, and that results in a pleasingly stable ride, whether loaded up or not, with the steel frame and fork eating up bumps and uneven road surfaces. It’s an extremely confidence-inspiring and comfortable bicycle to ride.
Build Quality & Components
Off-the-peg touring bikes often come with sub-standard racks, and cyclists often fit aftermarket racks such as those from Tubus. The Sutra’s rear rack, on the other hand, is a stocky-looking thing, rated to 30kg and rigid as can be – so far, so good.
Drive components are sensible and durable choices; Shimano XT rear mech and gearing with a Sora road triple chainring up front, heavy-duty 700c rims with 36 spokes on Shimano cup & cone hubs.
Stock tyres are Continental Contacts; no Marathon XRs, but they don’t make XRs any more. I swapped mine out for Schwalbe Marathon Supremes, which are quicker, lighter and longer-lasting, though pricey.
Braking comes from Avid’s BB7 Road cable disc brakes, whose performance is almost indistinguishable from the hydraulics I’ve previously used.
This choice of brake will undoubtedly offend a proportion of veteran tourers who insist that only V-brakes are reparable enough in the field to be worth considering. I’ve never used V-brakes on a tour, which speaks for itself, really. I’d choose the guaranteed stopping power of a disc brake over the potential inconvenience of having to repair a broken one. When hauling a heavy load for several hours a day, control and stopping power are pretty important things.
Kona have designed the frame’s rear dropout section to accept a disc brake caliper in a position that won’t interfere with a rear rack’s mounting – a nice touch.
Cockpit adjustment is never more important than on a touring bike. The default handlebar placement is somewhere between an aggressive road stance and the laid-back upright off-road position – a compromise between riding efficiency and long-term comfort. Kona have stacked the steerer tube high with spacers and added a reversible stem. These oversize components are easy to swap out with alternatives from the diverse mountain-bike market to extend or reduce reach or rise even further. The brake levers have adjustable reach.
The dropped handlebars offer a good range of hand positions and are suitably rigid for swinging front panniers and bar-bags around. Bar-end shifters keep the mechanical parts of braking and shifting separate in the case of accident and repair or replacement; bosses for down-tube shifters are present if that’s your preference. These are thoughtful touches. It’s thoughtful touches that have been the pleasant surprise with the Sutra.
Dispensing with a quick-release front skewer and seatpost clamp in favour of hex bolts is thoughtful – no worries about a well-worn Brooks saddle going missing, or a front wheel not locked to the frame.
A third bottle-cage mount on the underside of the down tube is thoughtful – carry more water on the frame, or substitute a fuel bottle to avoid messy leaks inside panniers. Multiple fork mountings for a front rack is thoughtful – rough roads may well need more ground clearance; panniers vary in their design and effective mounted position. Full-length brake and gear hoses, minimising muck and rust on the cable inners, are thoughtful.
Front-fork V-brake bosses, for the fussy and for last-resort replacements, are thoughtful.
What would I change about this bike? It’s early days yet, but there are a few things, as I can be a fussy bugger. I’d like lower gearing – a smaller granny ring and/or a larger top sprocket on the cassette – to help with the steeper hills.
[UPDATE: I’ve now swapped the stock granny ring for a 24-tooth one (5-bolt ATB); it took 15 minutes, a 5mm hex wrench and half-turn of the front derailleur’s lower limiting screw. Much better.]
I’d like a longer fender at the back – tourers often come in pairs, and I’d prefer not to have my leading partner’s road spray in my face. The third bottle-cage mounts could be a little further back – no issues on Ben’s 59cm frame, but on my 56cm frame the front fender catches an average sized bottle’s mouth when steering. Very long-term tourers might question the durability of the headset and the modern Shimano 2-piece crankset/bottom-bracket combo, but it needs pointing out that few (if any) bikes will get round the world in one piece, no matter what setup you choose.
[UPDATE #2: Kona have taken these comments on board for their 2013 Sutra, which now features a Deore 48/36/26t mountain-bike crankset instead of the Sora. They’ve also fitted longer fenders. It’s very difficult to find any real flaws in the new bike – great work!]
[UPDATE #3: The 2014 Sutra keeps the gearing and the vast majority of finishing kit, upgrades the racks, and changes the frameset to a slightly more nimble model. Road test coming soon.]
There are a few things that would make the bike more inclined towards developing-world journeys. Schrader valves and valve holes over flimsy Prestas (though you could drill your own). A 26-inch wheel option might be an idea, though unlikely to actually happen. As Kona’s workshop guys tell me, wheelsets are so reliable these days that broken rims are less and less of an issue, but that doesn’t solve 700c tyre availability. Square-taper bottom brackets are far easier to find, replace and maintain, accept a wide variety of cranks and need no proprietary tools to be carried. 9-speed kit still isn’t commonly found outside the developed world, although availability is increasing.
But these are small points, and overall the Kona Sutra has grown into a serious contender in the mid-range touring bike line-up. It’s a thoughtful bike, stable, comfortable, capable, and with durability a priority. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of them.
The best deal I can find online for the 2014 Sutra is from Cyclestore*, who’ll do free UK mainland delivery and give you £120 worth of free accessories. I’d spend this £120 bonus on a black or honey Brooks B17* saddle, a Zefal Spy* rear view mirror, a Topeak Road Morph* pump and an Alien II* multitool.
I always recommend supporting local bike stores and test-riding a bike before buying it, wherever possible.