UPDATE: My full review of the 2014 Sutra is now online and supersedes this preview. Check it out here.
In 2012 I took a cross-section of the best and most popular mid-range road touring bikes and singled out the Kona Sutra as the one I wanted to take on a long-term test for my ride down the U.S. West Coast.
I had a good working relationship with the Kona crew and suggested a few tweaks that would optimize a future incarnation, some of which were suggested by blog readers.
Behold the 2013 Sutra, which incorporated all of these changes and made the Sutra a nigh-on perfect mid-range road touring bike. (With the possible exception of the front rack.)
So I was intrigued when, at Eurobike last month (that’s the big bicycle industry trade show on this side of the Atlantic), Kona unveiled their 2014 model:
Which, as many readers have already noted, seems to look a bit different.
And this is because it is a bit different. In particular, all the big bits have changed. The frame that I was so fond of has been changed entirely for one inspired by last year’s cyclocross-inspired dirt-road-racing success story the Rove, as have both of the racks. And the paint job seems to have been chosen with desert camouflage applications in mind. (Not that the paint job matters, or is anything other than a matter of taste.)
Now, tourers are a conservative bunch. They spend ages figuring out what works, and get unhappy when it changes. Quite understandably, then, people who’d been waiting for the 2014 Kona Sutra were a little bemused. So they emailed me, because I’d written the definitive review of the bike’s previous incarnation and they wanted to know what I thought.
Here’s what I think:
I haven’t ridden this new bike yet. So anything I say at this point is conjecture. And conjecture is pretty worthless when compared to informed, experienced advice.
So I am going to ride the bike and let you know what I think. But in the meantime let’s take an objective peek at what’s actually changed (not just what looks at a glance like it’s changed):
|2014 Sutra||2013 Sutra|
|FRAME MATERIAL||Kona Cromoly||Kona Cromoly Butted|
|SIZES||47, 49, 53, 56, 59, 61cm||49, 53, 56, 59, 61cm|
|FORK||Kona Project Two Touring||Kona Project Two Touring|
|CRANKARMS||Shimano Deore||Shimano Deore|
|B/B||Shimano BB51||Shimano BB51|
|CHAIN||KMC HG53||KMC HG53|
|FREEWHEEL||Shimano Deore 11-32t 9 spd||Shimano Deore 11-32t 9 spd|
|F/D||Shimano Deore||Shimano Deore|
|R/D||Shimano Deore SLX||Shimano LX Trekking|
|SHIFTERS||Shimano BarCon||Shimano BarCon|
|BRAKE CALIPERS||Hayes CX Expert||Hayes CX5|
|FRONT BRAKE ROTOR||Hayes L Series 160mm||Hayes V6 160mm|
|REAR BRAKE ROTOR||Hayes L Series 160mm||Hayes V6 160mm|
|BRAKE LEVERS||Tektro RL340||Tektro RL340|
|HEADSET||TH 848||TH 848|
|HANDLEBAR||Kona Deluxe Road Bar||Kona Deluxe Road Bar|
|STEM||Kona XC/Road||Kona XC/Road Deluxe|
|SEATPOST||Kona Double Clamp w/Offset||Kona Double Clamp w/Offset|
|SEAT CLAMP||Kona Clamp||Kona Clamp|
|GRIPS||Kona Cork Tape||Kona Cork Tape|
|SADDLE||WTB Rocket V Comp||WTB Rocket V Comp|
|FRONT HUB||Shimano Deore||Shimano Deore|
|REAR HUB||Shimano Deore||Shimano Deore|
|SPOKES||Sandvik Stainless 14g||Sandvik Stainless 14g|
|RIMS||WTB Freedom Ryder 21||WTB Freedom Ryder 21|
|FRONT TIRE||Continental Contact 700x32C||Continental Contact 700x32C|
|REAR TIRE||Continental Contact 700x32C||Continental Contact 700x32C|
|PAINT COLOR||Matt Raw Steel w/Sand Tint||Blue w/Gold & White|
|EXTRAS||Pannier Racks, Fenders||Pannier Racks, Fenders|
What’s actually, changed then?
Well, if it’s not highlighted in the table above, it hasn’t changed (or it doesn’t matter).
And everything highlighted in blue (rear derailleur, brake calipers & rotors) represents a component for which the only change is the name given to it by its manufacturer.
SLX is just Shimano’s new name for LX.
CX Expert is just Hayes’ new name for CX 5.
Manufacturers do this kind of thing because the industry is an arms race and it’s important to give the impression things are improving year on year, even if the difference is negligible. It’s how these companies stay afloat in a competitive market. Nothing more. Derailleurs still move chains between sprockets. Brakes still stop wheels turning.
In other words: almost nothing has changed on the Kona Sutra between 2013 and 2014.
Except for the rows highlighted in orange and green. Let’s take a closer look at the ones in green, highlighted as such because they represent upgrades over the 2013 model:
- There’s an extra frame size for 2014 – 47cm; addressing recent revelations that small people go touring too.
- The pannier racks have been changed for models from Blackburn’s range – most significantly the front rack for the well-established FL1 low-rider, but also the rear rack for Blackburn’s TRX-1 Ultimate Touring Rack. Since the old front rack was arguably the 2013 Sutra’s biggest weakness, this sounds like a welcome upgrade, though I cannot yet speak from experience. Pannier compatibility with the FL1 seems to be a topic of ongoing discussion, but it’s worth noting that this kind of fettling does come with the territory.
Which just leaves the Sutra 2014’s new frame as the sole remaining point of discussion.
At which point, since I haven’t yet ridden it myself, I’d like to hand over to the guy who actually designed the bike. Here’s his email to me last week:
“One of the biggest pieces of feedback we received regarding the previous iterations of the Sutra had to do with the tire clearance. On the previous models it was relatively limited. Moving to the Rove frame allows the user to run 40C tires with fenders which is much better suited for loaded touring in our opinion. The bike comes stock with the same Conti 32C tires which are a good compromise between traction, puncture resistance and rolling resistance. The ability to run 40C tires can’t be understated though, especially as the weight of the rider/gear increases.
“The slightly higher bottom bracket could be viewed as a detraction by some users. I can say that for my purposes the bike rides very well with a load in excess of 50lbs front/rear. I’ve gone on two week trips with my better half (I end up carrying the weight) and have not felt any speed wobble or instability when the bike is loaded down.
“The most notable boon to the change in frame geometry comes when the bike has no weight on it. It behaves much like a well-balanced and stable cyclocross bike. Slightly quicker handling and more fun on singletrack/gravel than the Sutra of yore. The increased dimensions of the HT [head tube] (44mm ZS) also contribute to the stability and precision of the frame. When loaded on the front there is significantly less flex from the HT/Fork interface.”
My take? Firstly, let’s remember that Kona have a hard-earned (and well-earned) reputation for thoughtful and sometimes eccentric bike design. They have that reputation to defend, and so they won’t take bike design decisions lightly, especially given the Sutra’s booming popularity.
And so it seems that the 2014 Sutra has simply developed into a touring bike that’ll come into its own when heading off on unsealed roads – off the beaten track. And while it might look at a glance like a rather different bike, it really isn’t, as we can see above.
The 2013 Sutra was a world-class road tourer that was built sturdily enough to be taken off-road (as I did in the Californian Lost Coast last year).
For 2014, I’d speculate that Kona have taken the Sutra a step further towards a more exploratory style of touring, focussing specifically on improving the performance of the bike under off-road circumstances, with a better-suited frame geometry and with increased tyre clearance for fatter expedition tyres.
The jury is still out. But regardless of what happens when I get one to take out for a spin, I have no doubt that the new Sutra remains a quality bike built for adventurous bicycle travellers by an experienced bunch of bike builders, and that – changes aside – it will continue to take you wherever you wish to ride it, which, let’s face it, is a rather more important consideration.