Disclosure: I asked Kona’s UK rep to send me a demo model of the 2014 Sutra for review, to which he obliged. It was returned after the testing period was over.
The Kona Sutra 2014 reviewed in this article has been positioned by Kona as a mid- to high-end steel-framed adventure touring bike with significant potential for being used as a commuting/utility/fun-having bike on a variety of terrain.
On paper, the 2014 Sutra features a nearly identical specification to its 2013 predecessor, which firmly and deservedly established itself as a top-quality long-haul road tourer with recommendations coming in from all over the place. It features 700c wheels, front & rear racks, mud guards, disc brakes and dropped handlebars, indicating that its core purpose as a long-haul load carrier for the developed world is still very much in place.
It’s difficult to review the new Sutra without drawing comparisons to its previous incarnations, on which I’ve ridden thousands of fully-loaded miles (specifically, the 2012 model). Having looked at the differences between them on paper, I guessed that there’d be relatively little difference between the two when it came to actually riding the bikes.
The biggest change turns out to be a very significant one, however: the frame, fork and racks are all new for 2014, changing the bike’s character and feature-set substantially.
The wheelbase is now shorter and the bottom bracket positioning a little higher, which in theory and in practice produces a more nimble ride in exchange for a slight decrease in overall mile-munching effortlessness when heavily loaded. It does, however, introduce a couple of minor compromises, which we’ll come to later.
The feel of the bike is more sporty and fun than the previous frameset, particularly when unloaded, and the bike’s range of purposes has been broadened by this decision, giving it increased appeal for riders who envisage using it for more than just standard touring, in comparison to the older model which was an uncompromising out-and-out tourer (and a very capable one at that).
There are several side effects of the frame change, not least in terms of the touring-specific frame features of previous models. The third bottle-cage mount on the underside of the downtube has gone, which seems an unnecessary omission of what should really be a standard feature on touring frames. (Strangely, though, I’ve heard reports from the USA of new 2014 Sutras that do have the third bottle-cage mount.)
Another (less significant) feature missing from the new frame is the down-tube shifter mounts, meaning you’re stuck with bar-mounted shifters of one type or another.
The headtube is now oversized in diameter, and the sloping top-tube has gone, replaced by a more standard, horizontal geometry. This all suggests a particularly stiff frame, and my test-riding confirmed this: you might almost say it feels harsh, though you certainly won’t begrudge its increased responsiveness if you’re manoeuvring on tricky terrain.
Though the Project Two fork is still as sturdy and reassuring as ever, the V-brake bosses are now gone, and with them the ability to run anything other than disc brakes. The second set of mid-blade eyelets and bolts have also gone, as well as the second set of rack/fender braze-ons at the front dropout – essentially reducing the fork to a disc-only rigid steel mountain-biking fork with limited rack-mounting options.
Loaded up, the stiff & sprightly frame and fork feel just as happy handling luggage as the workhorse of the previous model did, if not more so. It’s a fun and nippy bike to ride when luggage is attached, feeling less like a lumbering tourer and more like a nimble and sporty multi-purpose machine. Given tyres with a bit more tread and volume, it’d positively invite you to dive down every unpaved side road you came across.
In summary, the new 2014 frameset is significantly less fully-featured as a tourer than its predecessor. There’s an obvious reason for this; Kona have scrapped the touring-specific Sutra frame and fork of yore altogether and instead built a new touring bike on the frameset of the Rove, with a different paint job.
For me, the new frame wins out marginally in the (admittedly highly subjective) department of how it feels to ride, and the variety of terrain across which I’d be tempted to take it, which goes some way towards making up for the missing features. A standard road touring bike this is not.
Drivetrain, Crankset & Brakes
Most of the build components are sensible, given the kind of mixed riding for which the bike has been positioned. The drivetrain is made up of durable mid-range Shimano mountain-biking components, with a 26/36/48t crankset and an 11-32t 9-speed cassette giving the bike the wide gearing ratio required by tourers for successfully tackling big climbs.
(I’d personally like the gearing to be lower still for the steepest and toughest of climbs with luggage, but despite 24t chainrings and 12-36 cassettes being available it’s rare to find such ratios fitted as stock on any tourer. I’ve never quite understood why.)
The 2-piece crankset features an external bottom bracket; easy to maintain or replace as long as you’re riding in the Western world. Likewise, the oversized headtube necessitates a non-standard headset – fine, as long as you’re within range of spares.
The brakes are Hayes’ CX5 cable-actuated disc brakes, which don’t have the same track record of reliability as the Avid BB7s fitted to other bikes at this price point but which still bring the bike to a halt far better than any traditional rim brake could under load.
Due to its width, the front caliper does protrude slightly in comparison with the stock lowrider’s tubing, so some fettling may be required to prevent it interfacing with the back of a mounted pannier. (It’s unclear whether changing the brakeset would have any effect on this.)
In general, the specification is conspicuously modern, drawing from new technologies rather than tried and tested hardware with worldwide compatibility, and in my view this restricts the bike’s use as a world tourer and makes it more suited to pedal-powered travels in the West.
Cockpit & Controls
The brake and shifting controls have been sensibly separated, with trusty Tektro brake levers featuring a handy adjustable reach mechanism, paired with the bar-end shifters favoured by many expedition-style tourers. The front shifter’s friction mechanism in particular is a good choice, allowing fine tuning of the front derailleur position to combat that all-too-common chain rubbing.
The dropped handlebars have been flared slightly for 2014, bringing the ends of the bars to a position slightly outside of the drops themselves. I didn’t see the point of this until I rode it; the slight flaring alters the angle of the bullhorns to bring the brake levers into a more natural position for the hands. In short; they’re more comfortable for the kind of relaxed, all-day riding the bike’s designed to handle.
There’s little room to manoeuvre in terms of adjusting the handlebar position, besides flipping the stem over to raise the bars by a few millimetres. I prefer a more upright riding position, as do many tourers; a few more headset spacers and a longer steerer tube would have offered more options in this regard.
The stock saddle is narrow, solid and makes no effort at being a perch one might seriously use for touring. Saddles being an entirely subjective thing with no rightful place in a bike review, I did what I always do and switched it for my Brooks B17 for the test rides. I’m assuming you’re going to do likewise.
Wheels, tyres & mudguards
The 700c 36-spoke wheels are built on cup-and-cone-bearing Shimano Deore hubs which have a strong reputation for being durable and well-sealed, with WTB Freedom Ryder rims. The stock tyres are Continental Contacts 32Cs; these represent a middle-ground of good value, decent longevity (though nowhere near that of the Schwalbe Marathon Plus) and a little tread for the occasional unsealed road.
If you’re planning to take the Sutra on more dirt-road-heavy adventures, however, you’d do well to change the tyres for something with a little more tread and volume (for example, the lighter Marathon Mondial or heavier Marathon Plus Tour). In theory, the new frame and fork accept tyres up to 40C in diameter (42C without mudguards), and the bike’s designers have touted this quality as one of the new frameset’s advantages.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
Running wider (40C) tyres on the Kona Sutra 2014
The first thing I noticed when switching the stock tyres out for a pair of 700x40C Schwalbe Marathon Mondials was that while you can upsize to 35C slicks without issue, the skinny stock mudguards won’t accept larger-volume tyres with any amount of tread.
If you do decide that more cushioning and traction is what you need, you’ll have to make some modifications to or replacements of the mudguards, or take them off altogether (as I did for this test ride).
It’s by no means an unusual issue when attempting to put fatter tyres on a road tourer, but given that the bike is advertised with the ability to run 40C tyres with mudguards, it seems like an oversight.
On my 56cm frame at least, intruducing fatter rubber also brought the front derailleur worryingly close to the tyre surface, and a prime target for all the crud that riding muddy off-road trails without mudguards would fire at it – not ideal. Wiggle room in this part of the frame is severely limited; it’s unclear if switching to a high-clamp derailleur (such as that on the Rove) would be possible without affecting the ability to fit mudguards.
And strangely, thefor tyres wider than 32C. So if you do run fatter tyres, you’ll either have to do so against WTB’s advice (unlikely to be an issue in reality, as long as you don’t run them at too high a pressure), or invest in a new wheelset (if you’re particularly paranoid about the rims failing under prolonged and very heavy loads).
Taking the Sutra on a long and muddy off-road ride with the 40C tyres was a revelation, however: it felt utterly right for the job, if a little heavier than you’d really want a cyclocross-inspired bike to be. Ditching the racks would lighten things up and free up the handling; ergonomics would be improved by switching to integrated shifters.
But then, of course, you’d basically have a Rove.
One of the most welcome upgrades for 2014 is the new front rack. The no-name rack fitted as stock to the 2013 model brought in numerous reports of being flimsy, difficult to adjust and incompatible with many popular models of pannier. The 2014 Sutra features a Blackburn FL-1 lowrider, which is a long-established mid-range model with many years of proven service behind it.
The rear rack has also been switched out for Blackburn’s flagship touring rack the TRX-1, which is slightly set back for heel clearance to compensate for the shorter wheelbase of the frame, and allows for bags to be mounted at two different heights (roughly 2 inches’ difference).
While it seems burly and well-built, it’s also significantly narrower than the previous model’s rack, which featured plentiful space for attaching rack-top luggage. This rack, by comparison, feels rather slimline, and while bringing in the panniers a few centimetres will no doubt slightly increase the bike’s nimbleness, I’m unsure that the loss of space is worth it for tourers who value the ability to strap all and sundry to the back of their bikes when the fancy takes them. But perhaps that’s no longer where the Sutra’s strengths really lie.
Though they have an excellent reputation for reliability, these Blackburn racks are both aluminium rather than weld-friendly steel, confirming that the Sutra’s forte isn’t going to be in round-the-world expedition-style riding but in excursions in the developed world.
With the new frame, racks and mudguards share the same dropout mounts. I don’t feel that this is ideal, partly because of the increased leverage on the bolts (increasing their chance of snapping over time) and partly because it’s a reduction in versatility and potential compatibility with other racks.
This particular combination of frame design and rear rack also has a quirk, as I discovered when I removed the mudguards. It turns out that the Blackburn’s lower mount features an extruded flange surrounding the bolt, designed to sit flush to a frame, presumably to minimise the amount of movement and play between the rack and the frame. But the frame’s mount is too skinny to fully interface with this, meaning the flange overlaps the edge of the frame. (It’s easier to understand this in pictures!)
I got round the issue by adding a spacer between the rack and frame. (Workarounds like this are relatively common when attempting to match the immense variety of frames and racks out there.)
A similar issue cropped up with the front rack: the clearance between the tubing, the quick-release and the brake caliper was affected by the removal of the mudguard, necessitating the addition of a spacer.
Someone recently emailed me photos of their new 2014 Sutra and said that there seemed to be a problem with the paint job. There isn’t – that’s what it’s supposed to look like.
The 2014 Sutra’s styling is… unusual. It’s not even a paint job at all, in the true sense of the word. Instead, it’s a kind of tinted lacquer over bare metal, with the metalwork, welds and brazings fully on show. The finishing kit is prediminantly black, rather than chrome, and so ‘black, gold and steel’ is the overriding theme.
I can certainly see why some might be put off – and on the other hand, there’ll be folk who are attracted to its unusual looks and its obvious steeliness.
For me, though, the most important aesthetic quality of a touring bike is that it should draw minimum attention to itself. And in this respect, the Sutra certainly falls on the understated side of things.
Criticisms & Comparisons
Let’s get one thing straight: the 2014 Sutra is still an absolutely capable touring bike with a full complement of tried and tested components and a solid frame that’ll take you more or less anywhere if you pedal long and hard enough.
Under close scrutiny, though, I’m not sure quite sure what the new Sutra wants to do – particularly in comparison with last year’s model, which in my opinion was an almost perfect long-haul touring bike. Having ridden the previous model extensively makes it very difficult to review this new version objectively.
I can see that where previous iterations of the Sutra invited you to sell your house and pedal off with your worldly possessions in tow, and while the 2014 model will still happily do this, moves have been made to encourage the rider to shed a few pounds, get off the beaten track and shake things up a bit; even to ditch the luggage altogether – hence the shorter wheelbase, the stiffened front end, the slimline racks, and the wider tyre options. Light-weight, action-packed, all-terrain touring with the riding itself as the focus of the trip is what I’d naturally want to do with it.
But if that’s the case, why not fit fatter tyres from the outset? Or why not at the very least fit more versatile rims and mudguards capable of accepting wider-diameter rubber (as Ridgeback have done with their new Expedition), or simply leave mudguard and rack choice to the buyer (as Surly do with their now-rather-similar-feeling Disc Trucker)?
‘Adventure’ cycling (as opposed to old-fashioned cycle touring) is a growing phenomenon. Surly’s Troll and Ogre framesets and Salsa’s Fargo are some popular choices to build up for this kind of riding. Even Specialized have launched an adventure bike this year which on paper looks remarkably like this updated Sutra – except with fatter tyres and mudguards fitted as standard.
If the Sutra frame was changed for this reason, it would surely make sense for the same logic to follow with the rest of the specification. But I don’t feel that quite enough has been done across the board to fully achieve this.
I get the suspicion that the 2014 Sutra is currently about halfway to what it could be in a future incarnation. But in my mind, that would be a different bike to Kona’s flagship road tourer and it wouldn’t really deserve to share the Sutra name. In short, this bike isn’t yet quite as well-defined as it could be.
If it were up to me, I’d suggest that Kona might resurrect the bombproof, feature-packed 2011-2013 frameset, tweak it for bigger tyre clearance, spec it out with this year’s racks and components (but with 40C-compatible rims/mudguards); then launch another ‘adventure’ bike alongside it based on the bike I’ve been testing today but more clearly focused on what it wants to do.
How Does It Ride?
The proof of the pudding, of course, is what happens when you take a bike like this for a few nice long rides and see how the whole package feels.
And in that department, I found the 2014 Sutra every bit as reassuring as the previous model, and even a little more fun to ride, and with a more comfortable cockpit setup. That goes for long days on the road, as well as excursions on unpaved trails.
The bottom line is that the 2014 Sutra is a bike on which I’d happily while away the hours on a varied tour of many weeks or months. It wouldn’t take long for me to forget the handful missing features that it’d be nice to have (especially given the various hideously inappropriate bikes I’ve toured perfectly happily on in the past).
It may not be perfect, but the Sutra is now a versatile beast indeed.
There’s an awful lot to like about the 2014 Sutra – mainly how it actually feels to ride. It’s a real beauty in this most important department.
There are a couple of things to dislike – mainly the incompatibility of the rims/fenders with the advertised tyre clearance, though only an issue if you’re actually wanting to change the tyres. You may well be able to have your local bike shop do this at the time of purchase. Or you may not be bothered about this at all.
If you’re after a bike for pure developed-world road touring and want something that’s optimised for that job alone, the Sutra will certainly do it – yet there are plenty of other 700c-wheeled steel touring bikes at this price that’ll roll out of the shop doing just as good a job. And if maximum speed, efficiency and tarmac-munching capabilities are your thing, you’ll probably find lighter and road-ier bikes elsewhere.
If you’re after a bike to take you round the world or on extensive developed world tours, there are several expedition-oriented bikes that’ll be a more sensible choice due to wheel size and component choice – perhaps the Long Haul Trucker or Disc Trucker in 26-inch models (slightly more expensive), or the new Expedition from Ridgeback with an upgraded set of wheels and racks (slightly cheaper).
But if you’re after something that’s solid, durable, fun to ride, luggage enabled and ready to tackle a variety of terrain, and which will allow you to stray into uses beyond what you’d expect a bog-standard tourer to put up with, then you should certainly consider taking the 2014 Sutra for a test-ride.
P.S. Though it may well be cheaper, I don’t really recommend ordering a touring bike online unless you know what you’re doing. Better off getting the size, fit and specification nailed by supporting your local Kona dealer. (Find yours here.)