Kona Honzo ESD first ride review: Kona’s classic hardcore hardtail gets an update

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On one of the hottest days of the year, Andi takes out one of the hottest new bikes of the year. Here are his first ride impressions of the Kona Honzo ESD.

There was a time that all I rode was steel hardtails. Now and then I would see a new suspension bike and give in to temptation, but inevitably I would get rid of the full-bounce and head back to a sorted hardtail. These days though I ride full-suspension bikes, partly because the terrain I now ride is more suited to full-squish but primarily because full-suspension bikes are such amazing machines these days.

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Haha look what I found while cleaning the shed🤗😮 @konabikesuk #kona #konafiremountain #retrobike #steelisreal #mtb #mountainbike #hardtail #instamtb #bikelife

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A modern-day enduro full-sus bike will out climb and out descend a hardtail in most scenarios. I can climb faster, descend quicker, ride further and feel less fatigued on a full-suspension bike, but there’s a certain on-the-edge fun factor a hardtail still offers that a suspension bike can’t.

Hardtails, a good hardtail, is fun everywhere you take one. A tiny mound of grass that your big bike simply floats over becomes a jump that you can session over and over again. A full-gas rock garden is now a test of nerve as you try to emulate your big rig lines with only your legs as suspension.

Riding a hardtail can also reset your riding style and technique. You remember again to ride light and absorb impacts better. Line choices improve and, after a few wonky attempts, you’ll get back to bunny hopping like a champ on one in no time.

With all this said I was a little sceptical that a modern hardtail such as thew new Kona Honzo ESD would be as fun as I remembered hardtails to be, and even less convinced that one would be enjoyable on my local trails. As you’ll see in the video below I needn’t have been worried.

Video: Kona Honzo ESD first look and ride

Kona Honzo ESD First Look

The Honzo ESD launched at the same time as the Process X and that’s no mere coincidence. While this slender steel stunner might be a hardtail, it shares some of the same DNA as the new enduro bike. The slim Chromoly steel tubes are neatly welded together using modern numbers. The front end is a slack 63-degrees and the seat post is 77.5-degrees. These figures combined with a reach of 460mm on a medium frame and a super short 417mm chainstay give us a hardtail that can rock with the enduro crowd and chill with the BMXers at the dirt jumps.

kona honzo esd
kona honzo esd
kona honzo esd

Kona uses the same sliding dropout system on the ESD as previous bikes so spares are easy to source and you also have the option to build it into a single-speed if you wanted to make the Honzo even more simple and reliable.

All cables and hoses are externally routed for ease of maintenance and the cable clips on the downtube also double up as bottle boss mounts. Along the top of the downtube, there’s an option to locate a bottle cage in 2 positions, though I discovered the lowest position didn’t have enough clearance for my bottle. The 2nd set of bosses gives you a place to run another bottle or accessory below the downtube.

Kona has built up the Honzo ESD with solid, no-nonsense parts. A Marzocchi Z1 fork with Grip damper and 150mm of travel is a simple set and forget item with a chunky chassis that will happily hold its line with supple performance.

Shimano provides a pair of Deore 4 piston brakes, these are basically the same as the SLX pair I have already reviewed, but you’ll need a tool to adjust reach. They offer the same feel and level of power on the trail. The drivetrain is mix of SLX 12 speed and RaceFace, and even the hubs come from Shimano’s performance mid-range group.

kona honzo esd
kona honzo esd
kona honzo esd

RaceFace handles the chainset, stem, 35mm diameter bars and ARC rims. It’s all solid kit that should last, but nothing on the Honzo can be described as lightweight. This goes for the Maxxis 3C EXO tyres, a tremendous Assegai 29 x 2.5 on the front and Minnion DHR II 29 x 2.4 on the rear, great rubber with amazing grip.

kona honzo esd
Remember Trans X?

An interesting specification highlight is the Tranz X dropper post. This cable operated dropper is internally adjustable using shims to knock 10, 20 or 30mm off the amount of travel. I only used it for a few hours, but it’s a smooth post and apparently extremely affordable aftermarket. The final pieces of the ESD puzzle are the Kona lock-on grips and a WTB saddle.

Kona Honzo ESD First Ride Impressions

First things first, this is NOT a complete review. Kona brought the Honzo ESD to my local trails for a first look and a ride on my last day in the office before I went on vacation. We will get the bike in for a longer test period, but I hope these initial ride impressions help answer any questions you have about the bike.

Kona honzo ESD

Scott from Kona brought a medium-sized frame for me to try, and I am really happy he did. For a long time now, I’ve tended to size up on my bikes but now geometry trends have increased sizing I often look at medium bikes again and feel I should give them a go. With a reach of 465mm and a top tube of 605mm, this medium size isn’t much smaller than the large size Commencal Meta I happily rode all last year. The main differences in geometry being that the Kona has a much shorter 380mm seat tube and a lot more standover height, and also a slacker 63-degree head angle and steeper 77.5-degree seat tube.

The extremely short seat tube is great for riders wanting to size up and means they don’t have to worry about standover, then again for myself at 178cm I had to run quite a lot of post out of the frame to get the seated position that I wanted. This means that even with the 170mm travel dropper the saddle isn’t slammed into the frame. For my style of riding and for where I ride this was fine and the saddle was never in my way, but if you’re looking at the Honzo ESD as a do-it-all bike and you want to take it dirt jumping or the pump track you’ll either want to change to a longer 200mm dropper or just carry an Allen key with you (just be careful you don’t pull the cable out of the base of the dropper when adjusting).

Climbing

With the saddle adjusted to my height the seated position is very comfortable. Not stretched out and not cramped either, also being a hardtail the seat tube steepens when seated due to fork sag, which should mean a seat tube angle closer to 78-degrees once rolling.

The climbing position on the Honzo ESD feels like any modern enduro bike, but you must remember that you don’t have the same sort of uphill traction as a full-suspension bike. Instead line choice and tyre pressure play an increased role in picking your way up a long uphill. The choice in wheel and tyre package on the Honzo ESD is obviously aimed more at the hardcore hardtail crowd, and while it will climb anything you point it at those burly RaceFace ARC wheels and Maxxis 3C tyres slows progress down. It’s no uphill sprinter, but as long as you’re in no rush it will get you to the top.

Descending

kona honzo esd
Sliding dropouts.

While the Honzo ESD might be a little slower on the way up, it feels extremely fast on the way back down again. It’s not as fast as a full-suspension bike, but a hardtail always feels much faster than it actually is and the extra level of engagement through the rear triangle makes for ragged fun.

What surprised me most while descending is just how stable the Honzo feels, it does get kicked about in rock gardens but when you pick a line the ESD stick to its guns and will charge you through as fast as it can. That simple 150mm travel Marzocchi fork keeps your front wheel tracking no matter where you place it and provides the support and suppleness to take the really harsh stings out of the trail.

Split second line choices and tight switchbacks are dispatched with ease thanks to the short chainstays, this also aids lifting the front wheel. Those heavy wheels which slowed me on the way up help to keep the Honzo on track and pick up and maintain speed extremely effectively.

Thanks to the low frame, the Honzo ESD happily dances beneath you as you squirm around loose corners, and scream into steep, slick sections of trail. At points, it feels almost like skiing, or at least what I imagine skiing to be like, easily manoeuvring the bike beneath you hunting for grip as you lean further and push on harder. Descending is an absolute riot on the ESD, and reminded me just how much fun a steel hardtail can be.

3 things that could be improved

  • The Kona branded lock-on grips are too hard for my liking.
  • The WTB saddle is quite wide, I much prefer the Fabric Scoop.
  • Price. It’s a little more expensive than bikes with a similar level of build, but the frame is beautiful and the ride is a riot!

3 things we loved

  • The frame geometry is really spot on and makes it easy for riders to find a frame that suits their style. It also means the frame is very versatile and will suit a wide range of riders and riding styles.
  • Stability and comfort at speed and even though rock gardens is really impressive. I didn’t expect a hardtail could feel so confident and planted.
  • Really nice frame features such as the external cable routing, metal head badge, awesome paint and sliding dropouts.

Kona Honzo ESD Pricing

  • Complete Bike: £2699
  • Frame: £799
  • Website: Konaworld

Kona Honzo ESD Specifications

FRAME MATERIALKona Cromoly Butted
SIZESS, M, L, XL
REAR SHOCKn/a
FORKMarzocchi Bomber Z1 Grip Damper 150mm Tapered 110mm Spacing
CRANKARMSRace Face Aeffect R
CHAINRINGS30t Wide/Narrow
B/BRace Face 73mm
PEDALSn/a
CHAINShimano Deore
FREEWHEELShimano SLX 11-51t 12spd
CHAINGUIDEn/a
F/Dn/a
R/DShimano SLX
SHIFTERSShimano XT
BRAKE CALIPERSShimano Deore
FRONT BRAKE ROTORShimano RT64 203mm (centerlock)
REAR BRAKE ROTORShimano RT64 180mm (centerlock)
BRAKE LEVERSShimano Deore
HEADSETFSA Orbit 1.5 E ZS
HANDLEBARRace Face Aeffect R 35
STEMRace Face Aeffect R 35
SEATPOSTTrans-X Dropper +RAD Internal w/ Shimano Lever 31.6mm
SEAT CLAMPKona Clamp
GRIPSKona Key Grip
SADDLEWTB Volt
FRONT HUBShimano SLX 110x15mm
REAR HUBShimano SLX 148x12mm
SPOKESStainless Black 14g
RIMSRace Face AR 30
FRONTIREMaxxis Assegai EXO TR 3C 29×2.5″ WT
REAR TIREMaxxis Minion DHR II EXO TR 3C 29×2.4″ WT
PAINT COLORGloss Metallic Red w/ Silver Decals

Kona Honzo ESD Geometry

SIZESMLXL
ST LENGTH380380420450
TT LENGTH578605633670
REACH440465490525
STACK625634643652
STANDOVER712710709706
HT ANGLE63636363
HT LENGTH90100110120
ST ANGLE77.577.577.577.5
CS LENGTH417417417417
BB DROP62.562.562.562.5
BB HEIGHT312.5312.5312.5312.5
WHEELBASE1186121612451285
FRONT CENTER776806835875
FORK LENGTH560560560560
FORK OFFSET42424242

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