This bike review was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Bike magazine.
The past month of riding on Kona's Honzo ST has been a literal return to my roots.
The original Honzo came out right after I had bought a bike, and I lusted after it all season on my newly disappointing Raleigh. It was everything I wished the bike I'd bought was, but didn't really exist at the time in the form of a mass-market hardtail 29er. The Honzo was long and slack in the front and short in the back. Its geometry was truly progressive, and proved so effective that it eventually made its way to Kona's highly praised full-suspension Process bikes.
A year or two later, I sold the stupid Raleigh and got myself a second-generation Honzo. What ensued was a rapid progression in my riding ability, and eventually the purchase of a full-suspension bike once I'd decided that the Honzo's rear end was holding me back. Then I moved to Southern California, rode a gaggle of carbon superbikes and adopted the linguistic habit of attaching "the" to highway numbers.
Fast forward a few hundred fish tacos and I've moved back to New England, with a new Honzo ST in tow to test on the trails of Western Massachusetts.
While not much has changed around here, a lot has changed with the Honzo. Sure, it's still rockin' 68- and 74.5-degree head and seat tube angles. Its rear center can still adjust (via sliding dropouts) all the way down to a bare-minimum 415 millimeters, and its bottom bracket retains its 65-millimeter drop. But not even steel hardtails have been sheltered from the mountain bike industry's unceasing march toward who-knows-what.
At some point the master became the student, and so this third-gen Honzo had to be lengthened and lowered to make it more like the Process bikes it once inspired. The reach of the size large frame has been bumped up from 451 millimeters to a vast 478 millimeters. The standover has been lowered more than 130 millimeters—from 839 to 710. This makes the Honzo look like an oversized dirt jumper, and allows for nearly as much rider movement.
For buyers, the most significant change is that you can no longer get a complete steel Honzo. We built our frame up with Shimano SLX brakes and an SLX drivetrain, which powers a mid-level Novatec Alpine wheelset. All cable routing on the frame is external, aside from the dropper, which runs externally before feeding into the seat tube. But, since this is a steel frame, we went ahead and drilled a couple extra holes in the downtube for a clean setup. I ran a 130-millimeter fork, so my test bike is actually a touch slacker and taller than the stock geo chart says.
Putting that extra travel to use is no trouble at all on the Honzo. The bike's long reach gives it a stable feel, so I often found myself going fast into rock gardens only to remember at the last second that I was on a hardtail.
And the Honzo's tail is quite hard indeed. The chromoly steel frame is no doubt suppler than most any aluminum frame with comparable strength, and at 7 pounds, it better be. But it's not the most forgiving steel frame I've ridden. In fact, it feels harsher than I remember the previous Honzo being. But that was several years ago, and there's been a lot of full suspension in my life lately.
That stiffness works with the short rear end to make the Honzo adept at digging into tight corners and needling between trail obstacles. It's also more than willing to pop into a manual or hop when the best line is over, not around. And when the best line is through, the Honzo is amply planted. The question is whether your knees are robust enough to handle what the back end doesn't.
Efficiency-wise, the Honzo is a far cry from a carbon or aluminum hardtail with more traditional (read: cross-country) geometry. But riders accustomed to the feel of a mid-travel trail bike or all-mountain rig won't be disappointed by the steel frame's climbing chops.
Defiant of its weight, the frame's stiff rear end makes it feel sportier than most chromoly hardtails, and more precise, too. Switchbacks and rock-and-root-ridden pitches can all be dispatched comfortably from a centered position along the bike's reasonable 1,168-millimeter wheelbase. Mash through or pick your way around; both are effective means aboard this Bellingham-bred beast, with the 310-millimeter-high bottom bracket providing generous clearance for all but the most poorly timed pedal strokes.
Speaking of mashing, the sliding dropouts allow the Honzo to be configured as a singlespeed, if that's your thing. It can also fit at least a 2.8-inch tire in the rear, if that's your thing.
What if neither of those are your thing? Should you consider getting a Honzo?
Yes. With one qualification: You have to be willing to build it. If you've been riding traditional hardtails and want something more confident, the Honzo will help you take your riding up a notch without losing that hardtail feel. Maybe you're a full-suspension devotee looking for a second bike to ride while yours is being overhauled. The Honzo will wait impatiently in your garage for its day in the dirt. Or perhaps you're worried that all this squishy carbon has turned you soft. The Honzo will tough love you back into hardtail-riding shape.
Or maybe you've decided to simplify—strip away the layers of sediment between you and what matters—to, as they say, get back to your roots.
Well, the Honzo likes roots.
Kona's Two Cents: Usually there's something we can add to a review. Honestly—I got nothing. Jonathon, you get it. —Ian Schmitt, Kona Bicycles Product Manager