Kona Sutra LTD Review: The Last Adventure Bike
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The Kona Sutra LTD is a drop-bar bike “designed by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers.” As simple as that statement may sound, the result is one of the most versatile, category shattering rigs in the mainstream bike market. We tested one for several months to find out what makes this unique beast tick…
With additional insight and photos by Ryan Sigsbey
To start things off, let’s have a heart-to-heart about a term that’s been casually tossed around lately: adventure bike. Over the last couple of years this made-up category has infiltrated the contemporary gravel bike lexicon and is used to characterize a wide array of bikes like the Kona Sutra LTD. Even though we’ve tried to approach this nondescript epithet with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, we’re as guilty as the next for helping it snowball. It is, however, ill-suited as a categorical term for bicycles. After all, any type of bike can be an adventure bike, right?
That sentiment is flawed. No bike can do all those things equally well, and if you are a mountain biker, finding some sort of magical quiver-killing drop-bar bike that will fill all your needs probably isn’t going to happen. Ultimately, this categorization leaves a lot of room for consumer confusion when sifting through a myriad of bikes, each specially suited for its own subset of terrain.
In my opinion, bikes that flirt with some sort of do-it-all notion should have granular categorizations. There are all-road bikes, designed to handle a lot of tarmac and a little gravel, there are gravel bikes that do what they do well, monster-cross bikes that are lightweight and made for racing, and then there are others, including drop-bar 29er mountain bikes that are definitely more dirt-centric. But, each should be called what it is. Not “adventure bike” as a catch-all. So, from here on out, that term is no longer in this site’s vocabulary, coyly stated or otherwise. After all, every bike depicted on this site is an adventure bike. End rant.
- Frame/fork: Kona Cromoly Butted
- Angles (56cm): 71° Headtube, 72.5° Seattube
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm BSA Threaded
- Hub specs: 12x142mm / 100x12mm Thru-axle
- Seatpost: 27.2mm
- Max tire size: 29×2.3″ (or 27.5+)
- Price: $2,099 (complete)
What Exactly is The Kona Sutra LTD?
All that said, if there ever was a bike that should be assigned to the “category that will remain nameless,” it’s the Kona Sutra LTD. The LTD is kind of in its own class. Some might claim it’s basically a 29er mountain bike designed around drop-bars. And with a 73mm bottom bracket shell, a mountain bike crankset, geometry that slightly resembles an 80s mountain bike, and room for 29 x 2.3” tires, that classification wouldn’t be too far off the mark. In Kona’s words, “The Sutra LTD is what happens when a mountain biker imagines a touring bike.” As much as that statement sounds like marketing-spew, it might just be the best way to describe it. Speaking to that pedigree, Kona started as a mountain bike company back in ’88. With Joe Murray at the bike design helm, the Bellingham, Washington, based company certainly has deep MTB roots. They’ve pushed the envelope quite a few times, repeatedly delivering mountain bikes that set new precedents in the industry.
Still a Touring Bike
But then again, the Sutra LTD didn’t start as a mountain bike. It spawned from Kona’s touring bike family. The Sutra range has been around for quite a while, actually. The classic Sutra – fairly well known in the bicycle touring world and still a great choice for long-distance road touring – is bedecked with a Brooks saddle, fenders, racks, and other such long-range touring paraphernalia. But make no mistake, the Sutra’s three-year-old step cousin, the LTD, is a different bike altogether. Aside from its name, the only bit of Sutra DNA that can be found is in the frame itself. The LTD shares the same frame design – save different dropouts – and the same tubeset, which is slightly beefier and stiffer than most other modern drop-bar gravel bikes. To be specific, the LTD uses a “Kona Chromoly” tubeset that has about 0.1mm thicker walls than those of Kona’s Rove, their lighter weight “all-road” platform. The reason for this tubing choice is the Sutra LTD’s end game: it’s a bike built specifically for dirt touring and bikepacking. In essence, it’s a latter-day “dirt-drop” mountain touring bike. However, with modern trappings such as flat mount hydraulic brakes and thru-axles, the Sutra LTD might get snubbed by many die hard bike tourers looking for apocalypse-proof standards like mechanical discs and 135/100mm quick release axles. This isn’t the bike for a touring luddite.
We’ve had our eye on this bike since the original powder blue version came out back in 2015. It was different from almost anything around at the time, and since its inception, the Sutra LTD has seen a few minor tweaks to improve the platform. The 2018 Kona Sutra LTD got a major overhaul, with bolt-in thru-axles (12x142mm in the rear and 100x12mm on the front), flat brake mounts on both the front and rear, full cable housing for the rear derailleur, as well as an ultra-clean rear dropout, complete with rack mounts. It also gets a bit more tire clearance than the original. The powder blue 2016 Sutra LTD cleared 29 × 2.0” tires, while the 2017 model—the orange version—was re-engineered with a wider 73mm MTB bottom bracket shell, carving out much more tire clearance. As a result, both the 2017 and 2018 models fit 29 × 2.25″ tires without issue. Some riders have even reported running 27.5 x 2.8” tires. While die-hard roadies might gripe at the added Q-factor at the cranks, the extra width is the norm for me. And as far as I’m concerned, 68mm shells be damned. Long live MTB cranks.
On The Trail
As with the Trek 1120 we reviewed a month or so ago, this review is comprised of two different perspectives. I got a fair shake at the Sutra LTD on gravel and two-track with a little singletrack thrown in for good measure. While I was injured, Ryan Sigsbey took it for a few weeks and rode it on trails and on a couple bikepacking trips. Spoiler alert: Ryan ended up buying the bike pictured here and I ended up buying a frame of the same model that I’m in the process of building with parts I had on hand. That’s how much we both liked it.
My initial impression—and one that didn’t change over time—was how well this bike performed while climbing, both on semi-technical trails and at speed. Like a solid cross-country mountain bike, the LTD rails chunky gravel and serpentine singletrack with a level of confidence I’ve only experienced on one other drop-bar bike, the Salsa Cutthroat. And, while climbing and picking apart technical trails, it handles with a calm stability and a surprisingly nimble playfulness that doesn’t quite match it’s rather long wheelbase. To sum up my experience, it rides and performs like a well-conceived 29er mountain bike. It’s not without flaws, and I’ll dig further into why a little later. But first, here are Ryan’s ride impressions.
Being primarily a mountain biker, I’m not typically drawn to drop-bar bikes. Even gravel riding, I tend to prefer flat bars. But when the opportunity came around to test out the 2018 Kona Sutra LTD, I knew I had to give it a try. For starters, the bike was actually designed by mountain bikers. Not to mention, it had all the features I was looking for in an off-road touring bike, complete with 50mm tires, a wide-range cassette, hydraulic brakes, and front/rear thru axles for a more stable ride. It was as close as I was going to get to a mountain bike with off-road touring capabilities. I was psyched!
I was curious to see if this was going to be the bike that would convince me to make the switch to drop bars, so I headed out to the trails. I climbed up a long stretch of double track to the top of one of my favorite local trails, Bracken Mountain, and pointed the bike downhill. I was immediately impressed with the handling. The bike felt solid, but had a sense of playfulness that brought a smile to my face. The bike has such a tall overall stack and a generally upright and comfortable position that it made riding in the drops on the descents feel just about perfect. I didn’t feel like I was too low or hunched over like I have on more cyclocross-style bikes, and the brake lever control feels much better when descending in that position. It really gave me the confidence to let it go, knowing I could reign it back in when necessary.
I stayed up on top of the hoods during the climb up and felt a little stretched out. I made some minor tweaks to the seat position, which helped, but I found myself either creeping forward on the saddle or moving my hands back a little further on the bars. Being 5’10” I couldn’t help but wonder if a 54cm would have been a better fit. A little while later, I ended up noticing that the Sutra’s stock seatpost has a slight setback, so I swapped it out with a 0° offset and that ended up solving the problem. That being said, Kona’s sizing generally seems to be a little different when compared to other brands, and it’s something to pay attention to if you’re shopping around for one.
The Clement X’plor tires it comes with seem to perform really well on and off road. The bike feels slightly sluggish on the road, though my typical preference is to keep to the dirt as much as possible. Even so, the tightly spaced center knobs seem to roll really well on pavement and hardpacked roads. The side knobs provide plenty of traction when cornering in a wide range of conditions as well, including Pisgah’s often muddy terrain. So far, they seem to be holding up pretty well, showing little noticeable wear in the time that I’ve had the bike.
I loaded the Sutra for an overnighter, riding out of town on the local greenway and up into Pisgah Forest. A mix of pavement, gravel, and some rough fire roads dropped me out on a long, paved climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The thing I like most about exploring on this bike is the fact that you can go almost anywhere. You have the capability to change course or take a singletrack connector to another road without having to stick to the gravel or smoother terrain. Once I rode up to Black Balsam, I hit a rough and rocky trail and rode out a ways to find a quiet place to camp far away from the roads. It was a fun descent on singletrack, weaving around and over roots and rocks. I found a great place to camp and called it a night.
The Sutra LTD has a generous main triangle with ample room for a large half-frame bag and two water bottles or a huge full-frame bag. I was using a Revelate Tangle Bag and it seemed to hold as much as the full-size frame bag on my Karate Monkey, but with room for two water bottles. Space is certainly not an issue. It would have been nice to see triple boss mounts on the fork to accommodate additional storage options, but I generally pack fairly light so it wasn’t an issue for me. Additionally, there are front and rear rack mounts if you choose to go that route, allowing ample room for all your hauling needs.
The bike did lose some of its playful characteristics once loaded down with gear. On a couple rougher trails, I definitely noticed it feeling more like a touring bike and less like the trail ninja I enjoyed on unladen rides. This didn’t come as much of a shock, however. A true mountain bike doesn’t seem to lose as much of it’s nimbleness when loaded down. Even so, when I pointed the bike down some rough singletrack, it did just fine. The wide tires helped to keep the bike on the right line and the hydraulic brakes certainly helped slow me down when needed. All in all, the Sutra LTD is an unquestionably fun and capable bike.
Frame and Geometry
So, what makes the Kona Sutra LTD’s frame geometry tick? The short answer is versatility and simplicity. The LTD maintains its 71° head tube angle, 50mm fork offset, and 72mm bottom bracket throughout the run of sizes. The first two numbers give it a solid, neutral feel that makes it suitable for gravel, road, trails, and two-track. The bike’s long reach and short stem also contribute to its mountain bike feel, which I really like. The 72mm dropped bottom bracket is plenty deep, but not as deep as a classic touring bike, which allows a range of wheel/tire combos, such as skinnier 700C tires or bigger 2.25” 29er rubber. And throwing on a pair of 27.5 x 2.4” WTB Riddlers could make for a very interesting rig.
As stated by a friend of mine, the Sutra LTD seems to strike a good balance by providing tire clearance while still maintaining a classic look. Its slightly sloping top tube and longish head tube raise the handlebars to seat level without requiring an inordinate amount of spacers and/or a crazily angled stem.
Comparing the Sutra LTD with the Salsa Cutthroat, both share a few similar measurements. The two have 445mm chainstays, which is longish, but not too long. When fitted with 2.25” tires, it maxes them out well. They also have a similar wheelbase and the same headtube angle. The Sutra LTD’s sizing is a bit odd, however. I am 6’0” (1.83m) and typically ride a large mountain bike or a 58cm road/gravel bike. I fit on a 56” Sutra LTD, and their line stops at a 58cm, which is the equivalent of an XL, I suppose. With a longer reach and a slightly slacker seat tube angle than the Cutthroat (72.5° vs 73°), the Sutra feels bigger and longer. Personally, I am quite fond of the long reach and short stem on the Kona.
2018 Kona Sutra LTD Build Kit
The $2,099 2018 Kona Sutra LTD comes with an excellent build kit, filling in the value gap for an otherwise $550 steel frame. First off, it’s specced with my preferred drop-bar drivetrain, a wide-range 1×11 SRAM Rival, as well as Rival hydraulic disc brakes. Similar to the Force hydros mentioned in the Cutthroat review, they perform well and seem fairly reliable. In addition, the Sutra LTD gets WTB i23 tubeless-ready rims and 50mm Clement X’plor tires. While this is a durable platform, I’d honestly prefer the i29 rim, which would be a slightly better fit for 2.25” tires. The full-pinned XG-1150 11-42 cassette and Race Face Aeffect crank also add to the build. Here’s the full kit:
- FRAME MATERIAL Kona Cromoly Butted
- SIZES 46, 48.5, 52, 54, 56, 58
- FORK Kona Project Two Cromoly Disc Touring fork
- CRANKARMS RaceFace Aeffect
- CHAINRINGS 36t Narrow/Wide
- B/B RaceFace 73mm
- PEDALS n/a
- CHAIN SRAM PC1110
- FREEWHEEL SRAM XG1150 10-42t 11spd
- R/D SRAM Rival 1
- SHIFTERS SRAM Rival 1
- BRAKE CALIPERS SRAM Rival 1 Flat mount
- FRONT BRAKE ROTOR SRAM Centerline 160mm
- REAR BRAKE ROTOR SRAM Centerline 160mm
- BRAKE LEVERS SRAM Rival 1 HRD
- HEADSET FSA TH848
- HANDLEBAR Kona Road
- STEM Kona Road Deluxe
- SEATPOST Kona Deluxe Thumb w/Offset 27.2mm
- SEAT CLAMP Kona Clamp
- GRIPS Kona Cork Tape
- SADDLE WTB SL8 Pro
- FRONT HUB Formula 100x12mm
- REAR HUB Formula 142x12mm
- SPOKES Stainless Black 14g
- RIMS WTB Asym i23 TCS
- FRONT TIRE Clement MSO 50 TCS 700x50c
- REAR TIRE Clement MSO 50 TCS 700x50c
- PAINT COLOR Matt Metallic Olive w/ Charcoal & Khaki Decals
- Excellent geometry for a dirt touring bike that strikes a good balance for lots of types of riding.
- Massive tire clearance and versatility.
- 73mm BB shell.
- Solid build kit featuring a good drivetrain, brakes, crankset, and wheels/tires.
- Plenty of mounts for water bottles and racks.
- Fragile derailleur hanger; I’d like to see Kona make this in steel or Ti. We broke/bent two of them.
- It needs a third bottle mount on each fork leg and on the downtube.
- Wish there was a replacement carbon fork.
- It can feel a tad sluggish and stiff unloaded, more so on the road, but comes to life when loaded.
- Geared a little high for loaded riding; a 32 or 34T ring up front and a 10-46 cassette would be ideal.
- Size Tested 56cm
- Rider height 5’10” (1.78) and 6’0″ (1.83)
- Weight (as tested) 25.63 lbs (11.62 kg)
- Place of Manufacture Taiwan
- Price (MSRP) $2,099
- Manufacturer’s Details Link
I often joke about the most recurrent comment we get throughout our bikepacking route guides, “Is this doable with a cross bike?” The answer is usually, “Yes, but it’s not going to be fun.” The problem with that statement is, like the aforementioned term that we’ve now sworn off using, “cross bike” is pretty vague, at least as it’s been repurposed. Typically, a true cyclocross bike’s tires max out at 38mm. In our opinion, this is way too skinny for most dirt exploits, unless you are really into underbiking. The Sutra LTD is for the people who ask the above question, and other folks who are drawn to curly handlebars, but want a bike that’s better suited to tackling rougher terrain than your typical gravel bike. Lately, I’ve found myself recommending two bikes in the drop-bar spectrum: the Salsa Cutthroat, or if that’s out of your budget or you simply don’t like carbon, the Sutra LTD. In the end, both of these bikes are drop-bar dirt touring bikes that perform well off road and are pretty good on pavement, depending on what set of tires you are running.
As mentioned, the Kona Sutra LTD is packed with versatile features. This frame can take on a multitude of of forms. It’s equally at home as a classic tourer as it is a bikepacking rig, and it doesn’t look out of place as either. Fill the generous clearance with 29er tires, pop on some voluminous touring tires and fenders, or slap on some 27.5 x 2.6” rubber to create a crazy monster-cross machine. Typically, a bike this versatile would worry me—no bike can do it all. But unlike a lot of bikes that come in different models with different wheel sizes, the Sutra LTD isn’t really pitched as a jack-of-all-trades, it just works out that way. And, admittedly, I haven’t tried it in all its possible forms. But the bones are certainly there. I’ve tried it as a gravel bike, bikepacking rig, two-track explorer, and smooth singletrack slayer. And it does all of those things really well. It probably isn’t going to be the best choice for racing, but that’s not what it’s for, and it would certainly be just about perfect for a non-competitive run on the Tour Divide. Since it is made up of a stiffer tubing and designed to carry a load, it’s a pretty solid bike. Is it too stiff, or too heavy, you might ask? That depends on what, where, and how you ride it. It’s not exceedingly heavy, and with the 50mm X’plor tires mounted, set up tubeless, and running low air pressure, it doesn’t beat you up on long rides, but it’s definitely more solid feeling than other, more spritely gravel bikes. And it unquestionably feels at its best when loaded.
The Sutra LTD is not without flaws, of course. We broke two of its seemingly fragile derailleur hangers, and Kona missed the boat by not spacing the lower fork mount to serve as a triple bottle boss. Otherwise, they should just add another boss above that pair. But, it’s a very impressive bike, and one of the top two I’d recommend to folks looking for a versatile drop-bar bike. I bought one. What more can I say?