Kona Sutra ULTD Review: Sibling Rivalry

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The Kona Sutra ULTD “UnLimTeD” is a bike that aims to blur boundaries and tackle any terrain. After six months riding singletrack, bikepacking, and gravelling the ULTD all around the southern Appalachians, Logan picks this beast apart and compares it to its older sibling, the venerable Sutra LTD. Find the full, long-term review here…

I know, I know. This one’s been a long time coming. But let’s just say I’ve learned to expect near perfection from Kona when it comes to adventure-themed steel bikes. So, I wanted to take my time and get to know this bike intimately before publishing a review. For the sake of transparency, I consider myself to be somewhat of a Sutra LTD zealot. Not only do I own one, I often recommend it to others, and genuinely think it should have some sort of honorary membership in the Dirt Bicycle Hall of Fame, if there was such a thing. Despite the fact that I find almost nothing wrong with the venerable LTD, I was pretty excited to hear that Kona introduced an even rowdier Sutra model to the lineup. And what’s not to love about the idea of a more capable and dirt-worthy version of an already rad bike? I spent the last several months riding the Sutra ULTD to find out if it lives up to its namesake.

Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Highlights (Size 56cm)
  • Angles: 69.5° Headtube, 73° Seattube
  • Reach/Stack: 400/627mm
  • Bottom Bracket: 73mm Threaded
  • Hub specs: 142×12 (rear); 100×12 (front)
  • Seatpost Diameter: 31.6mm
  • Max Tire Size: 27.5 x 2.8” / 29 x 2.4″
  • Price: $2,599 (complete)

First Ride (Making a Splash)

Let’s dive right in, shall we? After all, I literally did just that on the Sutra ULTD’s maiden voyage. Let me explain. After unboxing this thing and drooling over its bewitching Gloss Prism Rust-Purple paint job the night prior, I was itching to get it out on the trail the next day. There were several trails and roads in our local forest that were closed under a Covid mandate at the time, so we were getting creative with “off-map” trails and other such interesting loops. That day, I pedaled up a long forest doubletrack climb and was dragging a little on the latter half. The bike felt heavy and kind of slow, but I didn’t think much of it and kept spinning toward a trail that we’ll just call downhill-bike-worthy singletrack. I’d ridden it a few times prior, on both rigid and suspension bikes, so I knew most of the trail. Still, I opted to go for lines that I normally wouldn’t on a drop-bar bike, which got me into some trouble. Zipping down the trail in the drops, I cleared a couple of the steep root moves, then reached a creek crossing where you can either take the normal way and churn through the water over babyhead-sized rocks on the streambed or go in and out of the water via a little rock dance on a more creative line. I took that one, misjudged something, went over the handlebars, and landed shoulder first in the freezing cold water. Good times.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

That certainly wasn’t the bike’s fault, but it kind of set the stage for what this bike is all about. It begs to be pushed, carved, and played with, and inspires confidence out of the gate. On that first ride, I had mixed impressions, as I did for a few rides after that. But once I understood this bike and my legs melded with its geometry, all that went away. I’ll get back to that, but before I get too far into my evolving ride impressions, it’s nearly impossible to dig too far into a review of the new Kona Sutra ULTD “UnLimTeD” without first comparing it to its predecessor, the “LimiTeD” model.

Kona Sutra ULTD vs. LTD

To start, let me quickly summarize the Sutra range’s history—which I covered in more depth in the 2018 LTD review. The original Sutra (2005) was (and still is) a road touring bike with fenders, racks, and all the traditional touring provisions. Its initial spinoff, the LTD, was one of the first mainstream drop-bar 29ers out there, featuring a classic mountain bike geometry and clearance for relatively beefy tires. It remained one of the few production dirt-drop bikes with clearance for true 29er MTB tires for several years after its 2015 launch. It’s evolved in baby steps over the years, keeping a good thing great, and tacking on various upgrades like thru axles and more mounts. It’s become fairly legendary in bikepacking circles and is still the highlight of the Sutra lineup.

Despite its name, as a drop-bar rig I never really thought that the Sutra LTD was limited, necessarily. Comparing it to a lot of other bikes in its class, it can hold its own on squirrelly singletrack that you wouldn’t necessarily think (or want) to point a drop-bar bike down. However, Kona clearly thought there was a line to be crossed and a boundary to be blurred when they conceived the ULTD, a “continuation of a dream to make a drop bar bike as badass as possible.” And as underscored by its geometry, they aimed to substantially step up the Sutra range’s dirt game.

You’ll see in the comparison charts below (the Kona Sutra ULTD is on the left, and the 2021 Kona Sutra LTD is on the right) that the Kona Sutra ULTD is significantly different from its predecessor.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Geometry
  • 2021 Kona Sutra LTD Geometry

One noticeable observation is that Kona lowered the standover height on the ULTD to make room for a longer dropper seatpost. The 56cm model that I tested came with a 125mm dropper post, and I could have easily fit a 150. They also increased the seat tube size to 31.6mm and added internal dropper routing. Yes! Of course, the downside to this is that the ULTD has a significantly smaller frame triangle for storage space. Another visible upgrade is the use of a tapered head tube on the ULTD, which is home to an all-new 430mm fork (the Sutra LTD is based around a 415mm fork length). That means the Sutra ULTD has been optimized for a 40mm suspension fork, should you be interested. It also means you could add a carbon fork if you wanted to lighten it up a little bit. Unfortunately, there aren’t many carbon forks available in that length, at least for now. A couple of options are ENVE’s new Adventure fork or the Whiskey MCX. Either would need to be paired with an external cup (~12mm) lower headset, making them about 418 and 427mm, respectively.

The ULTD not only gets a longer fork and more standover, but it also has a 1.5° slacker headtube, a steeper seat tube, and 5mm of additional fork offset. With an additional 10mm more reach (for the 56cm model) and 36 more millimeters of wheelbase, it’s a significantly longer bike, overall. The longer reach and top tube allows it to use a shorter, 50mm stem, a mountain bike trend that many progressive drop bar bikes are following. The bottom bracket drop and chainstay length are the only two numbers that remained relatively unchanged, although it appears Kona made some size-specific alterations to the BB Drop this go around.

The new ULTD also got a lot more mounts. They added a pair on top of the top tube for a bolt-on top tube bag, and two new pairs under the top tube. The pair toward the rear could be used for a third bottle cage or another such accessory, or you can use all of them for a custom bolt-on frame bag, as I did—this is a Rockgeist custom Wedge in “Red Rocks” X10 Cotton Duck.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

There are a few similarities between the LTD and the ULTD. Like the Sutra LTD, the ULTD also has three-pack bosses on each fork leg and mounts for racks and fenders. Kona also carried over the 73mm bottom bracket size and hub spacing of 142 x 12mm in the rear and 100 x 12mm in the front. This eclectic mix of mountain bike and road standards was one of the things that made the Sutra LTD special and allowed for larger tires on a drop-bar bike. Kona also used the same cast rear dropout that’s on the Sutra LTD. Unfortunately, as I’ve already found out, this means they use the same soft aluminum derailleur hanger that’s specced on the LTD. A friend of mine jokes that Sutra hangers bend if you look at them wrong. That’s not too far off the mark; I’ve gone through quite a few of them on my LTD and I’ve already bent the one that came on the ULTD. I was able to straighten it out using a derailleur hanger tool (Park Tool DAG-2.2), which I’ve become pretty proficient with now. Problem Solvers makes a version of this hanger, which I haven’t tried yet but I hope is a little more durable.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

Tire Clearance

Despite using the same hub and BB spacing, the Sutra ULTD was built around a forged steel plate half-yoke on the driveside that gives it a lot more of tire clearance than the LTD. Kona never made an official statement on the max tire size of the Sutra ULTD, but after using calipers and comparing a few tire sizes, I’m pretty confident it could clear 29 x 2.6” rubber, although the space between the tread and the seat stay might be a little too close for comfort. I think 29 x 2.4” tires are probably a safer bet. I also think it could be fine with 27.5 x 2.8” tires if an ultra-rowdy drop-bar rig floats your boat.

On the Trail: This Ain’t No Gravel Bike

As you might expect based on my first ride report—as well as the fact that the ULTD comes equipped with a bashguard and a 50mm stem—this thing is way more a mountain bike than it is a road bike. Yeah, I pedaled it along a fair share of gravel, forest roads, and hardtop during my time with it, but the ULTD is not to be slotted into the gravel bike category. Sure, it’s got drop bars, but that’s really the only similarity. It certainly fits in the drop-bar 29er mountain bike category (where you can find it in our Gear Index list). But I’d also say it’s a modernized version of the LTD. The longer reach and wheelbase, and short stem push it in that direction, but not too much. While I haven’t ridden the wild Evil Chamois Hagar, I’m guessing the ULTD fits somewhere between the MOOTS Baxter and the Hagar. It’s super capable, very playful, and is still pretty comfortable for just pedaling on gravel roads. The best anecdote I can provide is that everytime I pedaled out on it, I almost instinctively started carving, pumping, and bunny hopping things. Conversely, when I ride my LTD, I just happily pedal down the road. That kind of sums up the differences between the two.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

On the first few rides with the Sutra ULTD, I found my legs struggling on gravel and paved climbs. There was something that felt sluggish about it. I don’t think it’s a slow frame, necessarily, but the substantial weight of this build and the flat-profiled Rekon Race tires felt a little draggy. I pinged Neil Beltchenko and asked about his experience with the Rekon Race. He confirmed. They’re not the fastest on pavement or gravel, but they’re great on singletrack. All that said, the more I rode this bike and my muscles got used to it, the more that feeling went away.

The ULTD’s front-end also felt a little wobbly on super steep climbs at first. Not average pitches, but the more granny-gear-taxing steeps. However, Kona did an excellent job balancing the 1.5° slacker headtube angle on this bike by bumping up the fork offset to 55mm (the LTD has a 51mm offset). When pointed downhill, its longer wheelbase and slacker front end makes it significantly more stable and capable than the LTD. And the additional offset kept the handling fairly consistent. My verdict is that while it’s not quite as good of a climber or a long-day pedaler as the LTD, the ULTD isn’t too aggressive for big rando rides or multi-day bikepacking, either. After putting in thousands of miles on the LTD, I think it was just a matter of becoming accustomed to this slightly different animal.

Kona Sutra ULTD Review
Riding shots by Virginia Krabill

As those of you who’ve ridden various steel bikes know, while there are often some similarities, the ride quality of chromoly framesets can vary tremendously—from soft and noodley to overly heavy and rigid. Given that the Sutra ULTD has a solid steel half-yoke, a tapered headtube, and a thicker seat tube, I expected it to be significantly stiffer than the LTD, which wouldn’t be ideal, as the Sutra LTD already has a fairly beefy touring tubeset. However, I was surprised to discover that the ULTD actually feels noticeably plusher than its less aggressive sibling.

I confirmed with Kona that the “butted Cromoly” tubing they used is relatively similar, with a few modifications: the seat tube has slightly thicker walls to accommodate dropper posts and the chainstays have slightly larger dimensions to compensate for the larger tires and add lateral stiffness. This leads me to believe that its nice, compliant ride feel is based purely on the physics of it being a longer and more splayed out frame. Of course, its slightly larger tires and 1.5° slacker headtube might also add to it. Either way, I found the Sutra ULTD to be perfect in that regard. The frame seemed to soak up bumps quite well, while still feeling fairly responsive and not too soft or flexy. Not much changed when loaded up with gear, either. The slight swerving on super steep climbs I mentioned earlier was still present, but not bad.

Kona Sutra ULTD Review

Kona Sutra ULTD Build Kit

Similar to the LTD, the complete Kona Sutra ULTD gets Rival 1 shifters and derailleur, but with a dropper seatpost remote in the left lever. That’s a nice addition that I’ve really enjoyed. Unfortunately, Kona specced the 94 BCD SRAM NX crankset on the ULTD instead of the Race Face Aeffect that’s on the LTD model. That means it’s not a direct mount chainring, which is slightly limiting—pun intended. On the bright side, the SRAM NX allows smaller 28T, 30T, and 32T chainrings via its X-Sync interface, so it would be fairly easy to change the gearing.

Also disappointing was Kona’s decision to ditch the XD hub driver in favor of a standard HG driver. Doing so means it loses its ability to run the wide-range 10-42T cassette. The 11-42T cassette effectively shaves 10% off the total gear range, from 420% to 382%. Not ideal. An easy upgrade would be to switch to the MicroShift CS-H113 11-46T cassette (I’ve found that Rival derailleurs work fine with a 46T cassette cog). This would increase the range to 418% and reduce the granny gear to a slightly more bikepacking-friendly 22.7 gear inches (24.9 gear inches with the 42T cassette cog). You could also go for the Ratio upgrade and an Eagle GX/NX derailleur/cassette if your heart so desired.

  • FRAME MATERIAL Kona Cromoly Butted
  • SIZES 48, 50, 52, 54, 56, 58
  • FORK Kona Project Two Cromoly Disc Touring fork
  • CRANKARMS SRAM NX
  • CHAINRINGS 36t X-Sync
  • B/B SRAM 73mm
  • CHAIN SRAM PC1110
  • FREEWHEEL SRAM PG1130 11-42t 11spd
  • R/D SRAM Rival 1
  • SHIFTERS SRAM Rival 1 w/ Integrated Dropper Lever
  • 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 No.1/No.10
  • HANDLEBAR Kona Road
  • STEM 50mm Kona Road Deluxe
  • SEATPOST Trans-X Dropper +RAD Internal 31.6mm
  • SEAT CLAMP Kona Clamp
  • GRIPS Kona Cork Tape
  • SADDLE WTB Volt
  • FRONT HUB Formula 100x12mm
  • REAR HUB Formula 142x12mm
  • SPOKES Stainless Black 14g
  • RIMS WTB KOM Light Team i27 TCS 2.0
  • FRONTIRE Maxxis Rekon Race EXO TR 29×2.25″
  • REAR TIRE Maxxis Rekon Race EXO TR 29×2.25″
  • PAINT COLOR Gloss Prism Rust-Purple w/ Metallic Dark Silver & Charcoal Decals
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

I’m slightly torn on the Maxxis Rekon Race 29 x 2.25″ tires. I’ve been using these tires for a while and love their blend of smooth center tread and corner-gripping side lugs. They’re great on singletrack. However, their flat profile seems a little sluggish on gravel and tarmac.

There are few things that I really like in the build kit. As mentioned, the Rival 1 components are excellent, particularly with the integrated dropper actuation. And Kona nailed it with their choice of rims; the WTB KOM Light Team i27s pair perfectly with 2.25” tires and are also plenty suitable for 2.4s, should you wish to size up. In addition, the handlebars are excellent. They’re 460mm wide at the drops (on size 56) and have a nice 20° sweep, 105mm drop, and 65mm reach. Plus, they come wrapped in a sweet grippy and velvety black pleather.

  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review

Value

So, how does all this stack up against the ULTD’s $2,600 price tag? It’s more expensive than a few other bikes in its class, such as the $1,500 Breezer Radar X. And it’s on par with others, like the $2,600 Salsa Fargo. Considering that the Fargo has a carbon fork and the ULTD is built around a full steel frameset, that price might seem a little high to some. And, at 28.3 pounds (12.84kg), the ULTD is a bit on the heavy side for a “gravel bike.” As mentioned, it felt sluggish as a result. To rectify this, it would require a significant outlay—e.g. a lighter wheelset, and perhaps faster tires if you’re looking to ride more gravel than singletrack.

All that said, I think the ULTD’s MSRP is almost on the money. The component list is pretty good overall, and the only things I’d really tweak out of the box are the skinny WTB saddle and the gearing (adding a MicroShift 11-46T cassette). But it’s a beautiful, unique, and fantastic frame with a solid and dependable build kit that requires only minimal upgrades to tackle almost anything. It’s not a budget bike, and the ride quality and balanced geometry back that up.

Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Kona Sutra ULTD Review
  • Size tested: 56cm*
  • Actual Weight: 28.3 pounds (12.84kg)
  • Place of Manufacture: Taiwan
  • Price: $2,599 complete ($599 frameset)
  • Manufacturer’s Details KonaBikes.com

*I’m about 6′ tall (1.83 m) with a long 34″ inseam. Similar to the LTD, the ULTD runs large (I typically ride 58-59cm drop-bar bikes). The 56 fit me perfectly…

Pros

  • Good tire clearance and all the mounts and specs you could hope for make it a drop-bar bikepacking rig that ticks a lot of boxes
  • Well balanced, super stable, and confident while descending
  • Versatile bike that begs to be pushed and played with
  • Fantastical iridescent paint job
  • Internal routing and room for a decent size dropper

Cons

  • Not as long-day friendly as the LTD
  • Same terribly soft derailleur hanger as its older sibling
  • Heavy build kit
  • Kona ditched the XD driver, which is bad for the overall gear range

Wrap Up

Admittedly, the more I rode the Kona Sutra ULTD, the more my feelings shifted about it. At first, I thought there’s no way it could replace my LTD. However, now that it’s boxed up and ready to send back, I secretly want to swap the two. I really enjoy riding this bike. To me, the addition of the internal dropper routing and slight geometry modifications make it a significantly different bike that lives up to Kona’s goals and has that perfectly balanced feel Kona’s steel bike lineup is known for.

Anyone weighing their options between the LTD and ULTD may find that it’s a tough decision. I think you have to ask yourself, “Would this bike be my only gravel bike or a mountain bike?” Those looking for a gravel bike will likely find the LTD more fitting at that end of the spectrum, despite having mountain bike-esque geometry.

So, who is the Kona Sutra ULTD for? For anyone unfamiliar with the rather snarky and privileged “n+1” theorem, it was invented to calculate how many bikes you need. Variable n is the number of bikes you currently own. The Sutra ULTD can certainly fit into the equation here. If you’re a stickler for having performance-optimized bikes for different disciplines, it’s not going to replace your gravel bike and your hardtail. In that instance, it’s a worthy quiver addition for those looking for something a little different. A bike that can carve up your local singletrack and is perfectly equipped for multi-day, mixed-terrain bikepacking—very similar to the Sutra LTD, but leaning more toward mountain bikers. On the flip side, if you’re a drop-bar aficionado, this very well could be a bike that replaces those two and becomes your gravel bike, rigid mountain bike, and bikepacking rig, all rolled into one.

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