Review: Kona Ute

Of all the bikes I’ve tested in my tenure at Dirt Rag and Bicycle Times, no bike has attracted as much attention as the Ute. Pedestrians may gawk and point, but everyone seems to relate to the Ute’s functionality as the bicycle version of a pickup truck.

Kona first introduced the Ute as a 2008 model with the intention of creating an affordable high-capacity commuter, large-volume city bike, or a highly capable runner of errands.

The Ute falls into the long-tail category of cargo bikes, arguably popularized by Xtracycle, which brought the idea of a long-tail cargo bike to the masses in 1998.

 

The Bike
The Ute’s 7005 series aluminum frame is available in two sizes, 18" (23.1" top tube length) and 20" (24.1" TT) to fit most within reasonable limits. Those shorter than about 5′ 4" may be out of luck, while those taller than, say, 6′ may require swapping cockpit components to ensure proper fit. Consult your local Kona dealer concerning your fit needs.

Parts spec on the Ute is all business and pretty impressive considering the $900 price tag, which remains unchanged in spite of some upgrades for 2010. One waterproof, oversized Kona vinyl pannier is included with the bike, and a second can be purchased for $100. Bite the bullet and buy a second bag straight away if you’re planning to purchase a Ute—you’ll definitely want it for the extra cargo capacity and for the ability to balance your load.

The mostly Shimano Deore drivetrain works well and doesn’t break the bank, while the Avid BB-5 disc brakes were a good choice for this bike—they’re affordable and offer adequate braking power when fully loaded. The Ute is set up stock with a 2×8 drivetrain, with 26- and 36-tooth chainings and a bash guard (to keep your pants out of the drivetrain) up front, teamed with an 8-speed cassette out back. This range of gearing proved adequate for nearly everything, but I did occasionally spin out the tallest gear on downhills. You can install a big ring should you want, as both shifter and derailleur are triple-ring compatible.

For the 2010 model year, the Ute has received a host of improvements, which addressed all of the issues I had with my 2009 test bike (pictured) in one fell swoop. The Ute now has a rear disc brake, a full-coverage rear fender, and the front fender stays will better clear the front disc brake. Frame color for the 2010 model is Metallic Dark Grey.

_In Use
The Ute’s riding position is decidedly relaxed and upright in stock trim thanks to the 45 degree rearward sweep of the handlebar, which works well for casual around-town errands, and is wide enough to provide the necessary leverage when carrying heavy loads. I swapped out the 90mm stock stem on my 20" tester for a 120mm to achieve a bit more aggressive position that worked better for me on longer rides and for powering up Pittsburgh’s hills with a full load.

Speaking of hauling stuff, Kona’s panniers are extremely convenient to install and remove from the bike. These bags hang from hooks on the Ute’s integrated cargo rack, while the bottom is fastened by hooked bungees via loops integrated into the frame. The bags sit well aft of the rider; I never had issue with my heels hitting the bags. With two Kona panniers I could easily haul four large grocery bags with room to spare. Anything larger can be lashed onto the Ute’s wooden deck. Loading is made easier thanks to the dual-leg kickstand. Just make sure you’re loading both sides equally or everything will tip over and smash your eggs—ask me how I know.

One hundred pounds is the maximum recommended load, but I’ve shuttled fully grown humans on back of the Ute that weighed nearly 50% more without complaint (from the bike, that is). When loaded to this extreme, the Ute does begin to flex a bit in protest—simply takes some adjustment on the part of the rider, as smooth handling minimizes the bike’s flexing. Not a huge deal.

The Ute’s ride reminds me of the way a school bus turns as the front end swings wide around the rear wheel. Due to the long wheelbase and 24.6" chainstays, cornering with the Ute requires less leaning and more steering than a traditional bike. At first everything feels out of the ordinary, but after some time to acclimate, your body adjusts and the Ute begins to feel natural.

The Ute certainly could be someone’s only bike, but it isn’t exactly sporting. This bike is all business in a relaxed "we’ll get there when we get there" sort of fashion.

Is it for you?
The answer to this question depends entirely on your use and needs. I see the Ute being best for folks looking for an affordable bike to pick up a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four, drop off packages at the Post Office, or generally carry anything that will fit inside the large Kona bags. If you’re looking to haul larger items such as lumber, surf boards, ladders, a second bicycle, etc., the Ute will require some DIY ingenuity to get the job done as you’ll have to engineer, construct and implement your own carrying device in order do so, which may be part of the appeal.

In the world of pickups, you have the big, heavy, large-cargo-hauling full-size trucks and the small, lighter, more efficient mid-sized trucks with less overall cargo capacity. Given that analogy, I think it’s best to look at the Ute as the mid-sized cargo bike in the line-up; it’s lighter and quicker than some of the other options out there, yet hauls much more than a traditional bike. Kona’s betting it’ll be the perfect middle ground for many folks looking for a balance of affordability, functionality, and cargo capacity.

I’m just left wishing I had had a Ute during my car-free days. Life would have been so much easier…

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