Kona's latest incarnation of its Explosif bike comes ready-fitted with the trail rider's current must have accessory: slotted, adjustable bolton dropouts that make a singlespeed conversion a quick wheel-swap away. It's a nice touch that'll appeal to a significant minority of purists, even if the large hunks of aluminium and beefy bolts holding them in place don't sit terribly comfortably with the slender ferrous aesthetics of the rest of the frame.
The Italian tube manufacturer Dedacciai is probably better known in roadie circles, but the elegantly sculpted and paper-thin triple-butted tubes making up the Explosif's main triangle lend it that elusive blend of snappy acceleration and 'zing' that defines the best steel hardtails. With a compact ride position and that lively chassis combined with fast-rolling, big volume tyres, the Explosif's ride character mostly lives up to its name.
Mostly? Well, a bike is more than the sum of its parts. In the Explosif's case, the weakest link is the fork, which simply doesn't perform to the standard we'd expect from a £1,000 hardtail. In contrast to the sublime on-trail manners of the Rock Lobster's Marzocchi, the Explosif's lower-cost, bump-eating stablemate feels constipated on the small stuff and harsh on bigger hits.
We improved things a little by reducing the air preload to practically nothing and backing off the compression and rebound adjusters all the way, but the rebound knob jammed permanently in the process. Worse still, after two wet rides, an ominous black streak of emulsified oil on the left-hand stanchion suggested that all was not well with the seals. It's possible that we had an early production sample with problems, but it's not that encouraging.
It's a great shame, because the light tubeset and typically taut Kona handling should be unbeatable.
The disappointment of the fork made us look more closely at the spec, and we began to spot a few more choices that are arguably rather stingy on a bike at this price: the Easton EA30 stem and bars, for example, and the durable-but-heavy entry-level Shimano disc hubs. In just about every area - fork, bars, stem and seat post, hubs, cranks - the Kona is outspecced and outclassed by the cheaper Rock Lobster. There's nothing wrong with any of the Explosif's kit in crude functional terms, but it does all undoubtedly contribute to its surprisingly weighty heft and, in the case of the fork in particular, to its less than stellar overall performance. It's not bad. It's just not great, and it really ought to be.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that Kona's speccing compromises - which, individually and on paper, don't seem terribly onerous - have combined to spoil the character and performance of a classic bike. If the problems we had with our fork turn out to be an isolated case, the Exposif would be a fair all-rounder - especially for singlespeed aficionados. But the Rock Lobster is still much better value.