Kona weren't sure which bike to send us for this test; the King or the burlier 5in travel 'Back Country' Dawg Primo. While our huckers might have been disappointed our speed fiends couldn't have been happier with the race bred trail terrier, aka the King.
For a start the words Scandium on the frame sticker mean we're talking a seriously light tubeset here. Even if Kona always err slightly on the strong side of caution compared to some hyperlight bikes it's still enough to put the King a full 2lb lighter than anything else on test. The squareheaded main tubes, forged/machined lower keystone section and gussets at head tube and seat tube mean this is no skippy, shrinking violet either. Simple asymmetric chain stays take power straight to the rear wheel without interrupting the chainline with equally simple but sturdy dropouts at the tail end. Seat stay mounted rear pivots give a simple curved 'low swingarm' axle path, but short braced rocker linkage is matched with a generously long Fox RP23 shock.
While it comes with 2.1in tyres there's mud room for much bigger rubber and it gets bottle cages over and under the down tube - ideal for one bottle plus one light battery for 24hr racing.
After riding the similarly short travel Giant Trance we were a bit worried the 4in King would feel out of its depth. Our suspicious minds needn't have fretted, though, because 100mm feels just right on this bike. It still comes up short in terms of rock rollover and outright impact capability, and the swingarm axle path is prone to catching on square edged obstacles. But - and it's a big but - the King wants to be ridden like a 4in race bike; skipped, floated and finessed round the trail rather than slamming through stuff like a bigger bike. It's light enough for easy lift off, with that 2lb weight advantage giving an extra couple of inches under your wheels when you've no option but to hop it and hope. The long shock also gives it more mid-stroke absorption and control than most 4in bikes. Slack frame angles mean leaning back and letting the front end float, keeping you on track and in control pretty well on fast and loose sections, and it's only in slower and steeper sections where more weight is on the fork that the difference in travel is obvious.
Lightweight and an impressively stiff chassis meant it got us to places noticeably quicker than the other bikes. We don't just mean turning 30 min sections into 28 min ones either: corners and technical sections seemed to appear much faster, with the King charging from one to the next with an enthusiasm and natural speed you just can't help but get caught up in. Occasionally we flicked the shock into Pro Pedal mode to stop pedal related bob on smooth climbs or road sections, but generally we just left the shock fully open and flowing as soon as we hit the trails.
We'd fit a shorter 100/90mm stem to really inject some speed into the Kona's relatively relaxed, confident trail poise, but we know increased bar movement and a light, easy-to-lift front end won't suit everyone.
While they've always had a big presence in the UK, Kona are a relatively small company who have to work hard to compete on price. There are no obvious shortcuts in the King's spec list though - especially considering the frame at the centre of it. Fox F100 forks are a great tough racer/speed fork, with impressive control for their short stroke and lockout for sprints and smooth climbs. Hayes Nine brakes aren't as heavy as they look and they certainly stop dependably even if fine feel isn't a strong point.
The RaceFace Evolve chainset spoons on speed with a stiff underfoot feel, while full XT gearing gives legendary long lived and reliable shifts. Again the new 'dual direction' Rapidfire action was a big hit with testers used to either Shimano or SRAM mech setups. Maxxis Ignitor tyres appear here in a skinnier 2.1in version, but still grip in a wide range of conditions and roll okay in between. The FSA wheels are seriously flexy when you're trying to pick your way through roots and rocks and they're not particularly light either so we'd definitely be tempted to upgrade at some point to either lose weight or capitalise on the comparatively stiff frame and fork.
While the RaceFace cockpit and seat post are good secure kit, we'd also be very tempted to swap the stem too as we'd said. It's not a short bike, and the long stem meant the front end felt very remote, and we lost it regularly on slippery or sandy sections until we pushed the WTB seat forward. Then again the long nose does keep the front wheel down well, making it the most impressive technical climber here.
The most expensive, lightest and shortest in travel, with race written all over it. It's far more than just a race bike though, and while it's certainly on the whippet side of hound dog, its taut frame, confident handling character and surprisingly smooth suspension action make it a faithful and very fast trailmate.