The Caldera’s legendary Kona geometry delivers equally legendary Kona handling, topped off with a reasonable spec. However, that spec and the package’s performance can’t live up to the ‘back country’ and ‘all-mountain’ tags.
The extent to which mountain biking has been shaped and driven by a few trails on the mountains running down to Vancouver’s North Shore is astonishing. But that’s what’s happened and Kona were there at the beginning.
The Caldera heads up the Canadian company’s ‘back country’ hardtail range, combining a decent-looking spec with a head-turning price tag.
Ride & handling: stable & nimble-footed
Kona mastered the black art of balancing stability and nimble-footedness years ago, so it’s no surprise to find the Caldera sporting these characteristics.
Sling a leg over it and it becomes one of those bikes you almost forget is there. Weight distribution between the front and rear wheels is spot-on, there’s enough room to stretch out over the top tube without feeling the bars are too far away and the steering has that ride-by-wire feel that defines some of the best-handling bikes.
As the trail gets rougher, things get simultaneously better and worse. Better because those slender tube profiles begin to make sense, delivering a taut suppleness that belies the rubber separating the rims from the ground. Worse because the fork quickly begins to demonstrate its limitations, remaining constipated on the small stuff and becoming noticeably less supple on the big hits.
It’s enough to make us start questioning Kona’s ‘back country’ tag. After all, a slightly reluctant 100mm fork and 2.1in tyres aren’t exactly what all-mountain dreams are made of.
But even if it falls short of ‘back country’ claims, the Caldera is still an accomplished and good value trail bike.
Chassis: classic sloping design, fork is a let-down
You can argue about who first pioneered the sloping top tube/ compact rear triangle frame design, but it was undoubtedly Kona who brought it to the masses in the late 80s.
Nearly 20 years later the Caldera’s silhouette bears an uncanny resemblance to those early Konas, despite the fact that the whole world and its dog have since jumped on the bandwagon. But why change something if it works?
Lower weight, a stiffer and stronger rear end and better standover clearance – all the original reasons for the design still stand, even after two decades of innovation.
Despite its ‘back country’ billing and the ‘all-mountain’ label on its seat tube, the Caldera isn’t overtly burly. Top and down tubes shape-shift from squareish up front to roundish at the rear, but look almost anorexic next to some of the competition.
Only the extra welded strengthening gusset at the head tube joint hints at precautionary over-building.
It’s similar at the back, with curly and notably slender round-section stays plugging into plain-looking dropouts.
There’s a full set of rack mounts and, despite compact dimensions, two bottle mounts.
There’s another surprise holding up the front – a coil-sprung RockShox Tora fork.
Spec-wise it’s about what we’d expect for the price, but 100mm (3.9in) barely qualifies as an all-mountain fork these days.
The stock spring is likely to be on the stiff side for lighter riders, so it might be worth asking your dealer to swap it if you want to enjoy full travel.
The Caldera’s fork struggles to smooth out smaller hits and ramps up faster than air sprung units on bigger obstacles.
It seems almost churlish to grumble considering the price, but there’s no getting away from the fact that air forks are more adjustable and work better.
Equipment: surprising value
With £100 separating the Kona from many similar bikes, we’d expect to see some evidence of cost-cutting, but it’s surprisingly hard to find.
The Shimano-based transmission, with its Shadow Deore XT rear mech, delivers crisp shifts on demand, while Hayes’s Stroker brakes have easy lever adjustment and plenty of power on tap after a short bedding-in period.
Even the no-name front hub sports proper seals to keep detritus at bay. In fact our only significant grumble is the tyres, which are too narrow for this bike’s ‘back country’ tag.