Although purists may scoff, Halfords’ in-house Carrera brand has long been a byword for quietly competent, competitively specced bikes that just get on with the job. The Kraken sits roughly in the middle of the range, offering a build and design that puts it head to head with entry-level off-roaders from the big-name specialist brands. Can a car accessory retailer’s in-house offering really be that good?
Frame and equipment: a workmanlike build
There are plenty of hints that the Kraken is aimed at riders who might want to push themselves fairly hard. For starters, there’s the 120mm (4.7in) travel fork. The Suntour XCR is a significant step up from the XCM, with 32mm stanchions (versus 30mm on the XCM) and better damped internals. Bigger stanchions add stiffness, and in the XCR’s case it’s a difference you can really feel.
Then there’s the chunky frame construction, which suggests the Kraken is designed to take a few knocks in its stride. From the strengthening gusset at the junction between the head and down tubes – which protects this vulnerable area from damage if you suddenly become closely acquainted with, say, a tree – to the square-section chainstays and extra seat tube brace, the detail is all aimed at making the Kraken both stiff and strong. Mud clearance is good even with meaty tyres fitted, thanks to some nifty cut-and-weld curved plates embedded in the slab-sided chainstays. We’d gladly swap the fork’s lockout lever for adjustable rebound damping though.
The plush, accurate Suntour fork makes speed a must – stanchions that are 2mm bigger in diameter make more difference than you might think
Commuters haven’t been forgotten, with a neat set of rack eyelets at the rear providing an easy route to transforming the Kraken into an urban workhorse. It’s also potentially a good bet for tall riders, with a range of sizes up to a whopping 22in frame. Shorter riders might struggle though – 16in is the smallest option available.
Carrera’s reputation for value is mostly upheld with the Kraken’s kitlist, though it’s surprising just how many components are unbranded. Kudos to Halfords’ designers for upgrading the front brake rotor to 180mm, which should mean less brake fade on long descents. The Clarks brakes themselves have an unusual lever shape that works best with one-finger braking, but don’t have the power to make the single-digit option work in practice. On the gear front, Shimano’s ever-reliable Altus derailleurs and shifters shunt the chain smoothly between the nine sprockets at the rear, and across a Suntour crankset’s three chainrings up front.
Ride and handling: quietly impressive – until you need to stop
Combine a long top tube with a short stem and a fork built for playing, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a fun trail bike. We reckon Carrera could’ve improved things even further by lopping another degree or so off the 68.5-degree head angle, which would tame any (slight) remaining fidgeting at low speed while improving high-speed stability. But really, we’re splitting hairs. The Kraken handles well and goes where you point it without fuss.
It’s impossible to overstate just how big a role the fork plays in elevating the Carrera above the ordinary. We’re used to budget forks being a brake on outright performance, and the Kraken’s XCR is the exception that proves the rule. Accurate, surprisingly plush and completely predictable, it holds a line through high-speed rock gardens in a way we wouldn’t expect of a cheap fork. We found ourselves riding aggressively, weight forward to let the fork do the work, and pushing both ourselves and the Carrera hard on fast, rocky trails. It didn’t flinch – and neither did we. That’s not something we’d expected to be able to say about a £500 hardtail with a 120mm fork.
The lever shape is acquired taste, but the Clarks brakes’ biggest problem is they don’t work too well
There is, unfortunately, a fairly large fly in the ointment. The Clarks brakes – despite the 180mm rotor up front –are simply no match for Shimano’s budget stoppers. While there’s enough power there – just – after a bedding-in period, the levers feel hard and unprogressive. Which is a shame, because the Kraken’s fork and geometry encourage the kind of shenanigans that call for good brakes.
This leaves us in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand the good spec, solid handling and exceptional – for the money – fork add up to a great deal. On the other, sub-par brakes are no fun. Overall though, we think the Kraken is worth a punt. With better brakes – perhaps a long-term upgrade? – it would be exceptional.