The Dawg has been the faithful trail hound of the Kona range for years, but this year’s version is a proper thoroughbred, even in its lowest-priced form.
Kona’s Dawg exhibits superb handling manners from a frame that’s lighter for 2008 and simple, smooth suspension with no lever flicking. The low cost component spec pushes the overall weight up a bit, though and a wider bar and lighter, leaner saddle would be nice.
Nevertheless, this is the most fun, most versatile bike of the around-#1500 crop that we have tested recently (see the ‘Related articles’ list , right, for the others).
Ride & handling: balanced and thrashable
There are few surprises in the overall layout of the Dawg frame, so it’s the cockpit that makes the biggest first impression. The bar is still narrow enough to force our little fingers to hang off the end most of the time, but the short stem is a great bit of speccing. By changing the whole cockpit leverage it gives a real vitality, lightness of touch and speed of steering that only the Giant Anthem can match.
The slack head angle and long top tube mean the short stem doesn’t cut into high speed/steep descent stability or breathing space on climbs, either. In other words, apart from perhaps the wider bar, the Dawg feels totally sorted for technical riding right from the off.
Kona offsets most of the easily charted wonders of linkages and altered wheel paths just by getting the shock tune right. Basically, Fox has added just enough low-speed compression damping to cut out any obvious squat or softness under power, so we never felt the need to use the Pro Pedal lockout lever except on long, smooth climbs. The long shock ensures a low leverage and smooth suppleness that offsets the tendency of the back wheel to ‘hook up’ over square edges.
You can still get the Dawg to pull its back wheel off the ground when sprinting out of corners, or smack hard off the face of bigger blocks while pedalling through rockeries, but that’s a good sign. Not so much about the suspension, but because the great thing about the Kona is that we wanted to absolutely thrash it as soon as we got on it.
Apart from setting the sag and checking the tyre pressure we didn’t do anything else to it. While the first hour or so of test rides is normally spent fiddling about with shock pressures or damper knob clicks until we find a sweet spot, with the Kona all we had to find was our favourite bit of secret singletrack. Because we didn’t need to flick the lockout lever on, we didn’t forget to flick it off for descents.
Add the generous top tube length and fast-rolling tyres, and the Dawg was scrabbling up banks far better than it should. Because it felt so well balanced and responsive, we didn’t need to back off when the rear wheel slid; we just shifted weight slightly so the front end joined in and then surfed the slide all the way out the other end.
In short, every ride we took the Dawg on, the fun factor squared up to cost benefits and kinematic theory and kicked them up the arse.
Frame: lighter tubes, business as usual suspension
While the Dawg’s overall layout and suspension haven’t altered, Kona has made some big changes in the way it has joined the dots. For a start, it has moved aluminium/scandium alloy tubing from its race bikes and into its trail bikes, which means significant weight loss from the frame.
Despite being touted as the new ‘wonder’ metal around 10 years ago, aluminium/scandium alloy is today used as a frame material by just a handful of manufacturers, such as Kona. This is mainly because there are some definite downsides to overcome when working with it, such as its potentially brittle nature.
Adding scandium to aluminium alloys can give excellent strength to weight characteristics though, and in this case it has definitely shown this old Dawg some new tricks.
The Dawg has also caught the widespread droopy top tube disease. From an aesthetic point of view this is a love/hate thing, but it does give better top tube clearance, plus some stress and vibration absorption advantages if you do it right.
Out back it’s business as normal for Kona. The asymmetric chainstays ensure plenty of chain clearance on the driveside, and Kona uses a polished finish on the centre section so there’s no paint to get chipped off.
Putting the rear pivot above the dropout means the rear wheel follows a simple curve round the main pivot rather than a modified path, but it helps to keep the back end stiffer than we’d anticipated.
A double-braced rocker link feeds the shocks to the Fox damper, which even gets two lower positions to slightly tune spring response.
In practical terms, Kona adds extra bolted cable guides to keep everything tidy, while there’s a reasonable amount of mud room and space for a conventional bottle.
For those who like a spot-on bike fit, Kona offers a finer sizing range than other manufacturers, meaning we could choose an 18in, not just the M/L or 17in/19in options of the other manufacturers here.
Equipment: a couple of tiny niggles
Marzocchi’s XC600 fork is a simple, smooth and squelchy performer, the Shimano/FSA drivetrain gave us no grief, the wheels held up fine and the tyres are good all-rounders.
Hayes Stroker brakes are some of the best mid-priced anchors around, so we had plenty of stopping power even with a 160mm rotor fitted.
Personally, we’d have loved an extra inch on either side of the bar, and the fat saddle trades plump comfort for a big gob of weight and ugliness, but we realize that’s only from a hard-riding point of view.
Summary: much fun & eminently upgradeable
The Dawg mightn’t be revolutionary, but the simple truth is that it’s good fun. Enough travel to really let rip, not so much weight that you’ll die on climbs, and so much fun on the best bits of the trail that we just wanted to ride it again and again.
Despite its relatively low price tag, there’s nothing that screams for an immediate change, although there’s bags of upgrade potential for future investors.