Kona Ute: Poor Choices at a Good Price

Ute at show bike parking

Garrish on Bikes, Mostly wrote a Kona-Ute post about a photo I took at the NAHBS last month. My photo showed a wooden snapdeck and sideloader-like bag combo on a Ute. Garrish and readers wondered a) if it was homemade—it was. Props to the owner/builder if you are out there; and b) Why the heck wasn’t Kona sticking with the Xtracycle accessories, snapdeck, and the like.

For weeks now, I’ve been wondering about that too, and mulling over the lame choices Kona made when rolling their “own” long bike design. But before I open my can of whoop-ass, I’d first like to applaud Kona for their work with the Africa Bike, Bike Town Africa and the adopt an Africa bike program.

Way to go guys. Nice work there.

That said, I’d like to turn my attention back to the long bikes. I’m impressed with Kona’s ability to supply a serviceable long bike at this pricepoint ($799), But I wonder how great it could have been for the entire long bike community had they extended the the Xtracycle plug-and-play features. Here’s my current line of thinking. If someone wants to chime in and tell me why I’m wrong, feel free to comment.

Extending the very serviceable Xtracycle model would have done three great things for the cargo-bike market:

  1. It would have essentially created a de-facto “standard”. If Surly and Kona had joined with Xtracycle this product year you can bet next year many in the me-too cycling world (remember U-brakes?) would have been clammering to build Xtracycle-standard (XStan?) compatible bikes.
  2. Such a standard would have spurred/supported the continued development of the third-party cargo bike accessory market. We’ve already got blenders, under bike lights, Val’s totally excellent “kickstands”, Christmas tree haulers, Snapdeck pads and who knows what else popping up in our current (tiny) market. What kind of innovation would a larger market bring?
  3. Finally the move would have given due credit to the folks who pretty much created this movement—Xtracycle. If the Big Dummy and the Ute catch on, I have a sad feeling that the losers will be the Xtracycle kits. Americans love to buy the latest gadget on the shelf and the big bike companies are great at marketing to this tendency. When the utility bike movement catches on, expect to see these manufacturers ramping up the production of shiny new long bikes.
    That’s great for the overall movement to get people out of cars, but probably bad news for the originator. I don’t know how Xtracycle could possibly compete with the Treks and Giants when it comes to volume-driven manufacturing margins; I don’t want to see them gobbled like so many other small companies. At the very least, the existence of the “XStan” would ensure a nice ongoing revenue stream of aftermarket sales for the company.

So, for opportunity lost on all three points I have to throw a big thumbs down to the those supposedly community-focused, chill-out dudes at Kona. On the Ute front you are acting more like a big corporation (maybe your association with pharma giant Bristol-Myers Squibb is rubbing off on you?) than the low-key “bikes feed our families and our souls” folks you claim to be.

Yep. On this one guys, you pretty much suck.

-Tim

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13 responses to “Kona Ute: Poor Choices at a Good Price

  1. Hmmm looks like a not so great rip of something really cool.
    Don’t think you’ll get a lot of argument. I still can’t afford the real thing but I doubt I’d buy one of these ute things even if they were available here.

    Yuck

  2. Maybe Kona had reasons we don’t know about. It sure looks to be less adaptable than the X design though. That and an aluminum frame would be deal-breakers for me.

  3. I think the Xtracycle folks will keep the Free Radical attachment market cornered, as long as one of the bigger companies doesn’t rip off this idea. Not everyone can afford $2000 for a built up Big Dummy. Also, even though the Kona is $800, you still need to buy panniers or whatever to haul your gear and will drive up the costs. The Free Radical allows you to take your old MTB and make it a cargo bike for much cheaper. That may be their saving grace.

  4. The Xtracycle is made to adapt a bike into a longbike (we all know this but follow me here).
    I don’t want to be snipped out of context so I have to include that I think the Xtracycle is one of the greatest creations since the bicycle. It is however, an adapter. So Surly adapts their design to adapt to an adapter. Kona designed a ground up longbike but didn’t finish it; how do you carry the stuff? Most comments I’ve read and conversations I’ve had agree that the Surly decision to use the Xtracycle makes sense and pays a tribute to Xtracycle who started this whole thing anyway. If the future includes a standard then the Xtracycle needs a younger brother that has been designed to fit a ground up longbike, that’s what I’m waiting for. All I can do in the meantime is sew my own bags and make the Xtracycle crew kickstands when they come through town.

  5. I’m with Dan; any proliferation of longtail designs just makes the whole concept more socially acceptable. This, in turn, generates interest, and the XtraCycle is the most accessible route to longtail bliss. For those who may just want to try it, with the option to go back to a standard wheelbase (does anyone know ANYONE who has ever done that?) within a reasonably small budget, it’s the bees knees. The Big Dummies will create the lust, and the XtraCycle can satisfy it without forcing you to sell your car (you may, after you realize how little you are using it, but you can keep it for backup during the transitional period).

  6. Good points all of you. I agree that in the long run the more cargo bikes (the more _any_ bikes, really) the better.

    Kona may have had reasons for their choices, but I still wish they had made _different_ ones and made plans with a little more thought about long-term implications.

    …and Scott… Your bikes are sweet!

  7. very useful stuff, i was quite interested in the kona… as it’s cheap… sort of… but you’ve made me rethink…

    thanks!

  8. I have ridden the Xtracycle design for about 8 years now, and appreciate it’s usefulness. Frankly though, it has a lot of shortcomings:

    – price – $400 for the basic Xtracycle and you still have to provide a bike AND piece it together. This is great if you know a lot about bikes or mechanics . . . but isn’t really that appealing for someone who normally drives an SUV. These are the people that we need to get on bikes and stop preaching to the choir.

    – heavy – A ground up design is significantly lighter (also, what is wrong with aluminum . . . with todays technology, it is lighter, more durable and less expensive than steel . . . people go on about ride quality, but this is the type of useless “I’m cool” minutia that intimidate the regular folks and keep them in thier cars)

    – size – With a ground up design, the wheel base can be significantly shorter with the same cargo space . . . which is easier for urban dwellers that need to go up stairs and in elevators.

    – ride – The Xtracycle is whippy relative to a bike with an integrated design . . . not to mention the aforementioned factors contributing to a better ride.

    – bags – What is so great about the Xtracycle bags that you would design a bike around it? They aren’t easily removable for shopping, not waterproof, no cover, expensive. The Kona bike comes with 2 bags and has a capacity for 4 . Also, you can hook on or adapt any number of aftermarket bags as Kona uses a simple hook system similar to what has been used on touring bikes for at least 60 years . . . how’s that for a standard?

    Your down with The Man rhetoric may seem cool, but is it really true? I just got my Kona and I believe that they have probably put more thought in this than you think . . . and this is only the first model year. Also, as others have pointed out, this category is good for everybody and we should welcome any brands into the fold. (FYI, Surly is owned by QBP which is one of the largest companies in the cycling industry . . . Kona is owned by two guys).

    Your friend,
    Rufus

  9. Hey Rufus — thanks much for the thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.

    I can totally agree with a number of your points — -the idea of the integrated frame being better is not lost on me. I just wish they had done some of it differently and had shown more respect to the folks at Xtracycle for the longbike trail they have blazed.

    I’m sure Kona _has_ put plenty of thought into the design…they make great bikes! It just so happens that I don’t agree with all their choices. I mean, what’s up with no rear disc brake mount and 700c only wheels?

    I also strongly disagree with your bag preference. Some waterproof flaps would be nice, but even in Seattle it hasn’t been a big deal. I certainly don’t want to have to deal with four separate (easily stolen) pannier-style packs.

    I love that I can throw a my hefty laptop back, a half rack of beer and two pairs of kids ski boots and two pairs of rental skis into the side loaders and not still have room for a five-year old to tuck his feet into them so he isnt too cold.
    That’s not going to happen with the “touring standard” style bags.

    Your preference for this format right here tells me we probably have different needs for our longbikes; those needs, I’m sure, dictate the type of bikes we think we want to ride/own.

    Overall, I think we are in complete agreement that anything we can do to get people out of cars and onto pedals is a good move. I very happy that the Ute is working out for you.
    -Tim

  10. Tim,

    Take a look at that photo . . . . I’m guessing the long red bag is about the same size as the Xtracycle bag since the cargo area on my Ute is a little bigger than that of my wife’s Xtracycle. I don’t know when Kona is going to offer this . . . but I bet they are thinking about it:

    I can only assume that the bike in your photo was a Kona prototype . . . as these just landed in the US about two weeks ago when I got mine.

    – rear disc brake . . . who needs it? 70% of braking power comes from the front . . . and this probably saves a chunk of money.
    – 700c wheels are way faster, more efficient and can certainly handle loads, I have them on both of our cargo bikes, and was pleased to see this choice. Again, think about touring bikes, most serious tourers have 700c wheels.

    Rufus

  11. I think Kona deserves a lot of credit for pushing out a production scale cargo bike. But I think they missed the big opportunity to scale not just production, but the whole market. Imagine if there were two manufacturers making bikes that met the Xtracycle standard. This would really energize the market. I think its fair to say that there are plenty of ways for Kona to make money in this market… not sure why they picked a proprietary rack system as their core offering.

    An Open Letter to Kona — Top 10 Ideas for Working with, Not Against, Xtracycle …

    http://johngarrish.blogspot.com/2008/04/dear-kona-top-10-ideas-for-working-with.html

  12. I just moved to a bike-friendly town, and I’m having a great time biking instead of driving! A utility bike is in my future, I can see it…

    As to corporate motivations, there are many possibilities — maybe Kona *wanted* to follow the Xtracycle standard, but they couldn’t afford licensing fees. Maybe Surly got exclusive rights to being Xtracycle compatible. I worked in an industry where intellectual property was a major issue. Sometimes you’d have to deliberately make your design different just so you wouldn’t get sued. Unless the Xtracycle standard is “Open Source”, I don’t think we can assume that Kona is the big bad corporation.

    That being said, all I know is that I’m looking forward to NOT using my 16mpg minivan and instead using my 2 wheel, runs-on-water -and -gives-me-exercise bike.

    Thanks,
    Albert

  13. Tim, as much credit as the folks at Xtracycle deserve, they did not invent the longtail concept. See the vintage pacebike photos Todd has posted over at Clevercycles. They invented the adapter that makes regular bikes into longtails.

    As brilliant as the Free Radical is, all of Rufus’ criticisms ring true to me (and I own two of them and a Big Dummy.) The Xtracycle design will become a full-fledged platform if and only if alternatives to the current v-rack/Freeloader/Snapdeck combo are developed. Think tool boxes or ladder racks; racks for hauling 5-gallon buckets, or maybe rectangular heavy-duty wire or nylon mesh baskets. Devices that would make full use of the Xtracycle design’s potential. Until then, it’s a bike with a really long wheelbase and really big bags—which is why I love it, but not what distinguishes it from other longtail designs.

    Goofy brake spec aside, I think the Ute is a legitimate longtail design and Kona deserves a little credit for going out on that limb. The Big Dummy was developed in the context of a partnership between Surly and Xtracycle (IIRC, Xrtacycle approached Surly) and faulting Kona for not being part of something likely both secret (before the BD proto showed up at Interbike) and proprietary demonstrates an incomplete understanding of how new product development typically works. It would be one thing to fault Kona if we knew they had turned down an invitation from Xrtacycle to participate in developing its own longtail, but I haven’t heard or read anything to indicate that such was the case. Really, if all one wants is a bike that could carry 4 large panniers, why wouldn’t the much-cheaper Ute be the better choice?

    Personally, I like the versatility of the Xtracycle design (as evidenced in these photos) but wouldn’t fault someone for buying the Ute.