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November 18, 2010

Saucony ProGrid Kinvara Shoe Review

This review began a little bit awkwardly.

When a Saucony rep contacted me to propose a review of the ProGrid Kinvara, I knew one thing right off the bat: She must not read my blog. But I was curious to see where things might lead, so I sent her the following reply:

Thanks for contacting me. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I kind of ripped Saucony in a recent post.

And then I included the link to this post where I ridiculed Saucony’s marketing campaign for the Kinvara.

To her credit, the rep took the criticism in stride, offered an apology, and said she’d like to try changing my mind by having me test the shoes. Two other factors helped tipped the scales in her favor: 1) The Kinvara has some very noteworthy features that could signal a sea change in conventional wisdom about traditional running shoes, and 2) My primary objections to the marketing were just that – objections to the marketing.

Saucony ProGrid Kinvara

So let’s address that point right away: the Kinvara is not a minimalist shoe. Actually, let me say that once more, with caps lock this time, just so we’re all clear: THE KINVARA IS NOT A MINIMALIST SHOE. Rather, it takes many design elements of minimalism and applies them to a traditional neutral trainer, resulting in a shoe that has definite transitional appeal to runners who want to move gradually towards more natural biomechanics.

The Kinvara impressed me right out of the box with how light it is; at 7.7 oz, it’s lighter than VivoBarefoot’s Evo, slightly lighter than New Balance’s superb MT 101 trail shoe, and only 0.8 oz heavier than Brooks's revolutionary Green Silence. The lightness is attributable to design and material innovations in all quarters: the upper, midsole, and outsole.

Porous mesh upper with clear thin fabric covering

The upper is extremely well-ventilated, employing a highly porous mesh that is covered by a super-thin breathable fabric that prevents debris from entering through the large holes. Curiously, the fabric doesn’t cover the tongue area, so there is pretty good potential of dust infiltration on trails or fire roads. The upper has seamless construction for improved comfort, and synthetic underlays that help hold the foot securely against the platform. Thin cushioning and a soft sockliner in the heel collar area complete a very comfortable overall feel of the shoe against the foot, even without socks.

Stability underlays visible through fabric

To decrease weight in the midsole, Saucony uses a material called EVA+ which is lighter than traditional EVA, and also has more of a spongy feeling with impact. This provides the “maximal cushioning” that Saucony proclaims about the shoe, but the ride seems almost bouncy at times, especially on soft surfaces like a track. The cushiness seems to settle a bit after 50-60 miles, but is still awkward if you’re accustomed to either a firm platform or the hard ground directly below your feet. Midsole height is 18mm in the heel and 14mm at the toes, for a very respectable 4mm drop; by comparison, New Balance’s MT 101 has a 10 mm drop (18mm/8mm), and the Green Silence has 8 (18mm/10mm). This almost-flat platform makes it easier for transitional runners to experiment shifting from heelstriking to midfoot striking.

Sparse outsole rubber with throwback styling

Below the midsole, Saucony takes a page from ECCO’s BIOM and Vibram’s FiveFingers Bikila designs by placing durable rubber only in direct impact areas to minimize weight and improve flexibility. The pattern underfoot is total old-school Saucony, with triangles aligned like the distinctive Jazz model that was immensely popular for the better part of two decades. The traction is sufficient for fire roads and decently-groomed trails, but might have some trouble on slick irregular terrain - but since it’s primarily intended as a road trainer, that’s not surprising.

While I generally love the idea of sparse outsole reinforcement, the Kinvara may have an Achilles heel of sorts on the medial and lateral edges of the outsole through the forefoot, where the softer EVA is essentially unprotected. Neutral runners won’t find this a problem, but if you roll excessively on the inside or outside of your forefoot, I suspect you’ll wear this region down fairly quickly.

Another construction issue I found problematic was the shape of the toebox, which feels slightly narrow to me – but to be fair, my points of comparison are moccasins or pure minimalist shoes that allow full toe splay. I experienced a minor amount of chafing on the outside edges of my toes, and to a lesser extent the front tips of my second toe whenever I tried higher-mileage (>10-mile) runs or with speed work on the road or track.

Despite my objections to the way this shoe was promoted, I have to say that I’m glad to see a shoe like the Kinvara on the market. As a transitional shoe, it has a lot of features that can help traditional footwear users move towards something lighter and flatter, and its weight would even make it an attractive race shoe for some road runners. It’s also nice to have a major manufacturer embrace the “less is more” philosophy of shoe construction, and to see that effort rewarded favorably by gear reviewers (awards from Outside Magazine, Runner’s World) and the general public (evidenced by sales). If Saucony’s goal was to create a mainstream transitional shoe, the ProGrid Kinvara places them very close to the mark.

The Saucony ProGrid Kinvara retails for $90 from Endless.com and other online vendors.

*Product provided by Saucony
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com

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JimDog 11/19/10, 8:54 AM  

I agree, not my kind of shoe but I do give Saucony an A for effort :-)

Those uppers look similar to the NB MT10's I'm wear testing for NB right now.

Fitz 11/19/10, 11:49 AM  

Good effort by Saucony, but why is the shoe so ugly? Is it me or is it reminiscent of 90's walking shoes?

Her Name is Rio 11/19/10, 3:12 PM  

I think it's great they wanted you to try out the shoes, and that you took them up on it!

Boris Terzic 11/22/10, 7:04 PM  

Looks like a great effort but too much heel for my liking. Might still get a pair and give em a go once my Asics Noosa's kick the bucket and I need a LSD shoe.

Stacy,  11/25/10, 1:05 PM  

I do substantially all my road miles in the Mizuno Wave Ronin, which has a similar profile to the Kinvara.

I thought some of your readers who are interested in this type of shoe might be interested in hearing about a comparable shoe.

What's similar: the 7.6 oz weight and midsole specs (the Ronin is 18/9).

What's different: the ride of the Ronin is firm instead bouncy and it has a very wide toe box.

To my way of thinking, both shoes are plenty light for use as racing flats, but are also enough shoe for reasonably efficient runners to log high mileage in.

My Ronins are to the road as my MT 101s are to the trail.

Anonymous,  11/8/11, 1:55 PM  

I have just completed my first marathon in these. They did fine but my left pinky toe is one big blister.

one month ago i ran a ½ marathon and bouth pinky toes turned into blisters, so i ordered a half size bigger.

I like the shoe, but it IS narrow in the toebox.

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