Hoka's marketing pitch: Applied midsole geometry makes the Vanquish the most responsive road shoe in the Hoka One One range.
Surfaces tested on: Road, 25° C/77° F
Upper: Closed mesh, no-sew overlays, external heel counter.
Midsole: Firmer compression molded foam over softer RMAT injection molded EVA base. 4 mm heel to toe drop.
Outsole: Carbon rubber pieces in heel and forefoot
Weight: 360 gms/ 12.7 Oz for a half pair of US11/UK10.5/EUR 45.3/ CM 29
Widths available: Single - medium (reviewed).
Everyone has seen this scene unfold a bit too often. A brand becomes popular, so it thinks that the count of shoe models on offer should be increased. Brands who do this smartly – by making sure each new model is differentiated enough – succeed in the long term. On the other hand, mere price point fillers meant to appease the demand of retailers lead to too much clutter, which eventually has to be pared down. Of the two scenarios just mentioned, we’ve seen the latter play out more frequently than the former strategic approach to merchandising.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for introducing new models and concepts. After all, if you don’t bring in something fresh, how would you know how the market would respond? More importantly, it establishes the cadence for an innovative approach to sustainable brand growth. But not all paths lead there.
In that context, let’s take Hoka. Buoyed by favorable consumer response to their oversized cushioning concept, they started to expand their assortment, claiming that ‘Spring 2015 has their largest line ever.’ If you looked at their fledgling road line-up last year, they had a tight construct of known and new models, such as the Bondi, Conquest, Huaka and Clifton.
They hit sell-thru gold with the Clifton, a lightweight maximal which at $130, wasn’t as stratospherically (relatively speaking) priced as its counterparts. In retrospect, it did well because it was adequately tiered in relation to the rest of the Hoka assortment with its pricing and unique ride character. So far, so good.
And this year, new names pop up on Hoka’s website, like the Odyssey, Valor, and the Vanquish. The first two, we haven’t had a chance to try, but it is easy to see what the Odyssey is supposed to do. It showcases a similar (not same) midsole side profile and built as the Clifton, while sharing the same stack heights and drop. The logic seems to be that the Clifton is doing well, so it needs a wingman in a form of Clifton-esque model. A sound logic, but flawed.
Don’t know about the Valor yet, so we’ll reserve our opinion. The Vanquish however, is a puzzling new addition to the oversized and overpriced Hoka line-up. It sports the exact same midsole as the Conquest 2, with a slightly different spin on upper design, most of which includes changing the mesh variety. On Hoka’s website, both even share the same product description and retail price.
Don’t know whether we’ll come around to testing the Conquest (that’s another $170 from our pocket), but the Vanquish review will be a good stand-in for now. Unless we’re missing something, both shoes should deliver exactly the same cushioning and ride experience.
The Vanquish is based on the Conquest midsole platform, meaning that it relies on an arrangement of two interlocked parts of dual-density midsole foam. Hoka calls this a suspension midsole, and the description is apt. A firmer EVA covered in glossy midsole paint rests over a softer, RMAT foam base.
In the midfoot and heel area, bulwark like extensions rise up on the side and clasps the glossy midsole. There is some empty space between the two layers, a ‘floating’ design if you will.
In the heel area, the midsole walls rise up and cover a section of the molded plastic clip. This is the only place where the midsole actually ‘cups’ the foot; in the midfoot and forefoot area, the midsole edge is level with the footbed inside.
The multi-density stacking nature of the midsole makes the Vanquish one of the heaviest road Hokas, along with the Conquest. It is even more heavier than Hoka’s new ‘stability’ shoe, the Constant. A half pair of US 11 weighs 360 gms/12.7 oz, which is 36 gms/1.3 Oz heavier than the Bondi 4/Constant and 121 gms/4.3 oz more compared to the Clifton. If you’re coming from a Clifton, the extra baggage of 4 Oz will be noticed. Switching from a Bondi? Then not so much.
So what comes out of all that additional weight? Hoka calls the Vanquish and Conquest their ‘most responsive performance road shoes’, based on how the midsole is designed. ‘Applied midsole geometry’, as Hoka chooses to call it.
The term responsive is highly subjective, and can be interpreted differently depending on how a particular person views it. Our definition of responsiveness relates to the midsole composite’s ability to rebound after impact, and a higher speed of successfully doing so equates to a higher level of responsive behavior. Similar to how a coiled spring works. For this to happen, the midsole mustn’t be too soft nor have the tendency to bottom out.
Static state firmness (without the weight loading) is usually an ingredient of a responsive midsole, but this is not saying all firm shoes are responsive. The material property and overall design influences the final outcome with respect to how the shoe rides. In Vanquish’s case, the firmness does translate into a spring-back character. The obvious firmness comes from the top EVA layer; and the resilience is supplied by the soft RMAT below it.
That, and the way the top part floats over the lower half, providing leeway for snapback. Since the heel and midfoot area have this design feature, the rebound is more pronounced in these regions more than the forefoot. So the Vanquish’s level of midsole feedback will be based on whether you forefoot strike or land on the heel.
You must have read our Clifton review, where we also use the word responsive to break-down the shoe’s ride character. So how is the Vanquish different from single density midsole shoe such as the Clifton and Bondi 4?
On the latter models, the ride is softer, albeit with a level of springback. But that is of a more spread over, deeper feeling, as opposed to the fine tuned, focused sensation of the Vanquish. The firmer upper midsole cradle isn’t the one to contract much; it is rather the splaying act of the empty space below it that delivers the responsiveness. One also has to take into account the compression of the softer midsole base too.
So in a way, the rebound happens not immediately below the foot but a bit distanced from the surface, opposed to the ‘instant-access’ nature of the Bondi 4 and Clifton.
There are some shared parts with the Bondi 4, like the perforated foam lasting and the removable insole. The sockliner is molded EVA, and twice the thickness of what’s in the Clifton.
The footbed filters some of the firmness below the strobel, and at this point it must be mentioned that Hoka has now started shipping out a second set of insoles. This additional pair is made of a flat, die-cut Ortholite foam and much thinner than the stock insole.
Putting that in lieu of the molded insole increases the firm feeling when in walking mode, but there’s more to it than that. The Ortholite flatness comes with its own entourage of variables, and we’ll pick on each one during the upper break-out.
Hoka midsole employs a rocker design, meaning that the heel and toe have a visible flare or spring. This encourages a late-rearfoot strike if one tends to heel-edge strike, and the front allows a quicker roll-off. The forefoot is very stiff, translating into the shoe ‘rolling-off’ instead of going through the flexing motion. Hoka uses the phrase ‘early stage metarocker’ to explain this quality of transition.
Which basically means that the toe-spring – the gradually increasing gap between the ground and the forward outsole – starts early right after the midfoot. When combined with an unyielding midsole, the foot will tip over quickly to the front, and in the process quickening push-off. This is one of the reasons why the Vanquish (and many Hoka models for that matter) do not feel slow, even with foam excess ruling supreme below.
In a nutshell, the transition is no slug, and for most, little or no loss in running speed will be experienced. Foam density is consistent along the shoe length, smoothening weight transfer as and when required. There is rubber stuck to the outsole with visible penny-pinching, with some on lateral heel and elongated hexagonal slabs under the ball of the foot. The slabs sit level with rest of the exposed foam outsole, and that aids smooth progression of movement.
The Vanquish has a slight lateral bias in its cushioning delivery. The outer sidewall has a ridged depression running along its length, right over the series of see-thru holes and then continuing ahead along the same line. On the inner side, the midsole profile is solid, preventing excessive inwards roll. But this means that there is a minor amount of lean on impact, focused on the outer side.
Stability is not affected because the midsole base is much wider that the foot resting on it. If you remember, we called out the cradle like build of the heel, and that’s what keeps the foot cupped within the midsole boundaries. The Vanquish is supportive enough, even with the barely noticeable asymmetrical midsole bias.
Round up everything we’ve said, and the Vanquish midsole is one that produces the proprietary maximal feel, but underscored with firmness. This sets it apart from the softer undersides of the Clifton and Bondi 4.
It fits the bill as the long haul cushioning vehicle people expect it to be, but whether you like it soft or firm is a subjective concern. Like most of its ilk, the humongous foaminess absorbs small bumps and unevenness of the road better than most shoes.
Looping back to the topic of the Ortholite insole, we mentioned that its use leads to a sensation of increased firmness, but only during walking. Start putting some speed in, and sure, while you miss the first layer of cushioning underfoot, it does nothing to affect how the midsole feels.
The midsole holds its own, and if anything, the lower position of the foot gives you greater access to the cushioning potential. Make no mistake, this is no Fresh Foam 980 OG, where the insole did most of the ‘Fresh Foam’ duties.
Maximal Hoka midsoles might be capable of crunching trans-continental mileage, but their uppers has always been an ignored step-child, with no happy ending. You seldom get wowed by what goes on upstairs, and you always come away with the feeling that things could be much better.
Akin to a car which is great to drive, but has bargain aisle interiors, cheap fabric stuck over bench-like seats and grey drab dashboard plastic out of sync with time and the money you paid for.
The Vanquish is a glaring example of that deficiency. Our first outing with it did not go well, nor did our second. The folded tongue edge felt like a needle prick on the skin, resulting in having to bend down and correct the tongue position every half mile.
It was only after the offending portion was snipped out with a scissor did things turn normal. Looking closely at the tongue top material, the substrate layer has a stiff feel to it, and that ended up as an irritation area.
We love DIY, but not a shoe which costs nearly $200 after taxes. It is almost if Hoka completely forgets the fact that a well fitting and comfortable upper is as crucial a component as is a lively midsole made of Unicorn hair.
If the folded edges weren’t an issue, the tongue is well padded and does a better job at filtering lacing pressure than the Clifton. The lace-loop regardless, tongue slide is part of the Hoka experience.
There is an elastic band on top, and we don’t know what exactly it is meant for. If we to draw our own conclusions, we’d say that it helps separate the front lacing cinch from the rest, and it helps lock down the pressure in the front.
That feature comes in handy when you create more upper room by using the provided Ortholite insoles.
As for the lacing system itself, it’s pretty basic. A flat lace threads through the metal eyelets, and a kind which has difficulty staying tied.
You need to pay special attention to tying the last knot, for failure to do so without enough pressure will result in the laces coming undone frequently during runs.
The Hoka last – the plastic, foot shaped base which gives the upper its fit – makes the forefoot narrow. Special mention must be made of the tightness over the big and small toe, all bundled together within the confines of a pointy toe box.
The front part of the Vanquish seems like a transplant from a children’s dress shoe, rounded toe cap and all. The sizing fits true, but apart from that, not much space on either sides.
That out of the way, the Hoka Vanquish doesn’t hem in the small toe as tightly as the Clifton, and this is due to the overlay design. As opposed to localized no-sew strips on the Hoka Clifton, the fusing on the Vanquish is evenly spread over.
While this does nothing to alleviate the overall narrowness of the forefoot, it does help specific pressure points disappear.
Top part of the forefoot is a different matter, however. The Vanquish is tight around top forefoot center, and that’s because the lacing starts early. Compared to a shoe like the Clifton, the lacing extends 5 m further towards the shoe tip.
This design variance usually causes a snugger top fit in other shoes, and in this case it is no different either. The forefoot top just ahead of the lacing bears down on the foot with distinct pressure.
Hoka has recently started shipping extra insoles with the shoes, ones which are thinner than stock inserts. These are Ortholite branded outsoles, but very thin, Crepe like.
We assume that the brand was trying to make amends for its less than ideal last, and yes, replacing the molded insoles with these opens up some space. But the results are far from perfect.
The problem is, the original shoe patterns were NOT designed keeping the ultra pancaked Ortholite in mind. It was built based on factoring the margin after taking the stock insole into account.
The Ortholite insole seems like a pure after-thought, a quick-fix solution to the well recognised Hoka fit issue.
So does popping in the Tortilla flat insole create more room? Yes, but with a caveat. You see, Hoka uppers are tight in the front but not necessarily so in the midfoot and heel.
The extra space relieves the forefoot of tightness, but in the process it frees up space in mid and rearfoot. Midfoot fit can be adjusted using the lacing, but the heel area just ends up feeling loose.
And, a thinner footbed also increases vertical space, meaning that the upper becomes a deeper place for the foot. The collar walls rise up, and you can feel them on the skin in a sense which feels invasive instead of being supportive. The Vanquish uses a hard external heel counter, but that ends up serving as a supportive cupping base for the lower heel than provide upper grip in this scenario.
The other side effect of using the thinner Ortholite is that one feels the edge where the perforated lasting foam meets the upper. This isn’t something which will result in a chafe, but you feel it all the same as a thinner insole (made of open cell foam, no less) affords less insulation from the seams, joints and other going-ons beneath.
All in all, the Vanquish upper (in fact, all Hoka uppers) is a place where the brand with the Maori name needs to up its game. And you might want to ask, what about the new Constant upper, which Hoka says has a ‘generous’ fit? While the Hoka Constant’s fit is more easygoing over the smaller toe, it is far from relaxed, and there’s a pressure point at the base of the big toe. So no, the new Constant upper is not exactly a panacea for Hoka’s ills.
But the bigger question is, what is Vanquish’s place in the Hoka assortment? At its very core, the shoe appears to offer no additional value in differentiation vs. the Conquest 2. The same can be said for a Hoka Odyssey vs. a Clifton, and the Valor vs. a Bondi 4. Differentiation is the line which demarcates clarity and confusion of choice, and the Vanquish isn’t the best example of that ideal.
The strange thing is that while the Hoka US site lists (at the time of writing this review) the Valor, Vanquish and Odyssey under its road line-up, the Hoka Europe website excludes the Odyssey and Vanquish. So either Hoka Europe is slow at updating its website, or these two models are a result of demands by US retailers. We’d like to think it is the latter.
At times, putting out too many ‘ me-too’ options likely leads to a paradox of choice, and that’s something every brand must guard itself against – no matter what people would want you to do.
(Disclaimer: For this review, Solereview bought the shoe at full US retail price.)