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Hands-on Gear Review
HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 3 Review
Cons: Narrow fit, outsole suffers from durability issues, less stable than most, not very sensitive
Bottom line: The best maximum cushioning shoe available for those who appreciate less stress on their body.
The Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 is updated for the year 2017 with some minor changes that make it a bit better than previous versions. For those who already love this shoe, we think you will like the new version even better. It retains the signature Hoka feature of a massive amount of underfoot EVA foam cushioning that runners have come to love. This year's version has a 29mm under the heel stack height and a gentle, springy ride that is excellent at dampening the repetitive impact of running, and also adds a slight bounce to your step. The signature underfoot cushioning has brought Hoka a cult following and single-handedly created the "maximalist" shoe genre, and as the most cushioned and protective shoe in this review, we once again awarded it our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Men's Trail Running Shoes of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Hoka Challenger ATR 3 is built to an entirely different design than most of the shoes in this review. It emphasizes maximum cushioning underfoot, supplied by a thick midsole made entirely of dense EVA foam, which simultaneously absorbs a noticeable amount of the impact to the body that comes from the repetition of running, and also makes this shoe feel springier than lower profile and firmer options. While it has a ton of material underfoot, it pairs this with a relatively low 5mm of heel-toe drop and also has a "meta-rocker" shape that is designed to help transfer energy forward more naturally. In the last handful of years, Hoka has carved out a huge following in the trail running market, and the Challenger ATR 3 is their most popular, signature model. While we appreciate its unique characteristics and can understand why people love these shoes so much, we still want to point out that it comes with some performance drawbacks that are side effects of its unique design and shape.
The Challenger ATR 3 compared the ATR 2
Truthfully, not a whole lot has changed in the newest iteration of this shoe. It is built on a new last which is supposedly slightly wider, although when we line up the soles of the two versions, they are the same width. We felt that the old version ran narrow, and we think this version fits pretty much the same. The ATR 3 has a new upper material that seems slightly more breathable and durable, as it is now paired with welded puff-print overlays. The type of foam and thickness of padding around the ankle and heel has changed — it now feels a bit denser and employs less padding. It also comes with a thicker and more cushioned insole. Finally, while the outsole tread remains mostly the same, the central lugs are now spaced slightly further apart. These changes will probably be noticeable to the detail oriented fan; we feel that overall the comfort level, trail feel, and performance remain relatively unchanged.
As our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning, one would certainly expect a lot of underfoot protection from this shoe, and it doesn't disappoint. With its huge midsole of EVA foam, the runner will feel only the sharpest and most jagged underfoot protrusions. It does not have a rock plate and retains its soft, squishy feel. Our only concern is that while previous testing models of this shoe and other Hokas we have found that this foam tends to compress over time, lessening the dampening effect as well as the underfoot protection as the shoe ages and collects more miles. Regarding the upper, the new puff-print patterning does an adequate job at protecting the sides of the shoes from wear, while the soft, rubbery toe bumper is better than nothing, but not as hard as we would wish.
Compared to the competition, there is no doubt that this shoe is right up there with the best when it comes to foot protection. We awarded it 9 out of 10 points, a tie for the highest score with the New Balance Leadville v3 as well as the Brooks Caldera. It retains a significantly different feel underfoot than those shoes, however, as they both combine an ample amount of cushioning foam with rock plates and firmer outsoles. They offer "hard feeling" protection, whereas the Challenger ATR 3 provides sufficient "soft feel" protection that feels more absorptive and bouncy.
The rubber outsole on the Challenger ATR 3 covers a relatively small portion of the bottom of the shoe and is made up of patterns of moderately spaced out 4mm deep lugs of different shapes. Compared to last year, it remains virtually the same, although the lugs are now spaced apart slightly more for better shedding of mud. We were once again surprised with how good the traction was on this shoe, despite its relatively benign appearance compared to the very aggressive tread pattern on many of the other shoes.
In our comparative testing, we found this shoe to be about average when it comes to traction. It gripped pretty well on grass and dirt, but suffered on dry talus and especially on wet rock. In that regard, it performed very similarly to our best overall trail running shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, but was still vastly superior to the super firm outsole of the Brooks Caldera.
The days of ridiculous clown shoe-like stack heights on Hokas are thankfully long gone, and there is no doubt that they no longer retain their reputation for ankle-breaking instability. That said, there is no arguing the fact that they ride pretty high off the ground, and still offer an array of stability concerns when comparing them to the many low to the ground minimalist shoes available today.
In our targeted stability testing, we found that while side-hilling across a steep grassy slope, the high stack height was still a significant liability, inducing considerable ankle instability. The upper did a good job of locking down our foot and holding it firmly in place, but we couldn't deny that it still felt like one of the least stable shoes in our test, up there with the Salomon Speedcross 4, which features a massive amount of heel cushioning and a large heel-toe drop. By comparison, the most stable shoes, such as the Altra Superior 3.0, offered a very broad platform low to the ground. 3 out of 10 points.
Few would argue against the Challenger ATR 3 is a very comfortable shoe. Regarding fit, we found it to be pretty true to size when considering length but also noticed that it retains its narrowness in the forefoot compared to a wider toe box that allows greater amounts of foot-splaying upon landing, like the Altra Lone Peak 3.5. We also noticed that the heel seems to be a bit wide for our feet, as our heel was somewhat prone to slipping when traveling uphill.
Worth pointing out is that in our bucket test we found that this shoe absorbs the second least amount of water after being dunked, and was able to shed that water better than any other after our short five-minute test run. These findings suggest that this shoe is ideally suited to running in wet climates or the rain, and inspired us to bump up the comfort rating. We gave it 8 out of 10 points, which made it more comfortable than the similarly protective Leadville v3, and on par with the New Balance Vazee Summit v2.
Our pair of men's size 11 shoes weighed in at 21.6 ounces, which is impressively light considering the quantity of material.
This moderate weight was enough to award them 6 out of 10 points, on par with the low profile Nike Terra Kiger 4 and quite a bit lighter than another high-scoring high mileage shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4. When running, these shoes don't feel heavy or clunky, backing up the numbers.
When describing the level of sensitivity to be found while running in these shoes, the word that comes to our mind is "disassociation." In this case, the maximal cushioning directly translates into minimal sensitivity.
While some trail running shoes, such as the Saucony Peregrine 7, manage to strike a balance and do an equally good job of protecting the foot and offering a pleasing level of trail sensitivity, this is not one of those shoes. That said, due to the soft nature of the cushioning, one does still feel a small amount of trail texture, more so than the equally protective New Balance Leadville v3 or Brooks Caldera.
The Hoka Challenger ATR 3 is a great trail running shoe for runners of all abilities. Those with a slightly narrower foot and a desire for the most impact absorption they can find will probably love them even more. Due to said impact absorption, they have become extremely popular as ultra running shoes, and are a great choice for loooong races. Because of stability concerns, we stick to the trails when we use them, and opt for something else when we venture cross country.
These shoes retail for $130, making them one of the more expensive options in this review, but only by a hair. Thankfully, the days of $160 price tags for Hokas are gone! While those who love these shoes and their maximum cushioning will surely find sufficient value, we must point out that durability concerns in both the midsole foam and the outsole abound in online user reviews, potentially calling into question their value. We also feel that for people not attached to the maximum cushioning there are higher performing shoes available for less money.
The Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 is a unique shoe due to its copious amounts of underfoot cushioning. This design feature has single-handedly revolutionized the trail running shoe landscape and is plenty worthy of our Top Pick Award for Maximum Cushioning. Those who have run in previous versions of these shoes will find minimal changes for this year, for the better. Others looking to try them out for the first time will discover a comfortable, super cushioned and springy ride in a surprisingly light package.
— Andy Wellman
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