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HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4 Review
Cons: Outsole suffers from durability issues, less stable than most, not very sensitive, wide fit in the heel and mid-foot
Bottom line: The best maximum cushioning trail running shoe available for those who appreciate less stress on their body.
The Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 continues in the footsteps of its predecessors to provide superior comfort and underfoot protection while still offering the same level of midsole cushioning that ultra runners have come to love and depend on. HOKA invented and has long defined the Maximalist category, and this slightly tweaked shoe continues to be the go-to choice for trail runners who desire a heavily cushioned landing platform. Defined by its 31mm of under-the-heel protection, the Challenger ATR 4 lives and dies according to which attributes you most value as a runner.
To wit, it provides the most foot protection of any shoe in this review while ranking near the top in comfort and weight as well. On the other hand, it garnered very low scores for stability and sensitivity. Depending on the type of runner you are, this shoe could be a gift from the gods or an immediate candidate for the scrap heap. As one would hope and expect, the Challenger ATR 4 builds on the strengths of its predecessor, the Challenger ATR 3, with a completely redesigned upper. Read on below for more details.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Hoka Challenger ATR 4 is the flagship of Hoka's trail running line, providing runners with a characteristically unique cushioned ride. Compared to the average trail running shoe, these shoes are impressively light weight due to a simple upper and airy EVA foam midsole, while offering average traction. They are very well padded and protective underfoot, a trait which many runners find makes them exceedingly comfortable. The downside to these super fat midsoles is that they are less stable on rough, rocky terrain and especially off trail, while also dampening any sense of trail feel. They rightfully deserve their cult level following, but their unique features also make them polarizing, and just as many folks refuse to wear them as swear by their awesomeness.
Changes and Updates for the Challenger ATR 4
In November of 2017, Hoka released the newest Challenger ATR 4. As can be expected, small and large tweaks were made, which we will describe below:
Our Opinions about the Changes
In general, the changes made to the Challenger ATR 4 only serve to make it a better overall shoe. It is lighter, and the redesigned upper is more breathable. The 4 also features a more comfortable tongue design, as well as better toe bumper protection. We didn't notice any difference in the feel of the new heel counter. The shoe feels virtually the same performance wise, but when out on a run with the four on one foot and the old three on the other, very noticeable to us was the fit of the new upper. The ATR 4 has a higher volume fit, meaning there is a lot more space in the shoe. The thick padding inside the ATR 3 hugged our foot more snuggly, and for the same size shoe, the ATR 4 fit looser, especially in the mid-foot and heel. For runners with high volume or wide feet, the fit of the new shoe will surely feel better, but we had to crank the laces down to feel secure. Runners with very narrow or low volume feet may struggle to get a performance fit out of this shoe.
Despite being our Top Pick for Maximum Cushioning, the Challenger ATR 4 was roughly average in our overall ratings, as you can see in the chart below:
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 entirely mesh design does an adequate job of protecting the sides of the shoes from wear, while the rubberized toe bumper is a slight improvement over previous models.
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 4 provides sufficient "soft feel" protection that feels more absorptive and bouncy.
The rubber outsole on the Challenger ATR 4 remains completely unchanged from the previous version.
It 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. 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 an excellent job of locking down our foot and holding it firmly in place; however, 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 4 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 and mid-foot seem to be a bit wide for our feet, as our heel was somewhat prone to slipping when traveling uphill. With its recently redesigned upper, we thought this was one of the highest volume shoes in this review.
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. The upper is also now much thinner and more breathable than in the past, helping one keep their feet dry on long, wet runs. 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 20.4 ounces, which is impressively light considering the quantity of material.
This moderate weight was enough to award them 7 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 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 Challenger ATR 4 is a great trail running shoe for runners of all abilities. Those with 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 4 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 a different fit to this year's model, although the overall performance of the shoe remains the same, or even slightly improved due to a lower weight. Runners 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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