PINKBIKE FIELD TEST
Santa Cruz Hightower
Words by Mike Levy; photography by Tom Richards
Santa Cruz has had a Hightower in their catalog for ages now, and while we got a wholesale change to lower-link VPP suspension layout nearly four years ago, the latest version for 2023 is all about subtle refinements to a platform that was already pretty damn good. That might mean it's not the most interesting of the bunch, sure, but it all comes together to make for an extremely fun and competent trail bike.
What hasn't changed is the 145mm of travel paired with a 150mm fork or the 29" wheels, and Santa Cruz describes it by saying, "It's a mountain bike. The mid-length travel and confidence-inspiring geometry mean anywhere tires will roll, then so will this bike. No fussing, no nonsense, no silly category names."
Hightower C GX AXS Reserve Details
• Travel: 145mm rear, 150mm front
• New frame w/ downtube storage, updated geo, kinematics
• 29" wheels
• 64.5° head-tube angle
• 76.4° seat-tube angle
• Reach: 472mm (lrg)
• Weight: 32.4 lb / 14.7 kg
• MSRP: $9,799 USD
• More info: www.santacruzbicycles.com
The Hightower R is the least expensive of the bunch, and it gets a RockShox Lyrik Base, an NX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain, and SRAM G2 R brakes for its $5,499 USD price tag. Our GX AXS Reserve test bike comes as described, including a wireless drivetrain and those carbon wheels, for $9,799 USD. There are six complete bikes in total spread over two frames - the C version and the lighter CC frame made with fancier carbon - and you can get the latter on its own for $4,099 USD.
So, what's new with this Hightower? While the lower link-driven VPP suspension layout sure looks like the old one, small changes in pivot locations have made for some slight but notable differences to the kinematics. There's a small drop in the lower anti-squat values for the first part of the travel to allow the suspension to be more active, but Santa Cruz says that it's still around 135-percent at sag before lowering later on in the travel. There's also a touch more leverage at the start and a bit more bottom-out resistance from the same size 210 x 55mm shock that the previous bike used, so it's refinement at both ends of the Hightower's travel.
Much more obvious than invisible leverage ratios is the large hole, er, Glovebox, in the Hightower's downtube. It comes with some padded sleeves for your whatever, and the latch is easy to use. That's not the only hole we need to talk about, however, as there's also a new one on the non-drive-side shock tunnel so you can see your shock's o-ring easier. That means you're running out of excuses for not having your sag properly. And unlike some of the other new bikes at this work party, a coil-sprung shock (or Float X2) won't fit on the Hightower; adding clearance would have meant losing about 0.4" of seat post insertion depth.
There are some small changes in the geometry department as well, including a slightly slacker front-end that now sits at 64.5-degrees and 438mm size-specific chainstays on our large test bike. It also gets a 472mm reach and 76.4-degree seat angle, which are basically the same as on the previous bike, and you'll still find a flip-chip at the lower shock mount as well. That little guy will apply just 0.3-degrees and 4mm of change at the bottom bracket, though. Climbing
Santa Cruz does a pretty good job of making bikes ride well without needing to push the limits of geometry or manufacturing, and I mean that as a compliment rather than a critique. You know where things go wrong? At the front of the pack. It's sometimes best to leave that for the smaller brands and instead design something that you know will just work, period. That seems to be what Santa Cruz has done with the third-generation Hightower.
As Kazimer described in the review video above, the bike's pedaling position feels quite neutral and easy to live with compared to bikes with steeper seat angles, the Genius ST being a prime example. There are longer and slacker trail bikes that do benefit from a more upright seat tube, especially if it's really steep, and it would have been easy for Santa Cruz to follow the same path. That can work, but it's probably not going to work as well everywhere; sometimes, it can feel like a bit too much. But the Hightower is more comfortable over a long day, and it's more manageable in the twisties to boot.
The Hightower's VPP suspension is said to have a bit less anti-squat than the previous version, and while I'd have to ride the new and old bikes back-to-back to give you an apples-to-apples comparison, I will say that this bike nails that not too firm, not too soft middle ground. The rear-end tracks as well as it would ever need to, and there's enough grip to put the onus on you rather than the bike when you fall over before you can unclip. At the same time, it seems to have less bob than the shorter-travel Norco Fluid and enough efficiency that I'd never bother reaching for the pedal-assist switch.
How does it stack up against the new Yeti? That's a much closer comparison, but the Yeti might squeak ahead on traction and low-speed handling. So while there's nothing between the two bikes if your climbs don't require much thinking, the SB140 is able to get around tight switchbacks and through awkward stuff with a bit less effort.
I would have thought all of these bikes were impossibly good climbers if I'd ridden any of them as recently as three or four years ago. They'd all be great for your rootiest or smoothest climbs, sure, but Hightower is more agile than the Scott and it pedals better than the Yeti, but maybe a smidge behind the Trek. Descending
When Kazimer put my name down to ride the Hightower while we were planning this Field Test, I'm pretty sure I said, "Sure," then forgot two minutes later and moved on with my day. When we got to Whistler, the Hightower was the last bike I took out for testing and, up until that point, the least interesting to me. Aside from that amazing paint job, obviously.
Then I rode it and realized Santa Cruz have come up with one hell of a sleeper. On paper, the Hightower looks pretty normal, but it comes alive on the trail, and it only took three or four corners for me to quickly gain a bunch of misplaced confidence in my skills. It usually takes twice as long. That's exactly what you want from your bike, and while I can't quite pinpoint why, the Hightower was especially good at carrying speed through corners. I'd describe it by saying that it felt like I was nearly always in the right position between the wheels without having to consciously think about my movements, and I needed to make fewer mid-corner corrections than when I was on the same trail but riding a different test bike.
There's one descent, in particular, that is pretty much just loose, dusty switchback after loose, dusty switchback, giving you about a hundred opportunities to mess things up but also to redeem yourself. All of the bikes could get down it well, but I began to see patterns in performance when doing lap after lap on them. The longer, slacker Genius was great here as well, but I was by far the most consistent and quickest on the Hightower, especially when at my limits. Inevitably, I'd bobble a slippery turn or ricochet off a polished root strangely on the other bikes, but all my laps on the Santa Cruz were about as smooth as I could ever hope for.
All of these trail bikes are fun to ride almost anywhere, but the Hightower also took to the flow quite well. The Norco and Yeti could feel a touch muted when the ground was smooth and flat, whereas the Santa Cruz was happier to reward you for your pumping. At the other end of the spectrum, when things got really rough and pointy, the Scott Genius ST uses its extra length and travel to put a bit of time on the other bikes. If you pressed me to fault the Santa Cruz, I'd probably say that sort of situation, at the outer extreme use cases for this category of bike, is where I could begin to fault the Hightower. It pedals well, but it's not a rocket ship; it descends well, but it's not trying to be a light-duty enduro bike.
In other words, there are other bikes that are better at certain things, but few that are this good at as many things as the Hightower.
Our Hightower's build kit includes some fancy bits like carbon wheels and a wireless derailleur, but it wasn't trouble-free. The GX Eagle AXS derailleur's clutch was soft enough to cause noticeably more chain slap than on the other bikes, and the chain even fell off a couple of times as well. On top of that, one of the parallelogram's pivot pins started to work its way out after losing the c-clip that holds it in at the opposite end. This could have been from a rock strike, but there were no scars to give me that impression. Speaking to SRAM, it sounds like this would be a warranty issue that a local shop could help with, or a rider could visit SRAM's rider support page
for more information.
The Hightower isn't the light and speedy trail bike you'd want to do the odd cross-country race on, and it's also not a burly one that you'd take to a bunch of rowdy enduro races. But it's most certainly a damn good trail bike that's easy to get along with everywhere... even on a nightmare climb or when you rolled into a descent that you had no business riding. That makes it a great choice for anyone who'd check the 'All of the above' box on their singletrack lunch menu.