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Hands-on Gear Review
Santa Cruz Bronson 2017 Review
Cons: Requires aggressive handling downhill at speed, not as innovative as award winners
Bottom line: It doesn't shine anywhere we want it to, i.e. downhill or fun factor
Debuting in 2013 to much fanfare and rebooting in late 2015 to its current iteration, the 2017 Santa Cruz Bronson's longstanding popularity makes it the best-known bike among our testers. As such, it was nearly taken for granted early on in the test. Our enthusiasm for the shiny, the new and the 29 flew right past it. But, as the weeks marched on, and it kept showing up for us, again and again, we started referencing it as a benchmark performance bike, a yardstick to measure others by. The Bronson gets it. It's in the zone at all times, can go anywhere and does everything a trail bike should be able to do. Only our two Editors' Choice Award Winners, the Ibis Ripley LS 2017 and the Yeti SB5.5 2017 came in ahead of the Bronson, both tying with just three points above the Santa Cruz score of 75. They took the top prize for their higher downhill and fun factor scores, though the Bronson is a better climber than both.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Trail Mountain Bikes of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
Analysis and Test Results
After two years of development and one ridiculously in-depth 2016 Best Enduro Mountain Bikes Review six pro bike testers ran the Bronson and five other bikes through our rigorous testing process. Get all the dirt-flinging details in our How We Tested article.
If we combine the results from our three time trial courses (the downhill Scorpion, uphill Crank and demoralizingly techy uphill The Soul Grinder), then the Bronson is in fifth place for overall speed. We show this result in the chart below by calculating the seconds that each bike gains over the last place Intense Recluse for every minute ridden on each course.
What is also apparent from this chart is that the Bronson has a relatively balanced skill set. The Santa Cruz gains more speed climbing but doesn't take a huge hit on the descents. This ability to do everything quite well led to the Bronson's third place finish in the test overall.
A smooth and quiet descender, the Bronson is playful but it can still plow through chunder when you need to, or when you screw up. It's a stable ripper on the descents. That burlier suspension keeps it from having the cheeky attitude and lively trail feel of the Ibis Ripley LS however, and the trail can feel a little dead by comparison.
Given its nearly enduro dimensions, we expected the big travel Bronson to keep up a little better on our downhill time trial course, The Scorpion. It just didn't carry speed like three 29ers (the Yeti SB5.5, Pivot Mach 429 Trail and Ibis Ripley LS), or even the fat tires of the Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Pro Carbon 6Fattie. Surprisingly for a bike with 27.5" wheels, it didn't accelerate as well either. Neither did the Intense Recluse, which held even less speed than the Bronson and didn't inspire nearly as much confidence. See the downhill time trail results in the chart below, shown as the number of seconds each biked gained over the last place Intense Recluse.
While the 140mm travel Yeti SB5.5 and 120mm travel Ibis Ripley LS capitalized on their speedy rollout with confidence inducing handling and grounded tires, the 116mm Pivot Mach 429 Trail and its narrower, fast rolling tires rattle around a little too much in the rocks to take advantage.
You really have to work to keep the Bronson at speed and accelerating, which explains why it was an average of 4 seconds behind the downhill winning Yeti SB5.5 and 3.1 behind the second place Ibis Ripley LS. It finishes 5.4 seconds ahead of the last place Intense, however, due to the Recluse's very poor pedaling performance. The Intense feels heavier and harder to move than the Bronson, even though our builds for the two bikes weighed nearly the same, 28.05 lbs for the Santa Cruz versus 28.02 for the Intense.
After airing the Bronson over his favorite tesing section one tester was elated: "#@$! huzzah! What a boss." He followed that statement with a less flattering one: "I can't believe I did that with that wimpy tire." That kind of sums up the Santa Cruz a confident descender, with a side of doubt. It performs perfectly, to a point. (We'll get to the specifics of the tire choice later).
An excellent descender at a range of RPMs, the Bronson has some chinks in its downhill bashing armor when you really start pushing the speed. The bike requires aggressive steering when charging hard but is also easy to oversteer when you're crouching over those 800mm wide handlebars. These two characteristics caused testers to hit the brakes or move back off the bike when the going got intense. The Yeti, Ibis and Specialized are all more confidence inspiring when you're pushing for time on the descent.
Direct-steering makes the Bronson easy to pilot, its front wheel keeps to your course with minimal adjustment and the backend follows the front's trajectory and angle of approach. The Intense is every so slightly more precise, but the rear end doesn't track as well. The Ibis Ripley LS or Pivot Mach 429 Trail offer the most laser-sharp steering of the test, while the Bronson's rock solid handling is more similar to that of the Yeti SB5.5. These two bikes compensate for their slightly slower steering with bump eating suspensions. This approach doesn't work for the Recluse, which still gets bounced around if you can't keep it on the smoothest lines.
Given the Bronson's stable steering and a supple suspension, you don't end up offline. If you do happen to find yourself there, it's easy to recover. Especially if you leave those wrangle-ready 800mm bars in place. Often those wide bars were usual an asset, offering up "delicious" handling. They open up your lungs. Everything works exceedingly well at slow speeds, where the Bronson's playful but steady nature seems like a lovechild of the 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad and Ibis Mojo from our enduro review. It's predictable and super even. You just sit there and guide it through.
Our three most aggressive testers found the Bronson demands more aggressive handling at speed than the Yeti, Ibis or Specialized, meaning you have to move around more to maintain control. The centered cockpit doesn't set you up over the back so you've got to get there on your own. With your arms wingspan wide to grip the bars, straightening them doesn't send you as far back as you'd like, you've got to get your back into it. This heads-up nature keeps you from totally relaxing, similar to the Intense and the Pivot. Having to slide those super wide bars through narrow gaps doesn't help. In contrast, our lead tester felt that he could relax at moments and maintain speed on the Yeti, the Ibis, and the Specialized.
Suspension and Traction
The boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RCT3 Solo Air fork and Monarch Plus RC3 rear shock create a smooth and balanced ride that is ghostly quiet through rock gardens. It never feels bucky or loose in the rear end or the fork and held the line very well without bouncing us around like the 3" tires on the 6Fattie. That Pike fork is our favorite in the test, far and away better than the boosted 150mm Fox Performance Float 36 on the Intense Recluse. It's also noticeably smoother than the boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RC on the Stumpjumper 6Fattie. The rear suspension is fun and feels like it holds travel in reserve, handling like a 140mm bike but tackling emergencies like a 160mm ride.
The Pike fork and Monarch shock are both supple early in their stroke, providing great small bump compliance, and helping maintain traction. That's where the Bronson outshines the Intense Recluse, while they both absorb the bigger hits pretty well. Overall it's a far cushier ride than the Recluse and the tires provided more traction. But the 29ers in the test have these two bikes beat.
Our biggest complaint? The rear shock deadens the trail too much. And while the Bronson is never abrupt, it's not exceedingly comfortable either. It hammers through obstacles. It doesn't bottom out on the bigger hits, but it comes close. We ran through all of the travel on our test trails. We wouldn't tap it for a day at the bike park.
The Bronson rates second in climbing at an 8 of 10 for its ability to skillfully acquit itself on any trail. The Mach 429 Trail comes out just ahead with a 9 due to its super light feel and 29er supplied rollover abilities and acceleration. The Bronson's suspension offers a smoother, but less inspiring ride. The Yeti and Ibis are just behind at a 7 of 10, taking a hit for a heavier feel and lower bottom bracket respectively. The Sisyphus-esque Specialized rates a 5 and the Intense Recluse's poor pedaling performance pushes it way back to a 3. With a balanced cockpit, comfortable pedaling and supple suspension, the Bronson comes together to work as a whole, whereas the Recluse feels disjointed.
The Soul Grinder, Technical Uphill Benchmarking Performance — The Bronson outpaces the other 27.5 bike in the test, the last place Intense Recluse, by 6.3 seconds on our technical climb. It also beats one of the light and agile 29ers, the Ibis Ripley LS, but only by 0.5 seconds. Unsurprisingly, the Bronson felt faster than the Intense. Very surprisingly, it felt faster than the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie. In fact, all the top five bikes did, but the 6Fattie crushed the timed results, beating the Bronson by 4.7 seconds.
The Crank, Smooth Uphill Benchmarking Performance — We were surprised to see the Bronson win the smooth uphill time trial. It virtually ties with the fastest accelerating bike in the test, the Mach 429 Trail, beating it by 0.3 seconds, and smashes the slowest bike, the Intense Recluse by 10.9 seconds. It didn't feel like the fastest bike on this climb, partially because it's so comfortable. Busting the Bronson uphill didn't hurt as much. Maybe that's the secret.
An unimpressive time trial result on the technical Soul Grinder led to an impressive win on the smooth climb, The Crank. Combined, these results put the Bronson in the middle of the overall climbing pack, as shown below in seconds per minute. Meaning, if both climbing courses lasted one minute, then each bike would gain this many seconds over the slowest bike in the test, the Intense Recluse. The larger blue portion in the chart below shows that the Santa Cruz skews towards mellow uphill trails.
The Bronson falls behind the Mach 429 Trail and Stumpjumper 6Fattie in overall uphill climbing speed. As you can see from the wide margin of green above the Specialized in the chart. The 6Fattie's result is overwhelmingly influenced by its dominating time on the technical climb. But climbing it anywhere is an exhausting enterprise. As a result, the 6Fattie's overall climbing score doesn't track its uphill race ranking.
A light pedaling feel helps the Santa Cruz get up to speed rapidly, but it can't match the snappy acceleration or speed holding capabilities of the Pivot Mach 429 Trail or Ibis Ripley LS, or the ever-accelerating feel of the Yeti SB5.5. Even the Stumpjumper 6Fattie seems like it holds onto more speed. Once the Bronson starts to roll though, the suspension smooths over obstacles faster than the Mach 429 Trail and Ripley LS, and with a lighter feel than the SB5.5 or 6Fattie. The Bronson is also a far better pedaler than the Intense Recluse. It's not that you have to spin continuously to roll the Santa Cruz along every inch of the trail, but it's work, efficient work.
Santa Cruz has their geometry pretty dialed. The Bronson sets you up to pedal by putting you right over the cranks, in a similar position to the 2016 Nomad. They've found a slack head tube/steep seat tube sweet spot that keeps you very balanced, no need to rock back to keep traction on the climb. In contrast, the Intense forces you to shift your weight off the back often to properly handle the bike. It's a subtle but noticeable difference.
Despite the effective positioning the Bronson's pedaling feels dull compared to the cross country feeling of the Pivot. The shock doesn't completely isolate the pedal stroke, allowing for that comfortable bump compliance on the way up. This is nice when you're sitting down and powering up a slope, but when you're out of the saddle, it subtly bogs down right at the bottom of the pedal stroke. You aren't bleeding energy, we might not even notice it if we were riding the Bronson were standing on its own. As a result, it's easier on the body but harder on the legs.
The Bronson's combination of killer suspension and nimble handling allows you to pilot it however you'd like on rougher climbs — pick up speed and plow through or manual over the rocks. The wheelie can be challenging for smaller riders as the very balanced Bronson wants to keep both wheels on the ground. Either way, the suspension plows, holding a straight line much more easily than the Intense. The front tire can get a bit floppy at slow speeds, but when you're flying it's a fighter plane.
On test days, we often described these capabilities as "remarkably average". In retrospect, it's more accurate to say that the bike performed perfectly, but without personality. It just doesn't inspire our collective devotion. The most lauded aspect of its handling is the bike's comfort factor, driven by its geometry. While speedy descents require aggression, slower climbing speeds feel mellow and direct. The upright, centered cockpit makes it easy to get over the front end and engage the tire, allowing you to pull momentum between trail sections. Easier to direct than the Recluse, the Bronson never makes us feel like we are climbing off the front of the bike on the hills or have to shift back to make it around the turns.
Suspension and Traction
The Bronson climbs well in both trail and open modes, making for a stiff pedaling platform that still absorbs hits. You'll want to lockout the suspension on the super smooth climbs (i.e. pavement) to reduce every possible ounce of lost power. The Fox forks (Yeti, Ibis, Pivot, Intense) lockout better than the RockShox Pike, but we'll pedal a bit harder in exchange for the Pike's downhill performance.
Unlike the jittery climbing of the Ibis Ripley LS and Intense Recluse, the Bronson feels grounded on the climbs. Again the Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR2 2.3"/27.5" tires are solid and provide plenty of traction. You can stay seated, put the power down and let the suspension worry about the bumps. It all feels efficient, giving you plenty of comfort and traction. When climbing rocky terrain, it works best if you open the suspension, keep the gears low and the cadence high, and stay in the seat. Still, it's not too squishy when you get out of the seat.
When coming up to a corner at speed, the Bronson won't give you a hall pass for tired or lazy riding like the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie or whip around at the slightest suggestion like the Ibis Ripley LS. It behaves in the berms but requires some manhandling in the flat corners. It's manageable, but not that enjoyable on any turn. Despite this, its ability to smash through obstacles even in the turns tied it with the Yeti for a second place cornering finish at a 7 out of 10. The Ripley LS wins the metric at an 8, the Pivot and Stumpjumper 6Fattie lose it with a 5, and the Intense comes in fourth with a score of 6.
The Bronson has a long bike feel. (It's measured wheelbase is 1,164mm — shorter than the Yeti's 1,172mm and the Intense's 1,173mm.) When you're coming in hot to a corner you have to prepare, shifting back on the bike or hitting the brakes. Then you, a: swing the back tire around and slam it to finish the turn, b: turn the wheel to the outside of the corner to counter steer and lay the bike over, or c: just steer it around. You've got to be on it. If you aren't ready to rip and rail every turn it's not going to corner very controllably for you.
Still, it's not hard to lay over. The wide and low cockpit makes it easy to toss the bike over to the cornering knobs. Whipping it around at slower speeds is more straightforward, if somewhat cumbersome. On the smoother climbs, it's easy to get into the turns but it's not explosive to get back out. You have to work to keep it climbing. The Ibis makes its way around much faster. Still, the Bronson is far easier to get around the tight uphill turns than the Pivot or Yeti.
The Bronson is fun, just not the favorite. Everyone liked it — but they didn't all show up at the parking lot with gap-mouthed grins. Our love of this bike was relative. Hop from the Intense to the Bronson and you'll think it's the best. Coming of the Ibis we tended to think, "meh, it does its job well." It's just not as much fun as the Yeti's speedy authority or the Specialized's intense amount of tire enforced control. But it's got a glint in its eye. Its frame and components come together to create a little magic, whereas the Intense feels like the sum of its parts.
The Bronson has many talents. It rips through the rough stuff while feeling very even, and it's never harsh. On the side jumps or table tops, the Bronson pops off the lip and floats nicely. It's stable and easy to maneuver in the air. It's also an efficient climber, "increasing overall fun levels," according to one tester and striking a nice balance of good climbing and descending efficiency.
At slower speeds, it's nimble and comfortable nature keep things playful. If you aren't worried about racing to a finish line or to keep up with your friends, you can have a really good time. But when the going gets fast, your focus needs to keep up, and the fun falls away. As one tester put it, "its got a small dog yip for a large dog bike."
"It's great. It just isn't flashy," says one of our testers of the Bronson's build. Still, in this case, Santa Cruz did the best job of specing a bike. It's ready to rumble right out of the box. Their thoughtful spec earned it the highest build score of the bunch at a 9 of 10. The only real complaints we had are its heavy wheelset and passť tires. The Yeti came in second at an 8 for taking a step down on the brakes to a SRAM Guide RS and it's tricky placement of the rear shock rebound adjustment.
The only fit complaints are the handlebar width (though it does contribute to very direct steering) and the uncomfortable saddle. The wide bars make the cockpit feel slightly more compact by pulling your arms out, effectively shortening them, this could have been what made it feel harder to get off the back of the bike.
Santa Cruz's Sizing suggestions: S (5'0" — 5'5"), M (5'5" — 5'10"), L (5'10" — 6'1"),
XL (6'1" — 6'6")
Frame and Suspension — The frame is a good one but its angles don't aspire to the exalted realm Yeti SB5.5 or Ibis Ripley LS. We like it though, and it's outfitted with some of our favorite components. The boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RCT3 Solo Air fork is among the best in the test, offering subtle sensitivity and bomber security.
The RockShox Monarch Plus RC3 rear shock is among our top suspension picks. It works with the recently updated VPP linkage arrangement, delivering excellent small bump compliance and ramping up quickly to catch you on hard landings. But its strength is also its weakness. After the lively Ibis Ripley LS ride, that excellent rear shock could take too much out of the trail without rewarding us with enough suspension for a totally buffed out ride. This middle ground tendency is what keeps the Bronson up for anything but keeps it from excelling anywhere.
Groupset — We're a fan of threaded bottom brackets and like that the Bronson has one. The SRAM Eagle drivetrain worked flawlessly, with crisp shifting. It's incomparably better than the E13 setup on the Intense. We did have some trouble with the chain's master link and could have gone with a higher quality chain. The 175mm carbon cranks are nice ones.
The SRAM Guide RSC brakes with 180mm centerline rotors performed perfectly, though several of our testers prefer the more precise feel of the Shimano Deore XT setup on the Pivot Mach 429 Trail.
Wheels and Tires — The wheels and tires rate more of a "meh". The Race Face ARC 27 are heavier than they need to be. And, though definitely better than the 2.3" Maxxis High Roller II rubber on the Intense, the 2.3" Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR2 tire on 27mm rims set felt equally dated. They're a good all around tire and work for climbing in and out of the saddle, but aren't enough for super confident descending. As one tester puts it, "those tires are so six months ago." They are unremarkable and, in the inspiring and unforgiving cycling innovation machine, feel dated.
We'd like to see more volume. (The same goes for the Intense.) But it never skids out like the Intense's High Rollers.
Handlebars, Seat and Seatpost — We liked the high-quality carbon handlebar. It helped with handling but just felt too big for the bike. They are flirting with the line of diminishing control returns. Knocking them on a tree or rock at the wrong time could also be catastrophic. It's an easy enough fix. Go grab a hacksaw. We'd shave it down to 780 or 760mm. The grips are good too.
Sure, sure, seat comfort is subjective, but the Silverado saddle is disliked across the board, uncomfortable for all of our testers. The RockShox Reverb Stealth is a reliable seat post that works very nicely. It's one of our favorites in the test. One, however, preferred the Yeti's Race Face Turbine's reaction speed, sensitivity, and intuitive, front shifter-like lever. The Reverb is slow in comparison to the Race Face, which moves quickly but without much force. You have to devote more time to adjusting the Reverb.
This is truly a bike that can take you anywhere — up technical trails, back down them and on long, cross mountain days. If every aspect of mountain biking lights you up, this is a great bike for you. That being said, if you consistently eschew technical trails in favor of fast and smooth cross country tracks, you might find that 150mm suspension a little much to lug around. As our smooth pedal time trial shows, the Bronson can definitely keep up in the short run, but if you're heading out for an epic, you might prefer the fast-rolling Pivot Mach 429 Trail. Likewise, if you tend towards big, burly downhill runs, the Bronson isn't going to deliver your fastest or funnest times. We'd recommend the Yeti SB5.5 or Ibis Ripley LS.
With 150mm travel and aggressive geometry, the Bronson is such an aggressive trail bike that it's nearly an enduro worthy ride. For that task, we'd prefer the 2016 Nomad from our enduro test.
The 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad vs the 2017 Santa Cruz Bronson
Below, the 2016 Nomad is on the left and the 2017 model is on the right.
The Bronson can go anywhere, comfortably, but given our love for the Santa Cruz Nomad 2016 it really needed to blow us away on the climbs to rationalize choosing it over that downhill confidence crowning machine. The three riders who tested both the 2016 Nomad and 2017 Bronson split the vote — 2 to 1 Nomad. The Bronson certainly handles better on the technical climbs and is easier to whip around corners. For that our more precision, cross country oriented tester would choose the Bronson. Our aggressive trail to enduro guys would go Nomad, which smashes the Bronson at high-speed fun and has unshakable handling on the descents. For them, the pedaling is a little quicker and the uphill handling more straightforward, but not enough to justify the switch given the huge gap in the bikes' comparative downhill skills.
At $6,599 the Bronson has the same price tag as the Ibis Ripley LS and comes in just three points below it in our scoring system, the Ibis earning 78 points to the Bronson's 75. The Yeti costs $7,049 and ties with the Ibis at a 78. From this perspective, both the Bronson and the Ibis are pretty good deals performance wise. When you look at it from a build perspective, however, the Santa Cruz gets a leg up on the Ibis. Compare the Bronson's top component score of 9 of 10 to the Ibis's disappointing spec rating of 6. Consider the fact that the Bronson is a take-you-anywhere type of ride and you've got a $6.5K deal on your hands.
The Santa Cruz Bronson balances technical skills with a reasonably spritely pedaling feel and keeps up with the pack in both climbing and descending performance. The bike performs so consistently that it's challenging to cite faults or to find places where the Bronson truly excels. It does everything well but nothing wonderfully, which belies its biggest strength, versatility. You can take this bike on almost any trail (we'd leave the most technical of trails up to the **Yeti SB5.5) and for any length of ride and you're going to have a good time. That's a pretty strong selling point.
— Clark Tate, Curtis Smith, Joshua Hutchens, Paul Tindal, Sean Cronin, Cat Keenan, Otto Trebotich
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