Update October 2018
The Hightower frame is unchanged for 2019. There are some minor component tweaks but we don't expect drastic performance changes. October 2018.
The Hightower 29er is an extremely well-rounded bike. It climbs calmly and descends with confidence. Introduced in 2017, the Hightower was part of a wave of new bikes to accept both 29-inch and 27.5+ wheels and tires. We tested the 29er version to ride head-to-head against three other 29ers — the Ibis Ripley, Yeti SB4.5, and Specialized Stumpjumper 29. Then we ranked it against every trail bike we've tested. It's a darn good bike. We hope to hop on this bike with 27.5+ size tires soon.
This bike makes its money on more aggressive lines.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is very fun in that it can handle a great number of situations. Need to aim it down some rocks? This bike can handle it like a far squishier rig. Long grinds up singletrack? The Hightower will get you there calmly and easily. Blistering flow trails? This bike remains composed. It does, however, lack some of the playful manners that many associate with a fun-loving trail bike. It prefers to keep the rubber on the trail.
A 135mm travel trail bike should be versatile. There is no-doubt the Hightower fits the bill very well. It attacked some of the rowdiest trails in the area with the confidence of a longer travel bike. It powered us uphill for 6+ hour rides without using much more energy than our shorter travel favorite the Ibis Ripley LS. This beauty is ready to be loaded up onto the car and taken to nearly any trailhead. This sort of freedom and adaptability is definitely fun.
The Hightower doesn't shy away from rocks or steep terrain.
It is important to remember we are discussing the Hightower's fun-level as it compares to the other three trail bikes in the test. There is no doubt this bike is more playful than stubborn long-travel enduro rigs with ultra-slack angles and wheelbases that resemble an 18-wheeler. Within the realm of trail bikes, this bike is not super fun in the traditional, boost everything and pop around, sense. There is no denying that it would rather have its wheels on the ground, building speed, and smashing trail.
On proper jump lines, the Hightower is certainly capable. One tester states that he consistently over-shot jumps due to the extra speed he was carrying. Driving this bike through corners is fantastic at speed. Low-speed and sharper corners become a little more cumbersome as the bike's relative length becomes detrimental.
The two taller testers felt this bike was long for a large frame. The added length is fantastic for high-speed stability but makes it tricky to bounce around on.
The Santa Cruz Hightower finished near the top of the test in fun factor for its capable and versatile ride. The Ibis Ripley LS ran away with this category. The ultra-aggressive Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Hightower LT both scored well for their capable personalities. The 27.5-inch 130mm Commencal Meta TR ties the Hightower. The Meta TR is a bit more playful than the Hightower but is less composed in the gnar.
The Hightower's suspension is excellent at absorbing bigger hits.
The Hightower is one of our two favorite bikes to ride down hills. This bike remains composed at speed and handling actually improves as the speedometer climbs. This bike's mean and chargey attitude is plenty confident to feed it a substantial diet of rock. The build specifications on this "budget build" feature some highlights and lowlights but didn't interfere with performance too much.
The Hightower is spacious and makes for some substantial body position movement. That long top tube forces a good deal of movement for our testers to keep weight on the front wheel through turns to keep traction. This was even the case four our taller testers. On steep chutes, getting back over the rear wheel takes a bit of doing. The measured 66.5-degree head tube successfully balances confidence and stability with responsiveness. Where the Commencal Meta TR can slice and cut its way down a technical section of trail, the Hightower prefers to do a little more old-fashioned 29er-style plowing.
Cornering at slow speeds can feel clumsy and sluggish.
The 135mm of suspension remained impressively calm through choppy terrain. This is our favorite design among the four test bikes. The small bump compliance is mediocre but larger hits were handled admirably. This calm rear end provided a stable and confident ride. This was especially important when pushing the bike towards its upper threshold. The Hightower is the unanimous choice for aggressive terrain.
The components on this budget build stood out to us. While this bike made some sacrifices in the name of attaining a reasonable price point, the most important tire specification is spot on. Maxxis Minion DHF 2.3-inch up front and a Minion DHR II 2.3-inch rear tire…perfect. This aggressive pairing is so important that even poor brakes and a mediocre drivetrain cannot kill our vibes. The Minion's feature fantastic cornering bite and performance over mixed surfaces.
Aggressive rubber allows you to confidently attack some higher consequence lines.
The RockShox Revelation RC fork is burly and stiff. It is not smooth and small bump sensitivity is not a strong suit. Heavier, aggressive, testers enjoyed the stiffness and support of the Revelation. The Level TL brakes are not good. There is some brake fade and pump on longer, 15+ minute descents. One minute the lever is pulling into the grips. The next minute it pumps up and bites instantly. This can be sketchy at high speeds or on steep pitches.
The Hightower scores an 8 of 10 for its fearless and adaptable downhill abilities, just a couple notches below its harder charging big brother, the Hightower LT and the Yeti SB5.5. This 135mm 29er is up there with the well-loved Santa Cruz Bronson in its abilities. If you prefer faster acceleration, quick handling, and the fun factor of 27.5-inch wheels, consider the Bronson.
The Hightower finished first on our downhill course. The segment took an average of 3 minutes and 38 seconds.
We raced the Hightower against its closest competitors and found that it is faster than the Ibis Ripley, Specialized Stumpjumper, and Yeti SB4.5. It finished approximately 1.5 seconds ahead of the second place Ibis Ripley. The downhill course took an average of 3 minutes and 38 seconds to complete.
Climbing is calm and effective but there is no denying this bike is heftier than the Ibis Ripley LS or Yeti SB4.5.
The Santa Cruz is an interesting bike to climb. A calm and firm pedal platform works to conserve energy. No matter if you are standing and hammering or sitting and spinning, the rear end stays planted without bobbing. The Hightower's undeniable heft and relative bulk become apparent on longer uphill grinds. While a medium frame would no-doubt have a slightly reduced weight.
The Hightower is very effective at isolating pedal forces. This bike doesn't care if you want to sit and spin in a low, mellow gear or push a heavy ratio. The rear end remains even-keeled with minimal bob, and the tire remains in contact with the ground. For those moments where you need extra power, standing up and hammering the pedals is not a problem.
There is no question that 31 lbs 1 ounce is not light. Yes, it is a large frame, but this is still a hefty weight. While this bike has an efficient feel, you are very aware that you're powering a 31 lb bike. Still, the Hightower feels lighter on its feet than the YT Jeffsy and easier to climb than the Yeti SB5.5.
The 30:42 SRAM NX drivetrain makes for a reasonable climbing gear.
The Hightower's uphill handling is respectable but a relatively long wheelbase makes tight maneuvers tricky. Working through technical features requires some attention and a game plan. The lengthy top-tube makes super tight corners a little troublesome for some of our shorter testers. To be sure, this bike still handles these 130-degree corners far more effectively than a longer-travel, enduro bike. When getting to a rocky steep section of the climb, the Hightower can use the superb grip of its rear end to pedal right through trouble. Just line the bike up and gas it and you can come out of some ugly situations remarkably clean. The 335mm bottom bracket feels low. A quick glance at the 6-O'clock part of your pedal stroke and your foot is disconcertingly close to the trail surface. Even so, pedal strikes are a relative non-issue and isolated.
The Santa Cruz Hightower finished respectably above average for its climbing skills. Only the Commencal Meta TR and Rocky Mountain Altitude can compete with the Hightower on both the climbs and descents. The Hightower eeks both of them out on the latter. The Santa Cruz Tallboy won the climbing category with a 10 out of 10. All-day comfort and efficiency is the Tallboy's game.
The Hightower finished third on our technical climb. It took 2 minutes and 43 seconds on average.
Our uphill time trials found the Ibis Ripley LS to be faster than the Hightower, Yeti SB4.5, and Specialized Stumpjumper 29. The Hightower rolled into third place approximately 6 seconds off the Ripley's winning time. The timed climbing course took an average of 2 minutes 43 seconds to complete.
Ease of Maintenance
Retail price is important when making a purchase decision. It is also important to consider how easy or difficult it is to maintain. Repairs on these expensive machines can add up in a hurry. Having a local shop that has extensive experience with your brand of bike is valuable. Your suspension bearings and pivots will require service from time to time, as will your fork, rear shock, drivetrain, brakes and dropper post. We rank the Hightower's ease of maintenance below, read about our ranking methods in the trail MTB review.
Santa Cruz bikes use a dual link system with a clever collet axle system. The design is simple enough but it uses tricky torque values. In addition, the stock bearings are notorious for wearing out quickly. Recommended maintenance intervals for the Hightower's RockShock fork are more frequent than Fox alternatives. Similarly, Fox recommends longer service intervals for its rear shocks than RockShox does. We rate RockShox lower than Fox components as a result. Many mechanics say they see Fox suspensions come in for repairs more frequently however so pay attention to actual performance. SRAM brakes require a more challenging bleed process and corrosive fluids than Shimano brakes.
Frame Design and Measurements
The Hightower uses the Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension design. This system features two links, one located behind the bottom bracket and one on the seat stay. These two links rotate in opposite directions as the bike moves through its travel and create a near "S" shaped wheel path. VPP is known as a great climbing platform and works well under braking. The most common complaint is poor sensitivity over small bumps. While the small bump sensitivity isn't fantastic, it is a worthy tradeoff for a great pedal platform.
The Hightower can run 29-inch or 27.5+ wheels. A flip-chip located on the shock mount on the upper link switches between low-mode for 29-inch wheels and high-mode for 27.5+. We tested the 29-inch version.
The Yeti SB4.5, Specialized Stumpjumper and Ibis Ripley LS test bikes we raced the Hightower against are all medium frames. We were unable to purchase a medium Hightower as they were unavailable in our desired build kit. As a result, we tested a large bike. One of our time trail testers is on the medium/large line, another is more comfortable on large bikes, the other three prefer mediums. While everyone weighed in on the Hightower, two riders tested it rigorously. It is also important not to compare the measurements from our large Santa Cruz against the other medium bikes.
We measured the large Hightower to have a 66.5-degree head angle, 626mm effective top tube, and 435mm chainstays to create a 1192mm wheelbase. This bike sports a 335mm bottom bracket and a 75-degree seat tube angle. This large bike weighs in at a hefty 31 lbs 1 ounce without pedals. Nothing is too extreme about these numbers for the 135mm travel class. This results in some nicely balanced performance.
Santa Cruz states that the medium Hightower has a 430mm reach and 1165mm wheelbase with the same 435mm chainstays. They measure the head tube and seat tube angle as 67 and 74.3-degrees across all sizes. The medium Hightower would still be the longest reach and wheelbase in our test.
The RockShox Revelation RC helps create a burly and mean front end.
The Hightower Carbon R performed well on the trail. That said, before throwing down $3,999 for this bike, it is important to consider build specifications.
Fork and Shock — The 140mm RockShox Revelation RC is a solid and understated performer. No testers ever said the fork felt particularly plush or supple. It does, however, provide a stiff and supportive experience. There is loads of late stroke support. The Fox 34 GRIP forks on the Ibis Ripley and Yeti SB4.5 just dive through the full stroke. One tester notes that the Revelation tracked far better and didn't have the fore/aft flex on the Fox forks.
The Fox Float Performance DPS went beautifully unnoticed.
The Fox Performance DPS rear shock is predictable and reliable. It went largely unnoticed and undiscussed.
Wheels and Tires — WTB ST i25 rims are laced to Novatec D711 and D462 hubs. The rims are appropriate for the trail application, but, wider is better. Beefier hoops in the 30mm range could take the traction to another level. The engagement on the Novatec hubs is mediocre.
The pairing of a Maxxis Minion DHF 2.3-inch up front and a Minion DHR II 2.3-inch in the rear is dialed. This is a winning combination. Decent rolling speed and insane levels of cornering confidence make the Minions an OutdoorGearLab favorite.
The SRAM NX drivetrain is never sexy but is always effective.
Groupset — The SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain is predictably serviceable as always. The feel at the shifter is a little clunky, but the rear derailleur operated cleanly and reliably throughout testing. This is never a sexy specification, but it always works. A 30:42-tooth gear ratio successfully balanced climbing abilities and downhill power.
The SRAM Level TL are a cut above the base-model Level brakes on the Ibis Ripley, but they are not good. Brake fade and poor stopping power plagued the Level TL's through testing.
SRAM Level T brakes faded and pumped up on longer descents.
Handlebars, Seat, and Seatpost — RaceFace 780mm bars with a 35mm clamp. Perfect.
The RaceFace Aeffect post failed right out of the box.
The RaceFace Aeffect Dropper post failed right out of the box. It took 150+ psi to get this post to return to the upright position. That is far too much air. We swapped it out for a RockShox Reverb we had lying around to get us going through testing.
We tested the Carbon R build of the Hightower, which retails for $3,999.
If you are into plus sized tires, the Carbon R+
build sells for the same price. The plus version has a different wheelset/tire combination with RaceFace AR40 rims laced to Novatec hubs. Maxxis Rekon 2.8-inch tires are rock solid with better cornering abilities than some of the 3.0-inch options we've tried. The only other difference is a 150mm RockShox Revelation instead of the 140mm found on our 29-inch test bike
Jumping up from our test bike in the 29er world is the Carbon S build. This iteration sells for $4,899 and features a GX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain. A Fox 36 Performance fork is paired with the same Fox Float Performance DPS shock found on our test bike. Other differences include SRAM Guide R brakes and RaceFace AR27 rims. This version addresses our complaints about poor braking power and a 12-speed drivetrain would make climbing more relaxing.
Looking to throw down? For $5,699 the Carbon XE build sports a Shimano XT 1x11 with a 46-tooth E*Thirteen cassette. The Fox Performance Elite fork features the Fit4 damper and a Float Performance Elite shock is on the rear. Shimano XT brakes and carbon bars complete this build.
Maxxis Minions. Enough said.
The Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon R offers high-end performance but sacrifices some component quality. There is no-doubt, $3,999 is a steep price tag for an NX drivetrain and a RockShox Revelation fork. That said, the performance is certainly impressive. This is a good value if it is a bike you plan on keeping for years and will slowly upgrade over time.
The most affordable, yet, important upgrade would be to ditch the SRAM Level TL brakes. We would recommend a set of Shimano SLX brakes that better balances value and braking power. The brake feel changes significantly as Shimano brakes have a narrower range of modulation. There are tons of online retailers with amazing prices on Shimano components. Shimano XT brakes would be even better.
SRAM Eagle has been out for a few years now. A complete GX Eagle drivetrain can now be purchased for under $500. This would be an enormous, energy-saving upgrade. We have found that having a cush climbing gear does detract from climbing speed. We really don't care.
The Hightower is the epitome of a well-rounded trail bike.
The Santa Cruz Hightower Carbon R is a versatile trail bike with an aggressive attitude. Solid and calm climbing abilities will get you to the top reliably and efficiently. Charging downhill is confident and leans more aggressive than our other test bikes. Even the mediocre components can detract from the Hightower's trail smashing abilities.