Isaac's Tech Review of his Santa Cruz Hightower
With a handful of trail bike releases over the last year, most of them like the SCOTT Genius and the 5010 are significant revisions of previous models while others like the SCOR 4060 are completely brand new. During these new bike launches and changes, the Hightower got lost in the media storm of new bikes when it launched in the Summer of 2022. However, after a lot of research into all of my options available at the shop, I settled on the Hightower as my new ride. Here is what influenced that decision.
When it was released, there was very little “hype”. A lot of people overlooked it or we would often hear “it looks exactly the same as the old one”. Largely because a lot of reviewers and media sites didn't cover this bike as it lacked the radical changes we've become used to with new generation revamps. However, I believe this gradual evolution is how it has grown to be the “do-it-all" trail bike. This bike has evolved like a fine wine, which possibly was the inspiration for the beautiful dark burgundy paint job (called Translucent Purple). We focus here on the tech aspects of the Hightower. Later we will get into all the nitty-gritty details of how the Hightower performs with an in-depth ride review.
Santa Cruz Hightower V3 Specs
So, what's new with the Hightower if everyone says it looks the same? Santa Cruz Bicycles first launched the Hightower in 2016, providing us with 135mm of rear VPP linkage-driven goodness immediately becoming one of Santa Cruz’s most popular bikes. It underwent its first revision in 2019. The shock was switched from its position slung under the top tube, moving it right above the bottom bracket, slackening out the head tube angle, lengthening the reach and wheelbase, and adding 10mm more travel in the rear. The V2 model Hightower remained that way until June 2022, when they launched the V3.
The new bike is offered with a variety of kits and price points ranging from the R kit (a SRAM NX build at 32.02 pounds) to the X01 AXS RSV kit (at 30.8 pounds). As we move up through the models, the bikes get lighter, offer better components and more adjustable suspension all of which add to an improved ride feel. Santa Cruz uses C or CC to note the two frame levels. CC uses a lighter carbon lay-up than the C frame, saving just over a third of a pound while sharing similar stiffness and durability. RSV denotes kits that feature Reserve carbon wheelsets.
While the latest version of the Hightower is certainly an evolution of the last design, there are aspects of the new design worth discussing. First, let's look at frame storage (and other unique frame holes) built into the new model. Changes to the VPP are also noteworthy, along with any changes in the geometry.
More Accessibility for the Win
The first hole in the frame is most likely the one you were wondering about; the stinkn’ large one in the downtube. Santa Cruz cleverly named this stash area the Glovebox. While in-frame storage is nothing new, people often forget how nice it is, or have no idea how nice it is until they use it.
Contender has two other mountain bikes at the shop that offer frame storage. The Orbea Rallon has a smaller door that is 1.5 x 6.5 inches, limiting what you can put in there. The SCOR 4060's storage(located on the bottom side of the frame), only has enough space for a tube and an extra derailleur hanger. The Hightower's Glovebox has a large storage capacity and the right-sized hatch for ample access.
Inspired by Santa Cruz's marketing to store your burrito in the Glovebox, I tried to fit a plethora of things in my downtube. Sometimes more than I probably should. My favorite way to pack is to throw in a windbreaker, a pack of gummy bears, and an 8.4 oz Redbull. For those without the caffeine and sugar dependency and perhaps a more(so-called) “sensible” mindset - I have also packed it using the provided two bags - fitting a multi-tool, a CO2 inflator, a tire plug kit, a 29” tube, and an Apple AirTag.
While the actual riding weight - tools on body vs on bike - remains the same, moving that weight off my body down low on the heart of the bike makes me feel much more comfortable, free, and agile on the bike. When you feel light, you ride light!
When photos and videos for the Hightower first dropped, some more holes in the frame were noted by many people. The smaller of these two holes are located on the non-drive side of the bike, on the shock tunnel above the bottom bracket. This opening lets you see into the shock tunnel, and see the rear shock stanchion. This was something on the previous Hightower that was incredibly annoying and made properly setting up your sag a pain in your saddle-sored behind. This stanchion window is a simple(and quick) fix, but it is still a nice feature. This hole itself lets you see your rear shock through the frame, making it easier to measure your sag.
One thing to note with the rear-shock tunnel is that the Hightower is not compatible with coil rear shocks, or the Fox Float X2, as the tunnel is too narrow. The upside is Santa Cruz was able to lengthen the seat tube to allow 10mm more seatpost insertion.
VPP (Virtual Pivot Point) Changes
Santa Cruz has stuck with its Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension for years. VPP seeks to balance out all the forces acting on the bike, letting you minimize the amount of pedal bob in your suspension, while still having small bump sensitivity as the rider is pedaling. It does this by using a little bit of the pulling force from the chain to counteract the bobbing motion caused by pedaling. Santa Cruz has used this system for years. It is an impressively good pedaling platform and maintains excellent traction, control, and tracking in the descents.
The Hightower V3 made some slight changes to the VPP from the previous generation, slightly moving the pivot points on the bike. The move in pivot points has let Santa Cruz refine the way the bike feels on both ends of its travel. The suspension now has a more active feel when compared to the previous generation, and it has a higher bottom-out resistance. Below is a chart on how the new Hightower’s VPP functions over the previous generation in those ways.
Similar to the previous generation, it features a Flip-Chip in the linkage, offering a HI and LO position. For those who aren't as familiar with the Flip-Chip, it's a little oval-shaped chip in the linkage, with the pivot for the rear shock strut running through it. Flipping the chip will change your geometry between the ‘HI’ and ‘LO’ positions. LO is how most bikes come from the factory, including the Hightower.
In the Hightower’s case, ‘LO’ drops the BB by 4mm and slightly slackens the head angle. Riding in the ‘LO’ position will be more stable over rocky terrain and at higher speeds and offer more confidence to the rider to push for higher speed. The HI position will make the bike slightly more maneuverable at lower speeds. The higher bottom bracket means fewer pedal strikes. I prefer the bike in the LO position, but it's fun to try both.
Santa Cruz Hightower Geometry
The Hightower V3 geo is as follows, split into two sections for both the HI and LO Flip chip positions.
Between the previous generation Hightower and the V3 generation (in a size large), the reach has gotten 2mm longer. Stack is 15mm higher (on size large) and the effective top tube is 8mm longer. The seat tube is 0.1-degree slacker. The chainstays are size specific but have been slightly lengthened for each size too. The biggest change between the generations is the head tube angle being slackened out 0.7 degrees. It seems like Santa Cruz has found a well-rounded geometry that I certainly agree with.
The Hightower is meant to be the do-it-all bike. With the updates in geometry, the new Hightower does handle a little differently than its predecessor. Being more stable in the rough stuff, the bike makes the rider feels more centered because of those longer chainstays and slackened head tube angle. It does however, need a little bit more nudging to get through corners while climbing.
There are so many trail bikes that I looked at when I started shopping for one, so why did I choose the Hightower? With the intent of not trading away one attribute in the favor of another, the Hightower seemed like the ultimate trail bike to meet my wide variety of needs. I like to work on my own bikes, so the ease of maintenance and the simplicity really appealed to me. The ability to store things in the frame was also a big plus. Being the second bike in my stable, I did not need a lighter-weight trail bike, as I already have an XC bike. Simply, I wanted to be able to do long days on the bike without feeling beat. The Hightower is the perfect bike for anyone looking for a trail bike to do it all, to push their abilities and to have some fun.