Words: Sam James
Photos: Geoff Livingston
Unveiling the new Santa Cruz Hightower 3! Already a cult-classic of a bike and one of our staff and customer favourites, the Hightower needs little introduction. It can be difficult to imagine how Santa Cruz could improve on a bike that's already pretty dialled, and clearly they decided not to change the recipe too much since they were already onto a winner.
Already on-trend with Santa Cruz's lower-link driven VPP system, the Hightower is their 29er sweet-spot trail bike with 145mm of rear travel and 150mm up front. An ideal setup for the all-rounder trail bike, and essentially the big-wheeled equivalent of the mixed-wheel Bronson. Refine not redefine is the name of the game with the Hightower 3, and Santa Cruz have chosen to make some subtle tweaks to the geometry and suspension as well as some practical improvements to the frame design to make the bike even easier to live with day to day.
One of the most exciting updates to the Hightower frame is the inclusion of the Glovebox storage system, first rolled out on the Megatower earlier this year. Glovebox is Santa Cruz's version of in-frame downtube storage and comes with a nicely made tube purse and a tool wallet and is big enough to fit a couple of spares, bars etc. The door to the Glovebox is, in typical Santa Cruz fashion, really nicely made with cnc'd latch components and feels really sturdy.
Another really smart detail that's new to the Hightower is the shock window. Since the lower-link shock tunnel design is becoming more and more refined, the shock has become increasingly more tucked away. Thankfully Santa Cruz have included a small window on the non-drive side of the tunnel so that it's possible to see the sag measurements on the shock, making setting up the bike even easier.
Something that's also new for the Hightower 3 is the way Santa Cruz have tailored the carbon layup for each frame to give different stiffness profiles to each size. This means that larger frames are stiffer to cope with the larger riders and forces, and smaller frames have a little more built in flex for the lighter riders, meaning that each frame should ride pretty much the same for every rider, no matter their size.
Following Santa Cruz's more angular design aesthetic, the edges and profiles on the new Hightower 3 have sharpened up a little, with the linkage a little more tucked away and generally the whole package looking a little more cohesive than before, particularly in the shock tunnel area. The down tube also follows the wider trend that the current Bronson started, obviously now to accommodate the Glovebox. Overall we really like the new Hightower frame, it's a looker for sure.
As for smaller details once again Santa Cruz have stuck to the tried and true recipe, and you'll find smart design decisions such as the Universal Derailleur Hanger, Boost 148mm hub spacing, a threaded bottom bracket, a IS56/44 headset, post mount 180 brakes and clearance for a 29x2.5" tire.
With the new bike comes new geometry, but Santa Cruz haven't exactly thrown out the rulebook with the Hightower 3. Sticking relatively close to what already worked incredibly well, the new bike is just a little longer, lower and slacker, bringing a little extra downhill performance to an already extremely capable bike, with a flip chip to raise/lower the BB to the riders' liking.
Knocking 0.7º off the head angle it now sits at a thoroughly modern 64.5º and 64.8º, the BB has dropped by 2mm to 338/342mm, the reach has grown by 5mm to 475/475mm in a size large and the stack has grown a little to 634/636mm.
Following the current trend, the Hightower also features Santa Cruz's Proportionate Geometry, meaning chainstay length grows as the frames size up, and seat tube angles get slacker as the frames get bigger. This all means that the frames remain balanced with the same handling characteristics throughout the size range.
Still rocking the VPP suspension, the Hightower 3 delivers 145mm of rear wheel travel, much the same as its predecessor. VPP is known for being extremely efficient under pedalling, and is extremely tuneable meaning it can easily be optimised for different ride characteristics. In this case Santa Cruz have chosen to reduce the anti-squat in the first 40% of travel to improve small bump sensitivity both when climbing and descending. The leverage curve on the Hightower 3 has also changed a little with a straighter curve than before making it more linear-progressive, meaning more consistent damping throughout the travel with a little more progression at the end.
On The Trail
We were fortunate enough to get our hands on a Hightower 3 for a few days prior to launch and get some quality time on the trail, and to say we were impressed is an understatement. The Hightower 2 is a staff favourite due to its balanced handling and provenance as an amazing all-rounder, and so it won't come as a huge surprise to learn that the Hightower 3 is not wildly different.
Santa Cruz have a talent for producing bikes that feel like home as soon as you jump on them. With geometry that gives the bikes a comfortable climbing position and easy handling on the descents with few surprises and a suspension layout that makes climbing easy while still providing ample cushion on the way down, the new Hightower is the sort of bike that is at home almost anywhere.
With a slightly firmer back end than the megatower and a low weight, the featured bike coming in at just over 31lbs, the Hightower has no problem spinning up climbs and puts power down well under acceleration with little delay and no feeling of lost energy with a decent platform to push against. Rather than feeling like the sort of bike with limitless grip that can crawl up anything it has a really snappy feeling to it that makes you want to sprint up the climbs and pop up and over obstacles. Dare I say it - climbing is enjoyable, or it can be, and it's a comfortable bike to spend time on, whether it's a quick hour-long rip or an all-day epic.
On the way back down the slackened head tube angle and longer reach gives the bike a feeling of stability and confidence whilst also feeling familiar and comfortable. Those that want to push hard won't have much to worry about in terms of finding the limits of the bike, it's happy going fast. That said, it's no enduro race bike and doesn't require large amounts of rider input to remain composed on trail - that is to say that if you're out for a steady cruise you won't find any surprises in the way it handles.
The suspension feels plenty progressive with good small bump sensitivity and performs well on technical trails. The majority of the riding we took it on was on sanctioned North Shore black trails, namely Seventh Secret, Expresso and John Deere. This is where the Hightower feels at home - on technical trail riding. Without the travel and plush feeling of the Megatower it wouldn't be the first choice as a bike park or shuttle ride for riding off the map gnar, but it certainly wouldn't be too out of its depth. The shorter travel means it's a slightly rougher ride than its bigger travel brother but the trade-off is that it remains a little more playful and easy to move around.
The takeaway from all of this is that the Santa Cruz Hightower 3 is just a great mountain bike. One of their most well-rounded models, there aren't many situations where a Hightower wouldn't work. The perfect daily driver, it's the bike most of us would grab time and time again.
Build and Spec
For the Hightower 3 we're looking at a similar spread of builds to the previous bike. Available in two colours, the Translucent Purple seen here and a Matt Emerald colour, there are five frame sizes from S through XXL, eight different builds and three different material choices.
All bikes come with a 12 speed drivetrain and four piston brakes, to back up their climbing and descending intentions. Starting at the lower priced end of the spectrum are the aluminum frames, available summer 2023 with D and R build kits, the latter of which features a Rockshox Lyrik base fork, Fox Float DPS shock Sram NX Eagle drivetrain and G2 R brakes.
Moving up to carbon, the range starts with the R build at $7249 with the same build as previously mentioned. The S Build comes in at $8949 and comes with a Fox Float 36 Performance fork, Rockshox Super Deluxe Select+ shock, Sram GX Eagle drivetrain, Code R brakes and DT Swiss 370/Race Face Arc wheels. $11,149 gets the GX AXS build with a Performance Elite Fox 36, GX AXS electronic shifting, Code RS brakes and a hub upgrade to Industry Nine 1/1 with an option to upgrade to Reserve carbon wheels for a further $1700.
The top end models use Santa Cruz's high modulus low weight CC carbon layup, with only high end components. At $11,549 the CC X01 build comes with a Factory 36, Super Deluxe Ultimate, X01 Eagle drivetrain, Code RSC brakes, carbon handlebar and I9/Race Face wheels. The cream of the crop is the CC X01 RSV build at $13,999, with the same components as the non-electronic build but with X01 AXS electronic shifting and carbon Reserve 30 HD wheels.