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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review: contender for the best hardcore hardtail crown?

The eighth heir to the Santa Cruz alloy aggro hardtail throne is proper all round Chameleon

Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review
(Image: © Guy Kesteven)

Our Verdict

Very expensive on a cost for components basis but Santa Cruz’s latest Chameleon is an awesome, tough yet forgiving balance for all-round aggro riding, with multi-mode/mission versatility and excellent rider/riding support

For

  • - Very tough but remarkably forgiving frame
  • - Balanced aggro trail geometry
  • - Adjustable dropouts
  • - 29 and mullet options
  • - High Control tires and impressive Fox Rhythm fork

Against

  • - High comparative cost
  • - Mostly workable not wonderful kit
  • - Fork needs more pressure than stated
  • - Heavier than we'd like

The Chameleon has always been the super engaging, multi-mode entry into Santa Cruz ownership and the 8th version of the California brand's best hardtail mountain bike is the most versatile, confident and flat-out-fun version yet. 

While brand name flex is probably the biggest reason to ignore super high cost compared to competitors, the no-questions ‘Bike for life’ warranty and feel-good ‘paying onwards’ projects undertaken by Santa Cruz definitely help make it an investment, not an indulgence too.

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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

The drop-outs can be swapped to fit 27.5 or 29in wheels and setup up either geared or singlespeed (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)
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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

There's clearance for 29x2.6 or 27.5x2.8in tires (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Design and geometry

There’s only so much you can do with an alloy hardtail frame and the latest Chameleon doesn’t look massively different from the 2019 version. There are subtle differences right through though including a much lower, slimmer top tube with internal cable routing and chunkier chain stays set wider on the threaded bottom bracket shell. The adjustable length, switchable bolted dropout system is all-new too and includes SRAM’s UDH universal derailleur hanger for easy replacement. You also get two different axle height options to give the MX 27.5in rear-wheel version the same geometry as the twin 29er set up.

Downtube bottle cage mount, under down tube three-bolt accessory mount, ISCG chain guide tabs and replaceable bolt-in gear cable inserts (so you can fit blanking plates if you run singlespeed) are carried over from the seventh Chameleon. The chainstays now get a wraparound rubber protector with a finned top face to silence and protect the inevitable percussion.

Angles are significantly altered though with head angle relaxing to 65-degrees from 67.3-degrees, seat angle sitting up from 72.8-degrees to 74.4-degrees. Reach only grows 5mm to 465mm on a large, but the 460mm seat tube on the 490mm-reach XL is only 10mm taller than the old large and standover is actually 11mm lower so upsizing should be trouble-free. The bottom bracket height is the same at 315mm but the adjustable chainstays are longer at 425-437mm compared to 415-430mm before.

While the tubeset is designed to be tough enough for dirt jumping and enduro use, probably the strongest things about the whole bike are Santa Cruz’s industry lifetime warranty and rider care program which basically means a fresh bike any time you wreck it.

Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

The tubeset isnt the lightest, but its strong enough for hard trail riding and is covered with a lifetime warranty (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Components and build 

You will have to keep reminding yourself of that when you check the components you’re getting for $2,949 / £2,999 though. Even with top-quality Maxxis tires and the Burgtec name on the bars, it’s north of similarly specced bikes from Trek and Specialized, way more than Whyte and it’s double the price of a Ragley Marley 1.0 which has essentially identical geometry and kit. Things like the overlong throw on the dropper lever, basic shifter feel and relatively wooden brakes are obviously basic in terms of function too and at over 13kg, it’s not a light bike. The good news is that the stuff that really matters is good enough to let the Chameleon show its true colors and it’s a pretty dazzling display. 

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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

Fox Rhythm upfront always impresses (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)
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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

Burgtec bar and stem are a nice touch (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)
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Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

RaceFace AR Offset 30mm rims are fitted with Maxxis tires (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Performance

If you know your geometry numbers, you’ll realize the Chameleon isn’t radical in any way - in fact, the medium reach and bottom bracket height are pretty conservative. The relaxed head angle, sticky MaxxGrip front tire and Burgtec cockpit mean no shortage of authority and locked down trail connection. 

The Fox Rhythm fork isn’t overstretched structurally at 130mm, and yet again, the simple Grip damper is impressively controlled even when you’re in a train of longer travel full-suspension bikes. I did have to increase the pressure a couple of times during testing though, ending up about 30 percent higher than Fox’s guide pressure for my weight. If you’re railing a lot of berms hard, adding some tokens to firm up the mid-stroke would be a good move.

Even though I remembered the previous Chameleon being remarkably forgiving for an alloy trail hardtail that’s strong enough for jump sessions, the ability of the Chameleon 8 to carry speed and suck up drops and stutter bumps with silent smoothness consistently impressed. Not least because the Aggressor isn’t a particularly big tire for a 2.5in (there’s room in the frame for a 2.6in) and the 27.5in format is always a lumpier ride than 29in (maximum tire size 2.8in). 

That means while a hardtail will always be more of a rodeo experience in the rough and you’ll need to relearn your trade rapidly if you’re coming off a big bike, I still had an absolute blast chasing my regular riding crew down properly technical trails. The increased ‘damper’ work your legs will be doing on the descents leaves them dented for the climbs though so while there’s obviously no suspension bob and power transfer is solidly direct, don’t necessarily expect to crush the climbs afterwards. While it’s a lot steeper than before the seat angle is still relatively relaxed too so be prepared to perch yourself on the saddle tip to keep the bike balanced on steep, slippery climbs. Again, you’d get more rollover and traction with a 29er tire in this instance as well.

The win with the MX comes in the way it loves to hook turns and hustle short sprint sections, putting extra pace and pop into what already feels an agile and responsive ride. Plus although Santa Cruz has configured the ‘MX’ dropouts to give the same geometry as the 29er, you could run it the other way round, with the smaller rear wheel and the 29er dropouts to give a lower, slacker setup that might well suit sleazier riders better. Talking ride heights, while there were moments when a lower bottom bracket would have made it even easier to carve the bike more aggressively, the gain is not worrying about crank clearance when pedaling up rocky/rooty/stepped climbs.

Santa Cruz Chameleon 8 review

The swappable drop-outs offer plenty of options to make the Chameleon very adaptable (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Having all these potential configurations to play around with not only adds another dimension to the ride dynamics of the Chameleon, it also future-proofs it really well. Not just in terms of being able to accommodate different wheel sizes if one becomes extinct or run it single speed if the world completely runs out of derailleurs or someone finally makes a decent hub gear. But also in terms of your own future if priorities change from busting moves on carpeted ramps in the local woods to riding through woods on the far side of the world with your whole life loaded into frame bags. It’s even got your back if you’re a proper geometry nerd and want to tuck that wheel in tighter for the shortest back end or stretch it out for speed stability. Remember that you’ve genuinely got a lifetime of riding to play with all this too.

Verdict

Santa Cruz’s Chameleon isn’t exceptional in any of its geometry, it’s not as smooth as steel, it’s a chunk heavier than the lightest alloy trail ‘tails (let alone carbon) and comes at a serious price premium. Despite the price ticket, a lot of the kit is workable, not wonderful too. 

However, what you get for ignoring all that is a brilliantly balanced and engaging ride that’ll handle the toughest situations without punishing you for being too brave. In MX format it’s got proper pop, precision and powerful responsiveness for attacking the most fun trails flat out or you can choose the 29er option for the smoothest ride and tap out the tempo as far into the hills as your curiosity takes you. 

Add the fact those hills might contain trails Santa Cruz have helped pay for (they’ve donated and raised $1.4m for trail building since 2018), that the climate might be a little cleaner because its California HQ is completely solar-powered, all the packaging is reused or recycled or that Santa Cruz has your back whatever happens to the frame in your lifetime, then that price is a little easier to swallow. We reckon you’ll find the justification pretty easy if you get a chance to play on one yourself though and we’ll certainly be trying to hang onto our test bike for as long as possible.

Test conditions

  • Temperature: 6-10 degrees
  • Surface: Trail centre, Off piste DH

Tech Specs: Santa Cruz Chameleon 8

  • Price: $2,949 / £2,999
  • Model: Santa Cruz Chameleon 8
  • Discipline: Trail
  • Head angle: 65-degrees
  • Frame material: Alloy
  • Size: Large
  • Weight: 13.3kg
  • Wheel size: 29 x 2.5in 
  • Suspension: Fox 34 Rhythm 130mm travel
  • Drivetrain: SRAM NX Eagle 11-50T 12-speed gearing, shifter
  • Cranks: SRAM Descendant 32T chainset
  • Brakes: SRAM Guide T brakes with 180mm rotors
  • Cockpit: Burgtec Alloy Bar 780mm bar and Burgtec Enduro MK3 50mm stem
  • Wheelset: RaceFace AR Offset 30mm rims with Sapim Race spokes and SRAM MTH 716/746 hubs
  • Tires: Maxxis Minion DHF, 3C, MaxxGrip, EXO, TR  29x2.5in front and Maxxis Aggressor, WT, EXO, TR 27.5x2.5in rear tires
  • Seatpost: SDG Tellis Dropper 170mm dropper post
  • Saddle: WTB Silverado Race Saddle

Guy Kesteven is Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews’ contributing tech editor. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.


Rides: Pace RC295, Cotic FlareMax, Specialized Chisel, Vielo V+1 gravel bike, Nicolai FS Enduro, Landescape custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg