Superficially the 3rd generation of Santa Cruz’s Hightower just adds internal storage and a slightly slacker head angle to the previous V2 bike for a lot more cash. Given how good the V2 already was, though, these changes – and more subtle evolutions – make the new Hightower is truly one of the best mountain bikes to ride and own, if you can afford it.
Design and geometry
Apart from the racing extremes of the V10 and the Blur, all Santa Cruz full suspension bikes basically look the same, and the new Hightower is no different. After the latest Megatower got a ‘Glovebox’ internal storage feature it’s no surprise that there’s a down tube door on the new Hightower either. It’s superbly engineered, too, with a proper locking clip and really satisfyingly snug, gasket sealed fit.
With a head tube angle of 64.5º or 64.8º depending on the position of the lower linkage chip it’s also 0.5º slacker than the previous bike. The 76.6º/ 76.9º seat angle is only 0.1º steeper, though, and the 475/472mm reach on the large is only 2mm longer. Effective chain stay length grows by 3mm on every size from small to XXL (it’s 437/438mm on a large) too. The only slight outlier on static geometry is the relatively high 345mm BB height, but more sag from the new shock curve makes that a non-issue on the trail.
Components and build
Layout, main features and the 145mm of rear travel are carried over from the previous model too. The boxy, low-slung mainframe and low triangulated swingarm are joined by the hanging upper link and contra-rotating, shock-driving lower link of VPP. The latest version of VPP (the Outland-originated, Santa Cruz double decade-evolved Virtual Pivot Point suspension system) pushes the shock through a straddle tunnel in the base of the seat tube. There’s now a window in the offside straddle section so you can check the travel/sag marker on the shock easily. The inside of the tunnel gets a patterned graphic that matches the design of the new model name graphic behind the head tube.
Less noticeably from a physical side – but very significantly in terms of ride – the linkage and shock position now give a more linear and progressive shock rate (particularly towards the end of the stroke). The pivot axles pinning it all together are also a smaller diameter now, an idea introduced on the Santa Cruz Tallboy. This reduces weight and means the pivots can be moved closer to the BB for a reduced amount of anti squat in the VPP architecture. It also allows the chainstay length to be shortened on the smallest size to keep proportional handling. All models except the base bike get a RockShox SuperDeluxe piggyback air shock in either Select+ or Ultimate spec. There’s no room for a coil shock, though, as the extra clearance needed has been swapped for increased dropper post insertion space.
Otherwise the new Hightower still uses a DIY serviceable/adjustable preload system with a conical collet lock and the lower pivots have a wonderfully practical throwback grease injection port. Santa Cruz solidly stuck with threaded BBs when nearly everyone else flirted with press fit designs and then smiled smugly as they all skulked back from a world of creaking, frame-ruining pain.
Santa Cruz were one of the first brands to fit fully tube guided internal cable and hose routing, too, and they still do. They’re accessed via super neat paint saving cable/hose insertion points that go nowhere near the stem or headset so servicing is easy.
For information on Bike Perfect's testing procedures and how our scoring system works, see our how we test page.
Speaking of long-term care, Santa Cruz's no-questions-asked lifetime warranty on frames and Reserve carbon rims completely changed the customer support landscape too, so it’s great to see that carried over as well. There’s a tick in the check box alongside extensive rubber-frame protection and a roost guard over the shock.
The drop dead gorgeous translucent paint of the purple option is even thicker in areas of higher stress/likely impact. Alternatively you can get a more muted Matte Evergreen coat on your chassis. Both these options are available in top spec Carbon CC (frame and shock £3599), and on the Carbon C options (only available on complete bikes), which are slightly heavier but have the same stiffness and strength rating.
Full bike pricing starts at £5399 which only gets you the Carbon C frame with SRAM NX, Base model Lyrik and Fox Float inline shock. On some brands that price would get you close to the spec of the bike I tested. That includes SRAM X01 gears and crank, Fox Factory 36 fork and SRAM Code RSC brakes on a carbon bar with Burgtec stem.
You also get Santa Cruz’s lifetime warrantied Reserve HD30 carbon rims (which you won’t get as standard on any other bike) along with the impossible-to-describe-how-good-they-are Filmore valves as standard. While the HD (Heavy Duty) version of the Reserve rims might seem overkill, they’re only 100g heavier a set than the SL wheels. And you do get the cheaper 1/1 Industry Nine hubs with their rapid 4º engagement, rather than the Hydra hubs with their essentially instant 0.5º engagement.
The choice of lightweight EXO rather than at least EXO+ carcass for the Maxxis DHR rear tire is a constant nerve jangler on pointier trails, though, while the MaxxGrip compound up front is no friend of easy rolling speed. On a bike where so much care has otherwise been spent on minimising/simplifying maintenance and increasing longevity/reliability, the hydraulically operated RockShox Reverb post might feel like the person nobody invited to the party. At £9599 the fact that Santa Cruz has sneaked in a GX AXS trigger shift rather than going full X01 is a potential “really?”, eyebrow raise and sigh-provoker too, even if it’s functionally identical.
I’m obviously going to go into detail about the ride specifics and how the Hightower achieves it’s vibe but one thing needs making clear straight away. I came into this test looking at the fact that the V3 costs £1000 more (and weighs 660g more) than the still available and excellent Hightower V2. Then there's spec niggles like the under-spec shifter, the EXO carcass rear tire and the fact that Canyon, Specialized and others are making brilliant same category bikes for half the price. In other words, while you should never pre-prejudice a review, I rolled into this one thinking "meh, I'm out". However, my jaded anticappointment quickly switched to unexpected levels of justification and addiction.
Even before I get onto the ride, the clean ‘clunk’ and ‘click’ of the flip-over latch on Santa Cruz’s ‘Glovebox’ hatch feels indulgently well engineered like no other I’ve used. The zipped and pocketed Tool and Tube purses that organise your spares are boutique quality and sweetly detailed. There’s a really generous amount of room inside the frame for proper sized inner tubes and pumps etc. Not just some token ‘We’ve fudged a flap into the down tube just because Specialized did, but good luck actually getting anything in there and out again.’
Super useful practical features like the lifetime warranty on frame, rim and bearings, the sag spotting window on the frame – and even the fact the high-flow Filmore valves come as standard – shrink the stupidity of the price from incomprehensible to legitimate investment right through set up. And even though the fact that the grease used in the lower linkage is the same colour as the Matte Evergreen is almost certainly accidental, it made me smile.
Actually riding the Hightower unlocks another parade of subtle affirmations that the V3 is something really, deeply special. That’s a surprise, TBH, as even three years after its launch the V2 Hightower was still one of my ‘entire ride enhancing’ benchmarks. The obvious control for speed gain is the slightly slacker head angle for a more settled steering character when the trail is trying its best to throw you off track with rocks, roots and ruts. Reach is enough to give you time to react, but not so long it leaves you hung out to dry. In other words it feels solid under braking however bad the bumps or chunder (the less snatchy 180mm front rotor helps here, too) but the 42mm Burgtec stem tips you into the action easily so you’re not heaving round tighter sections like a bus driver.
While I can’t confirm this because I fit great on the large frame, the size-specific rear lengths mean that centred feel should extend to all riders big and small. What I can confirm is that the MaxxGrip DHR up front definitely extends your licence to push the limits. That said, unless I was on a specific gravity attack day, I’d be fine with a MaxxTerra and less labour intensive pedalling everywhere else.
And from here on testing was a process about unwrapping and rejoicing in more layers of subtlety and impeccable syncing. While I’ve not had any specific changes in composite lay up confirmed by Santa Cruz yet, the larger, luggage-eating front end feels perfectly cooked, in a spot-on seared steak, or pinpoint Al Dente pasta kind of way.
Yes, the bike is extremely surefooted and muscular in the way it places the front wheel, and hauls onto and holds a line, but it's also feather-light and joyfully agile at the same time. It's a champion MMA fighter or Olympic gymnast with muscle and synapse maps honed through hours of pure, hard physical work, not just blown up in a gym for show. (I'm sure this may sound like total nonsense and hype because we’re obviously just talking about layers of carbon fibres locked in resin rather than bundles of meat and sinew, but I’m pretty confident that if you ride this bike you’ll get what I mean immediately.)
The suspension feel is enhanced from excellent to genuinely outstanding too. The obvious difference is the RockShox Super Deluxe rear shock which we’ve already pegged as a brilliant control boosting damper. It felt the best it has yet in the Hightower V3 though, with each click of the high- and low- speed compression producing subtle but tangible changes in character. Click more Low Speed for fast, push and hook tracks. Click less Low Speed and High Speed off for a smoother, softer run through proper chop and choss. Precisely metered, poised and brilliantly effective, like an elite marksman adjusting the sights on their rifle.
The new VPP suspension curve suits the volume and progression of the shock perfectly too (Santa Cruz don’t spec the optional hydraulic bottom out feature). There's an initial few seconds every ride where you think it might be too soft and over-sensitive, and then it'll all just start making sublime second-guessing, borderline sentient sense, always using just enough travel to boost flow and keep wheels glued down, without feeling under-gunned or wallowy.
That’s despite the fact 145mm of wheel movement isn’t a huge amount by increasingly aggressive ‘trail’ standards. V3 also has lower anti-squat numbers than V2 which noticeably reduces pull back through your feet when you’re really slapping through square edges. The fine rebound adjust from the big top of body ring adjuster makes syncing the pop and kick of the damper to the inherently vital vibe of the bike and wheels easy too. Again this is more impressive as Santa Cruz haven’t always got this right and even bikes as recent as the Bronson had a relatively narrow bandwidth of sweet spot. With the Hightower, though, each setting has its own unique flavor of brilliant, that might suit that next section of trail slightly better.
The emphasis with trail riding seems to be tipping ever further downhill, and the heavier frame (the hatch alone weighs 86g) and overall weight of the Hightower reflects that. However, while it's definitely more fluid that it used to be, VPP is still a positive pedalling set up. The Hightower harnesses that as well as a 14kg bike with a glue compound front tire can, staring at the summit of climbs with resolute determination not resignation. The steep seat angle also balances you just right to put power down without the front wheel lifting. The pedal to floor feedback and slight suspension stiffening still in the anti squat of the VPP system really rewards pressing those pedals hard.
Inevitably there are some moments where it'll spit traction where others will suck up and over. As a result it suits those who actively take an interest in traction and torque ebb and flow, rather than just sitting there and winching up. The Industry Nine Hydra hubs are definitely a big help for aggressive climbers and singletrack hustlers where the split second connection is a real snap snatcher and mood lifter. Arguably those crux climb moments where suspension micro agility really counts are where that lighter rear tyre makes sense too.
As you'd expect, the downhill chops and uphill props all blend together beautifully on fast, flat trails. Jank or flow, blind lips or swooping berms, the more challenges and speed you throw at the Hightower the more it feeds off them.
Oh and the accuracy and speed of SRAM AXS wireless shifting is a glorious overall ride quality groomer – something I feel is often overlooked in reviews but is really obvious if you’ve just jumped off the long lag and lever throw of an analogue set up. Especially a Shimano one that’s seem some action.
What else? Oh yeah, the Santa Cruz bar is a piece I’ve shifted between long-term bikes for years because, like the Hightower frame and Reserve wheels, it’s a sublime balance of accuracy and stiffness. Even the grips seem to suit most people and WTB saddles have been vanishing happily under my butt for decades. This Ti-railed one was no different.
If you’ve not got a decent idea of why I’m way more of a fan/wide-eyed disciple of the V3 Hightower than I expected to be, then I’ve wasted 2000 words of your time and mine. If you’ve just skipped straight to the end, though, it’s pretty simple. I've been riding for decades and – after another 'just to check' test ride last night loaded with PRs on trails, and perfect dream sequence flow-state riding segments that lasted for minutes not seconds – I'm seriously considering using words like transcendent and euphoric for this bike.
In the earthy, not ethereal, world, tire choice and spec niggles mean it’s not actually perfect. It won’t suit people who like a more neutral pedalling/rollover feel either and obviously you might want more (maybe Megatower) or less (maybe Tallboy) travel. Until you somehow snap the frame or a wheel and get a fresh one for free, the price seems obscene compared to Canyon, Raidon, Propain or whoever else is bypassing your local shop to lower costs, and not investing millions in trail building and advocacy like Santa Cruz do.
From the click of the Glovebox catch and firm zip of the soft storage pouch to the beautifully balanced grip to ground mix of liveliness and precise, planted control the Hightower is a truly special bike. A properly delicious, ‘I’ve really treated myself here’ experience that is just as relevant and rewarding whether you’ll be translating that into race/KOM/PR glory or just a smug smile of boosted ability on every ride. And while the average bike is becoming more competent and capable, and electric add-ons are becoming ever smarter, that uncompromised, cost-no-object focus on the truly, tangibly exceptional is something that totally deserves celebrating.
So yes, if you can afford it, and you want an alert, engaging ego swelling all-rounder that’ll feel brilliant in almost every trail situation, Santa Cruz really have taken it to the next level – on several levels – with the Hightower V3. And if you don't buy into the hype or don't need a picnic box in your bike, then just get the V2 version for £1000 less as it's still a brilliant bike.
Tech Specs: Santa Cruz Hightower V3 X01 AXS RSV
- Price: £9599
- Discipline: Trail/Enduro
- Frame: Carbon CC
- Head angle: 64.5/64.8º
- Size: Large
- Weight: 14.2kg
- Wheel size: 29x2.4in
- Suspension (front/rear): FOX 36 Float Factory, 150mm travel, 44mm offset/Rockshox Super Deluxe Ultimate 210x55mm 145mm travel
- Components: SRAM X01 Eagle AXS 10-50T 12 speed wireless gearing and GX AXS shifter. SRAM X1 Eagle 32T chainset. SRAM Code RSC brakes with 180/180mm rotors. Maxxis Minion DHR II, 3C MaxxGrip, EXO, TR 29 x 2.4in front and Maxxis Minion DHR II, 3C Maxx-Terra, EXO, TR 29 x 2.4in rear tires on Reserve IHD rims with I9 1/1 hubs. Santa Cruz 35 Carbon Bar, 800mm flat bar and Burgtec Enduro MK3, 42mm stem, RockShox Reverb Stealth, 31.6mm dropper post, WTB Silverado Medium Ti saddle.