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REVIEW: 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 21

The third-generation Hightower has arrived with plenty of updates aimed at improving descending confidence while maintaining its dominance as an everyday trail weapon.

REVIEW: 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower

Fresh off the launch of the updated Megatower in April, Santa Cruz isn’t letting off the gas with the release of the third generation Hightower. After nearly ten years since its inception, the mid-travel, 29-inch wheeled, ride-everything annihilator returns with plenty of updates to remain relevant without deviating from its intended use. And don’t be fooled; Santa Cruz did not simply cut a hole in the downtube, update colorways and call it a day. The latest Hightower features a completely redesigned frame, updated suspension kinematics, and modernized geometry. Our time on the Hightower was short but sweet, hinting at the expanded possibilities of the model while reassuring us that the everyday adventure ethos had not been lost with the new version.

Highlights

  • Carbon fiber frame (C and CC options), aluminum version in near future
  • 29-inch wheels only
  • 145mm (5.7-inches) of rear wheel travel // 150mm (5.9-inches) fork travel
  • Virtual Pivot Point suspension design
  • Adjustable geometry
  • Internal cable routing
  • In-frame storage with two storage pouches included
  • Size-specific chainstay lengths
  • Size-specific seat tube angle
  • Threaded bottom bracket with ISCG05 mounts
  • Boost 12x148mm rear spacing
  • Santa Cruz universal derailleur hanger
  • 8 build kit options
  • Sizes: S-XXL
  • MSRP: $5,499 - $10,699 USD

Strengths

Weaknesses

  • Maintains the nimble, responsive, and lively feel of a trail bike
  • Excels at transferring power into forward momentum on climbs
  • Stable and composed at speed
  • Easy to maintain and generate speed on flatter descents
  • Comfortable pedaling position 
  • In-frame storage 
  • RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate shock
  •  Maxxis EXO casing tires
  • 180mm rotors
  • Might not be as confidence-inspiring as some riders may want when riding aggressively 

 

The Third Generation Hightower - Refined, Not Re-Defined

Landing in the middle of the Santa Cruz lineup, the Hightower has historically been the bike best suited for most situations. With 145mm of travel rear wheel travel paired with a 150mm fork, there is enough cushion to maintain composure charging through chunky gnar, matched with pedal-friendly geometry and a light, responsive frame that promotes long days in the saddle. We would call the Hightower a Grade A trail bike, while some might say it’s simply a mountain bike. The correct answer is yes; the Hightower will put a smile on your face across the most diverse trail conditions and prides itself on not being confined to a one-trick pony. 

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Usually, we avoid regurgitating marketing phrases, but in the case of the Hightower, ‘refined, not redefined’ perfectly describes what the new version entails. Santa Cruz tends to roll out updates to existing models more often than most brands, and the Hightower receives nuanced but necessary tweaks to keep up with the times. 

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Geometry 

Leave a comment if you could have guessed this, but the Hightower now flaunts longer-lower-slacker geometry than before. The changes are subtle, but they all lean towards giving riders an extra boost in confidence when riding demanding trails. Reach has only grown a marginal 2mm for each size, while stack has increased by a noticeable 15mm in size medium through X-large (10mm for size small, 5mm for size XXL). Combining the taller stack with a slacker 64.5 degree head tube angle (Lo position) and a 2mm lower bottom bracket across all sizes, the new Hightower has a more ‘sat in the bike’ feel. Santa Cruz has continued to employ size-specific seat tube angles and has now added size-specific chain stay lengths (rear center) to create a balanced geometry package in each size. The size-specific front triangles also allow Santa Cruz to create size-specific frame stiffness standards. As frame size increases, so does stiffness to match increased rider weight. A flip-chip continues to live in the lower shock eyelet giving riders two geometry configurations.

2023 Hightower Geometry

Gen 2 Hightower Geometry - High
Gen 2 Hightower Geometry - Low

Updated Suspension Kinematics

The Hightower still uses Santa Cruz’s lower-link mounted VPP suspension design but has received some kinematic tweaks. Now, the design features less anti-squat with a more linear leverage rate that sees added progression at the end of the stroke. From chatting with Santa Cruz, anti-squat was reduced during the initial 40% of travel to minimize negative chain influences on the suspension. Since the Hightower only has 145mm of travel, requiring less sag than bikes with more travel, the platform already boasts excellent pedal efficiency and can get away with less anti-squat. The Hightower now offers more sensitivity when climbing for improved comfort and traction while lessening chain-induced feedback on the suspension during descents for a calmer ride quality. 

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On top of geometry and suspension kinematics, the Glovebox internal down tube storage is probably the most exciting update to the Hightower. The shock and awe have dropped after the Megatower first introduced the feature, but the storage is a welcomed addition. Santa Cruz also includes a Tool Wallet and Tube Purse to keep things organized and silent in the frame. Another nifty update is a window cut away on the non-drive, exposing where your shock o-ring resides under sag. Rounding out frame details, the Hightower continues to boast a plastic shuttle guard and downtube protector, as well as a shock fender and rubber chainstay protector.   

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Build Kits

The Hightower is available in two colorways, eight build kit options, and from size small to double extra large. Builds start at $5,499 USD with the entry-level Hightower C R and max out at $10,699 USD for the Hightower CC X01 AXS RSV build. Never known as a budget brand, it’s not a cheap affair to pick up a new Hightower. However, Santa Cruz stands behind all their bikes and continues to offer a generous lifetime warranty on the frame and all pivot bearings.

Hightower C R Build - MSRP $5,499 USD
Hightower C S Build - MSRP $6,799 USD
Hightower C GX AXS Build - MSRP $8,499 USD


Hightower C GX AXS RSV Build - MSRP $9,799 USD
Hightower CC X01 Build - MSRP $8,799 USD
Hightower CC X01 AXS RSV Build - MSRP $10,699 USD

Wet and Wild in Oakridge

Our shakedown of the Hightower included three days of shuttles in the greater Oakridge, Oregon area. Arriving in town after multiple days of downpours, we enjoyed endless greasy mud and sloppy conditions that rivaled the bottom of Leogang in 2020. Luckily, most of the trails we rode were not terribly steep but filled with long, high-speed bench cuts spliced together with tight switchbacks and the occasional rock or root garden. Ideal trails for a bike like the Hightower, descents were broken up by many short climbs, and rolling sections where carrying speed was paramount. 

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Testing a new bike in such challenging conditions would not have been successful without the guidance of TransCascadia Excursions. From being extremely knowledgable of the trail networks and adapting to our groups’ abilities to trailside catered lunches and ridiculous good dinners, the experience they offer is second to none. They have big plans to expand their accommodations in the next few years, and we look forward to Oakridge becoming a world-renowned mountain bike destination thanks to their hard work. If you want to plan a destination mountain bike trip, look at what they offer! And in case you’re wondering, this isn’t a paid advertisement. We just appreciate good people doing rad things within cycling.

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Knowing we only had a few days to get to know the new Hightower before its launch, we were relieved that setup was quick and mindless. Pedaling around the parking lot before our first shuttle, the 472mm reach (size Large, Lo position) felt comfortably spacious. We didn’t have to fuss with cockpit height or angle the seat drastically in any direction and enjoyed how pressed into the bike we were when standing. With some weather expected the first day, we opted to remove the two pouches from the Glovebox and instead stuff a light windbreaker inside the frame. Pro tip: the Glovebox is not completely watertight, which we learned after washing bikes the first day, resulting in a soggy jacket wedged in our frame.

Plenty of room for an outer layer in case of inclement weather.
Kiran MacKinnon, Product Development Specialist at Santa Cruz, took a different approach with his storage pouch.

Climbing Performance

Even though we only shuttled during our time on the Hightower, we still picked up a few thousand feet of vert via punchy climbs scattered between sustained descents. If there is one word that will remind us of Oakridge, it’s undulation. Climbs were slow-moving thanks to the saturated soil but offered the perfect opportunity to experience how well the Hightower transferred power into traction and forward momentum. Like the low gear of a diesel motor, we found ourselves settling into climbs and watching the feet tick by. There was no shortage of thick topsoil to suck our momentum, but we managed to power up countless climbs we expected to walk. 

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Even with the anti-squat lowered, the suspension remained plenty firm and efficient but never harsh. For a bike geared towards all-day adventure, Santa Cruz has found the sweet spot between efficiency, power transfer, and traction with the Hightower. As our energy dropped later in the day, it never felt cumbersome to knock out another climb, and what little power we had remaining seemed to take us further on the Hightower. Out of curiosity, we did flip the climb switch on during a few smooth fire road climbs, which significantly firmed up the Super Deluxe Ultimate shock. Did it improve climbing performance? Debatably. What we did notice was less comfort and less traction. Additionally, the low-mounted position of the shock made reaching the switch tough. With such an efficient pedaling platform when open, we only see ourselves using the climb switch on smooth climbs.

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The shift to a slightly steeper seat tube angle helped balance out the slacker head tube angle and kept us seated nicely forward over the pedals. Even on some ridiculously steep sections, we never felt like we would loop out. The roomy cockpit made standing during climbs straightforward, with plenty of space to move our body over the top tube without interfering with the handlebars. When sprinting the, the open feel of the bike made it easy to toss the bike back and forth and lay down some hard pedal strokes to get back up to speed on low-angle trails. 

Descending Performance

Climbing aside, we logged a ton of descending on the Hightower, upwards of 20,000 feet in three days. As we blitzed down fast single track and smashed through holes, we kept coming back to the realization that even with modern, slack geometry and a more active yet progressive suspension package, we still felt like we were riding a trail bike. And that’s a big win in our book. Yes, the updates did improve the descending performance of the Hightower, highlighted by improved stability at speed and consistent traction through compressions. However, as we became familiar with the Hightower and started to push the bike harder, it maintained that nimble, lively, and exciting feel we expect from a 145mm travel bike. 

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We had no problem yanking for trail gaps, pumping speed out of rollers, bunny hopping over roots, and changing direction between tight corners. It also meant that when we started taking risks, the Hightower would remind us we weren’t on an enduro bike if we got too carefree with lines. That isn’t to say the bike lacked confidence going downhill, but just because Santa Cruz made a few descent-focused changes, the Hightower has not lost the get-up-and-go attitude that you would expect from a ride-everything steed. 

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Rear Suspension Performance

The rear suspension updates did a great job of making the Hightower very supportive, allowing the suspension to soak up harsh compressions in a manner more similar to a bike with more travel. The progression near bottom-out was apparent and appreciated, while the initial drop-off in anti-squat kept the bike glued to the ground over small compressions. We did find that the support of the rear suspension was significant enough to warrant running more sag, around 29%, which helped keep the bike settled. Oakridge has endless high-speed, straight bench cuts interrupted by 180-degree switchbacks. Lose focus for a moment, and the next thing you know, you are taking the scenic route and will end up three switchbacks down the trail. On a few occasions, we had to death squeeze our brakes to avoid lawn darting over corners. In those situations, we really noticed how active the Hightower remained under braking, which resulted in plenty of traction. We also found that the bike provided excellent control in steep shoots, keeping the rear tire connected to the ground. 

Hightower CC X01 AXS RSV Build Kit

We had the privilege of testing the uber fancy Hightower CC X01 AXS RSV build, and simply put, the grass is greener when riding top-of-the-line components. We don’t mean that the other builds with FOX Performance Elite suspension or mechanical drivetrains won’t perform well, but the marginal gains add up when you ride the current best parts.

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Despite the sloppy and disgusting conditions we trudged through, our test bike didn’t bat an eye. Shred, rinse, repeat. We’ve spent plenty of time riding most of the components that hung from our Hightower and always love SRAM’s crisp and consistent AXS drivetrain and FOX’s highly tunable GRIP2 damper. But, we suspect many riders are also familiar with the performance of such components. What stood out to us was RockShox’s newest Super Deluxe Ultimate shock and Reserve’s 30 HD wheels with Industry Nine 1/1 hubs. 

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The new Super Deluxe Ultimate shock had a bottomless feel that was supportive and stable. Combined with the progressivity of the new suspension kinematics, the shock remained smooth through deep compressions and settled over chatter bumps. The support of the shock also helped the Hightower carry speed over flatter terrain and allowed us to pump the bike without excessively cycling through the travel. We didn’t fuss around with setup too far past setting sag and speeding up the rebound to complement the Hightower’s youthful feel, but we appreciate the ability to set and forget the shock. With only a few days to get used to the bike, the Super Deluxe Ultimate shock was impressive right out of the box, and we don’t see ourselves tinkering too much more once we get more time on the Hightower. 

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We’ve had mixed experiences with Reserve wheels in the past but have always enjoyed their balance of vertical stiffness and lateral compliance. Geared towards trail riding, the 30 HD wheels held up to plenty of rock smashing and aggressive corner slapping. However, where they really shined was how well they complimented the stiffness of the Hightower frame. 

We would say the Hightower gets a 7/10 on the stiffness chart. The frame didn’t beat us up but was stiff enough to keep the bike responsive and efficient. The one-piece rear triangle also kept the frame from flexing like a wet noodle through corners for increased cornering speed. The 30 HD wheels felt similar on the trail, providing that crisp, responsive carbon feel that made it easy to place our wheels where we wanted. And at the same time, when hitting big compressions or chopped-up corners, the wheels absorbed some energy for improved comfort and traction. The modest buzz of Industry Nine’s 1/1 rear hub was music to our ears and made tossing in precise pedal strokes a breeze. While the engagement might not be as instant as Industry Nine’s Hydra hubs, the engagement was quick enough for our standards. We won’t open the discussion about why Santa Cruz did not spec the higher-end Hydra hubs on their premium build. We will let the internet debate that finer detail.

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Putting our praise aside, there are two component specs found on all Hightower build kits that we found interesting. First, all builds roll on Maxxis Minion DHR II tires, with a MaxxGrip compound up front and a MaxxTerra compound in the rear. A perfectly suitable tire combination for the Hightower, we applaud Santa Cruz for using a MaxxGrip up front for some added traction. Our beef lies with using Maxxis’ lightweight EXO casing instead of their EXO+ casing. Usually saved for cross-country or light-duty trail bikes, EXO simply does not match the capabilities of the Hightower. If we needed any proof to back up our reservations, during one shuttle lap, our group had five flats requiring a few hundred bacon strips to salvage the ride. 

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The other component spec shared across all builds is the use of 180mm rotors front and rear. Again, considering that the new Hightower is now slacker and lower than before to promote comfort and stability at speed, we feel at least a 200mm rotor in the front would have been appropriate. We would also happily take a 200mm in the rear. It only took a few minutes of sustained descending for our brakes to begin fading, and we couldn’t stop (literally) daydreaming of how larger rotors would fair. We are sure some riders will fight this point, but we are greedy with our stopping power. Better to be over-braked than under-braked. 

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What's The Bottom Line?

Santa Cruz did a fantastic job building upon the existing Hightower to create a new version that meets the current expectations of a capable trail bike without changing the intended goals of the model. The Hightower is now longer, lower, and slacker with a more active and supportive suspension package that all translates to improved stability, control, and traction descending. However, none of those improvements come at the cost of lost climbing efficiency or comfort. Tack on the addition of in-frame storage with Santa Cruz’s renowned quality and warranty protection, and the latest generation Hightower is primed and ready to take on any trail or adventure. 

For more information on Santa Cruz's new Hightower, please visit www.santacruzbicycles.com

Photos by Ian Stowe


View key specs, compare bikes, and rate the new Santa Cruz Hightower in the Vital MTB Product Guide.


About The Tester

Jason Schroeder - Age: 27 // Years Riding MTB: 16 // Height: 6-feet (182cm) // Weight: 175-pounds (79.3kg)

A once-upon-a-time World Cup downhill racer turned desk jockey, Jason has spent years within the bicycle industry from both sides of the tape. A fan of all day adventures in the saddle or flowing around a bowl at the skatepark, he doesn't discriminate from any form of two wheeled riding. Originally a SoCal native now residing in Boise, Idaho, you can find Jason camped out in his van most weekends at any given trailhead in the greater Pacific Northwest.

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