The beauty goes beyond skin deep.
Launched last spring, the Hightower is more than just Santa Cruz’s much-loved Tall Boy LT following a growth spurt. As well as 135mm of rear wheel travel, it gets the burlier Nomad-style swingarm and more aggressive geometry. You can buy it as a 29er or a Plus bike, with the tubby tyre option enjoying a slightly longer travel fork to help correct the geometry.
You’re probably wondering what a full carbon bike from a boutique brand like Santa Cruz is doing at the same price point as more mainstream models with alloy back ends? Well, Santa Cruz uses two grades of carbon for its frames, this being the less expensive ‘C’ version. Because more of the material needs to be used to achieve the same strength levels, frame weight is bumped up by around 230g. The flipside being that you save considerable coin at the checkout. Better still, if you stick another ‘C’ on the top tube, no one will ever spot your thrift, as both frames look identical.
While the Hightower may have been designed in California, details like the lower link grease port and threaded bottom bracket give it UK-friendly credentials. Only the cable routing is compromised as there’s no way of running the rear brake on the left without the hose rubbing on the frame.
Santa Cruz refined its signature Virtual Pivot Point suspension when it introduced the current Nomad, and has been gradually trickling the new design through the rest of the range ever since. In a nutshell, the new kinematics are less quirky, much easier to set-up and better suit both the smaller chainrings found on modern 1x drivetrains, and the latest crop of large volume air shocks, such as the Monarch RT Debonair fitted here.
Run it with Santa Cruz’s recommended 15-18mm of sag (we settled on 15mm) and the Hightower finds good grip, remains supportive when loaded up through turns and boasts excellent pedalling efficiency. But it’s not as supple as the other bikes on test and tends to get hung up on holes and square edges under braking. That said, the Plus tyres absorb so much trail chatter that the Hightower still boasts ample grip.
There may not be much in the way of bling adorning this price point model, but the whole build kit is functional and well considered. The Race Face handlebar is a commanding 800mm and lets you really take the bike by the scruff of the neck on rough descents. In-house Palmdale grips and a WTB Volt Race saddle are superbly comfortable, and the mix of SRAM GX drivetrain with Shimano SLX brakes takes some beating for the price. There’s even a full-length 150mm Reverb dropper post on the large frame, and a whopping 170mm version on the XL.
But the most crucial components on any Plus bike are the tyres, and Santa Cruz has not skimped here, plumping for the 2.8in Maxxis Rekon EXO with a grippy 3C compound up front. Not only are these the best all-round Plus tyres on the market right now, they cost an arm and a leg to buy in the shops.
The Hightower uses a flip chip at the shock link to give two geometry settings. When fitted with 27.5 Plus, you’re supposed to run the high option, which is what we did to begin with. But we figured we’d try the bike in the low setting too, mindful that we might incur an increase in pedal strikes as a result. As it turned out, stubbed cranks weren’t a problem, so we left it in this position and enjoyed the resultant slacker head angle and lower bottom bracket.
With sure-footed handling and a balanced, predictable ride, the Hightower always welcomed us aboard with open arms. Although the flipside of this composure was that it never felt particularly inspiring — the slightly inert response of the heavier carbon frame didn’t help either. So if you’re looking for wall-to-wall thrills, the Hightower won’t make your pulse race like a couple of the other bikes here. But, if you prefer a pace that leaves some headspace for the unexpected, the Hightower will make a great companion.
In lustrous Sriracha red, you can’t failed to be won over by the stunning looks of the Santa Cruz Hightower C. The beauty goes beyond skin deep, too, with capable suspension, an assertive riding position and impeccable trail manners. We can’t fault the spec, either, and it’s tough to ignore the prestige of the Santa Cruz brand itself. There’s a lot to like then, but somehow we never really fell in love with the Hightower. It just seemed to lack that sprinkle of magic dust that makes the Bronson such an infectious bike to ride, and in this test it didn’t deliver the ultimate thrills of either the Spark or the Fuel EX.