Barely two years old, the Santa Cruz Heckler e-bike gets its first major revision, with a larger battery, mullet or 29in wheels and a hefty ticket price. Is it worth the cost of admission?
The original Santa Cruz Heckler didn’t set the world alight: with updated geometry, bigger wheels and a larger capacity battery, Santa Cruz aims to take on the best electric mountain bikes available right now.
Need to know
- Updated reissue of Santa Cruz’s assisted trail bike
- Shimano’s EP8 motor is paired with 720Wh internal battery
- Choose from MX mixed wheels or full 29in front and rear
- C and CC carbon frame options and five build kits starting at £6,999
- Four frame sizes in each wheel option plus Small with 27.5in wheels
When Santa Cruz first stepped onto the world e-bike stage two years ago with the bright yellow Heckler the response was more muted than it probably would have liked. For some North American critics it was the first time they’d spent any real time on a modern full-suspension e-bike, so reviews were mostly positive, but Europe’s more mature market was less impressed. With an off-the-shelf Shimano motor and small battery, here was an e-bike that only really moved the game on in terms of price. The Heckler became the heckled.
What didn’t I like about it? Putting aside the old motor and limited capacity battery, the Heckler didn’t have the slick integration of the Specialized Turbo Levo or the intoxicating, dextrous handling of bikes like the YT Decoy and Canyon Spectral:ON. It was safe, but boring. A mullet version might, I pondered at the time, inject some excitement into the handling.
A few months later, Santa Cruz introduced the mullet wheel-equipped Bullit and an MX version of the Heckler. Which endorsed my opinion to a certain extent, but may also have alienated some mark 1 owners whose bikes were essentially made out of date after six months.
Back to the here and now though, and there’s a new Heckler, although arguably it’s the bike the Heckler should have been from the start. Available with either 29in wheels front and rear or a mullet wheel MX option, big 720Wh internal battery as standard, Shimano EP8 motor and a range of other updates and improvements, on paper it answers all of the criticisms levelled at it two years ago, but has Santa Cruz caught up when brands such as Specialized, Giant and Rocky Mountain have been pounding away at the coalface of e-bike development?
Battery and motor
Before I try and answer that question, let’s take a closer look at the updates to the new bike. Firstly the frame, and like the original Heckler the most eye-catching element of the frame is that voluminous down tube. It houses a new Shimano-compatible 720Wh battery made by Darfon. This trumps Shimano’s largest option by 90Wh, weighs a hefty 4kg with protective door attached and can be removed from the bike with a 4mm Allen key. That’s good news because 4mm Allen keys can be replaced easily if you lose them. It’s not that easy to find the release bolt through the rubberised hole in the battery cover, but the spring release is strong enough to push the battery out of the down tube – at least when new. Incidentally, if you’re after even more range, Darfon has a new battery due in 2023 that’s exactly the same dimensions (and weight, interestingly) as the one on the Heckler, but boasts a whopping 835Wh capacity.
Aside from the sheer size of the down tube, there’s no getting away from the steep gradient it ascends between the BB area and the head tube that makes the Heckler look taller and more upright than bikes with a shallower angle, such as the Turbo Levo. The reason Santa Cruz has had to do this is to accommodate the low slung shock and ensure room for a water bottle inside the front triangle, but the downside is that the heavy battery sits a long way forward of the bottom bracket compared to bikes like the Turbo Levo and Whyte E-150.
Being a non-Shimano battery means there’s a new charging port on the non-driveside of the Heckler. It’s small and sealed with a rubber plug that hopefully lasts better than the Shimano version. A charger is obviously included, but you also get the adaptor to charge the battery when it’s removed from the bike – not always the case with Shimano’s batteries. To switch the bike on there’s a button above the BB moulding. It’s a bit of a reach to turn the bike on – I’d much rather it was mounted higher up on the frame – but there’s a USB port which could be useful in case you run out of phone juice.
It may just be a trick of the eye, but the new bike’s top tube looks really slender in proportion, even compared to the previous bike. The head tube has been updated with new cable entry ports and the one-piece swingarm and shock tunnel has been sharpened up with the angular creases first introduced on the 5010.
Santa Cruz always does a great job with its integrated frame protection and the new Heckler is no different in that respect. There’s a fully wrapped chainstay, along with rubber tape on the upright close to the chain and a mini mudguard to provide some protection for the shock and linkage. Another small and easily overlooked update that should provide an appreciable benefit is the addition of a bearing in the rear shock eyelet. As this sees quite a bit of rotation, and lies in the line of fire from dirt and spray, it should mean the suspension runs smoother for longer.
Finally, there’s also now a flip chip at the rear shock eyelet. It has a very minimal impact on the geometry (0.3º head and seat angle change and 4mm of BB height adjust) but it’s useful for tuning the kinematics. Shipped in the high position, dropping to the low setting adds progression, particularly towards the more extreme depths of the travel. Making the switch is fiddly, as the threaded side of the chip is hidden by the swingarm upright, but turning the bike upside down – and using your knee to support the swingarm while holding using your hands to hold the chip and unscrew the shock bolt – seems to make it a less stressful experience.
Sizing and geometry
Santa Cruz sent me a size large Heckler with 29in wheels to test, and this gets a 472mm reach, 64.5º head angle, 342mm BB height and long 461mm chainstays. With the shock in the low position, I measured a 475mm reach, 64.4º head angle, 343mm BB height and 465mm chainstays, which is really close to the claimed geo. With three other sizes (in 29in) and a reach ranging from 455mm to 520mm, getting a Heckler to fit shouldn’t be a problem. For reference, the main difference between the 29er and MX version is that the chainstays are 15mm shorter (445mm).
Santa Cruz offer the new Heckler at five price points, the lowest of which is a still eye-watering £6,999. For that you get the cheaper, heavier C level frame, 720Wh battery, SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain and RockShox Lyrik Select 160mm travel fork. Step up to £7,999 and the upgrades include a Fox 36 Float Performance fork and SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain. Another £1k gets you an XT groupset and upgraded Performance Elite fork. For a penny shy of £10k the GX AXS version comes with a wireless drivetrain, while this range-topping X01 AXS RSV adds Reserve carbon rims, X01 AXS wireless drivetrain and Factory-level Fox 36 fork. Tyres on all models are the excellent Maxxis Assegai/Minion DHR II combo in reinforced EXO+ casing. It’s worth noting that the front tyre uses the soft MaxxGrip compound, which enhances traction and increases confidence but eats into the range of the battery by as much as 25-30% compared to a MaxxTerra version.
How it rides
After the slightly underwhelming ride and handling of the mark 1 Heckler, I was hoping for something altogether spicier for this new version. First impressions, however, were that my avocado 29er was lacking the required chilli flakes and paprika. Once sag was set, the suspension felt sticky and slow, leaving me dialling off the damping until the adjusters stopped turning. Only the fork required a few clicks of rebound damping – everywhere else I was fully open, even weighing in at 79kg in kit. Pedalling out of the car park, the Shimano EP8 motor also felt totally gutless, like the brakes were binding on the rotors (they weren’t). In the end I wrote the experience off as being compromised by cold temperatures and bedding in time.
The next outing was much better, at least in part. With a few miles under its belt, the suspension had freed up. Not enough to require adding any damping, but enough to stop the Heckler feeling like it was chained to the ground.
With that steep effective seat angle and long chainstays, the Heckler should be adept at tackling steep, technical climbs. There’s certainly generous length in the frame when seated, and I didn’t need to slam the saddle forward on the rails to get my weight over the BB. But when the gradient tilts upwards the Shimano EP8 motor never felt particularly strong. In Trail mode it was particularly bad (this can be tuned in the app), so I ended up using Boost way more than i would normally, and even then it lacked horsepower when faced with tricky challenges like rooty corners and uphill steps.
Fitting the MaxxGrip front tyre doesn’t help the Heckler in this regard, and for a shorter travel e-bike that will be used on a broad variety of terrain, perhaps a MaxTerra version would have been a better choice. Having said that, the range on the Heckler has been good. The extra capacity has really improved the range, even with that draggy front tyre. Could it be that the third party battery is more efficient at metering its power than Shimano’s own version? I’m not sure, but it certainly seems that way.
While I’m on the subject of the motor, this particular EP8 wasn’t as rattly on the descents as the early versions I tried, but there’s much more whine under power. What Shimano giveth with one hand it taketh away with the other…
With that heavy battery mounted well forward of the BB and those long chainstays, the 29er Heckler is not a bike that’s easy to throw around. It’s certainly impressively stable, and weighting the front end is never an issue, but when it comes time to slink down a series of tight turns, or make a sudden direction change, it feels unwilling. I never had anything but absolute faith in the front end, but getting the back end to follow was hard work. A Specialized Turbo Levo would run rings around it on anything tight and twisty, and getting the front end to rise reminded me of trying to lift my old washing machine into the house.
Once the suspension had freed up the Heckler showed great prowess in the rough. I only measured 145mm of travel (Santa Cruz claims 150mm), I never felt shortchanged. The Heckler never felt out of its depth, with supportive suspension and a rock-solid chassis, while switching the flip chip to the more progressive setting really helped give the bike some extra pop and energy when trying to skip over roots and depressions in the trail.
If you’re in the market for a new Heckler then, my advice would definitely be to go for the MX version. Swap the front tyre for a harder compound and keep the soft one for bike park/alpine use. Run the bars high to help move your weight balance rearward and stick it in the low setting to enjoy more pop. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a go on a mullet Heckler at some point to see if my hunch is right.