It's taken a while, but it's finally here: Santa Cruz's first e-bike, the Heckler
It’s finally here: Santa Cruz Heckler. 27.5in wheels, 150mm travel and Shimano STEPS motor, Santa Cruz says it takes amplifies the fun of a pure pedal bike.
Santa Cruz Heckler need to know
- Santa Cruz does what it said it never would: produce an e-bike
- Top end carbon frame houses Shimano STEPS E8000 motor
- 27.5in wheels aim to maximise agility
- Five frame sizes ensure a perfect fit
- Prices start at £6,699 and rise to £11,999
If you were being unkind, you might describe Santa Cruz’s entry to the e-bike market as the most awkward U-turn since the golf buggy scene in Austin Powers. But take a more pragmatic view, and you’ll appreciate it was an inevitable step for such a premium brand. With so much growth in e-bikes, and prices being pushed higher and higher, it would be commercial suicide to remain off-grid and not plug into the assisted bike market.
However, such a late entry to the e-bike party left Santa Cruz with less margin for error. It has missed out on the opportunity to evolve a product over several iterations, learning from any mistakes along the way. By biding its time and waiting on the side lines, it had to hit the ground running with a product that, not only matches the best e-bikes on the market, but goes one step further. E-bikes are not cheap to develop, yet the pace of development is eye-watering, so brands have to be bold in order to ensure new models remain relevant in one, two or perhaps even three years time. However, it seems that the brave pill was left unswallowed.
What has emerged from this protracted gestation period is the Heckler – a 150mm trail bike with 27.5in wheels based on the naturally-aspirated Santa Cruz Bronson, fitted with a Shimano STEPS E8000 motor, 504Wh internal battery and lifetime warranty. Not exactly ground breaking, in other words. Dig deeper and there are some nods to the specific requirements of e-bikes: reduced anti-squat for more greater suspension freedom while pedalling; removable battery with an Allen key; e-bike bar with hidden wiring. But, on paper at least, this hugely anticipated bike doesn’t appear to move the game on. In fact, numerous brands were offering carbon e-bikes with internal batteries, Shimano motors and modern geometry a few years ago.
Easy as it is be an armchair critic, the proof, as always, is in the riding. And on that count Santa Cruz certainly doesn’t mince its words: ‘The Heckler is the most agile e-bike on the market’ reads the first line of the marketing spiel that was sent out to us – although it has decided not to include this statement on the website. Not, ‘the most agile e-bike in its class’, but ‘the most agile e-bike on the market’. Full stop. That’s a remarkably bold statement, considering it covers diet e-bikes like the 17kg Specialized Turbo Levo SL and Lapierre eZesty.
To deliver on this statement, Santa Cruz has taken a three-pronged approach. To start with, it chose 27.5in wheels for the Heckler. It’s a decision that makes perfect sense if absolute manoeuvrability is your goal, as, all things being equal, smaller wheels are lighter and take less effort to stop, go and turn. Powering the rear wheel is the well-respected Shimano STEPS E8000 motor, which also happens to be both compact and light, at under 6kg for the motor and internal battery. And finally they’re all bolted to Santa Cruz’s top spec CC carbon frame, built from stronger fibres to allow less material to be used. Normally there would be a heavier C frame option, but not for the Heckler. With carbon Reserve wheels, the £10k Heckler CC X01 RSV weighs a decent 20.44kg on our scales.
As we’ve mentioned, the geometry is based – loosely – on the Bronson. Travel is comparable at 160mm up front and 150mm out back, and the 65º head angle is also similar, but 15mm has been added to the Heckler’s chainstay measurement to accommodate the motor, and the front centre/reach has been extended to try and balance out the weight distribution.
The BB height has also been raised, and standover clearance reduced, but Santa Cruz must be commended for producing a comprehensive five-size range that goes from S (425mm reach) to XXL (515mm reach). Such a broad span is further complemented by low-slung seat tubes that give riders the chance to run longer dropper posts as well as the choice of either up or downsizing their frame. Sizing is something we think Santa Cruz has absolutely nailed on its current range, and it’s great to see this transferred to its first e-bike.
Released four years ago, Shimano’s STEPS E8000 motor transformed e-bike design, lopping chunks of weight and bulk off previous designs and allowing engineers more freedom to optimise suspension pivot positions as well as dramatically reduce chainstay lengths to improve balance and agility. It still offers a smooth, natural power delivery that’s easy to adapt to, in addition to proven reliability and (theoretically) widespread dealer back-up wherever you are in the world. However, it is getting on now, and both Bosch and Brose have overtaken the Shimano unit on power, torque and battery life. Ok, that’s not quite true; Shimano now offers a 630Wh battery that matches the new Bosch Performance Line CX and closes the gap to Specialized’s 700Wh Brose power pack. But, guess what? The new high-capacity Shimano unit is physically longer and doesn’t currently fit the Heckler’s down tube. Something that seems like a huge missed opportunity.
The power button for the Heckler sits just above the motor, and close by is the external charging point. To keep your battery in tip-top shape, it’s recommended to charge and store it inside, and the Heckler makes this easy with a battery cover that can be removed with a 4mm Allen key. Yes, no stupid keys to lose or forget. But the locking mechanism on our demo bike was already broken, with the spring rattling around inside the down tube. As a result we couldn’t remove the battery to charge it.
How it rides
The bike we were sent to test was one of Santa Cruz UK’s demo fleet, and despite showing only 350 miles on the clock, was far from box-fresh. Aside from the cranks being buffed silver by a couple of months of winter riding, and the broken battery cover mechanism, the rear shock bushing had worn out. This left the bike with an annoying amount of play in the back end. While we were poking around looking for the cause of the rattle, we noticed that the Heckler doesn’t get the eyelet bearing and geometry flip chip normally specced by Santa Cruz on its analogue bikes. Fair enough, we couldn’t detect enough friction in the back end to hamper sensitivity, but it’s possible that a bearing instead of a bushing might improve durability. While these issues are eyebrow-raising on a ten grand bike, it has to be pointed out that both would be covered by Santa Cruz’s generous lifetime warranty.
I’m 5ft10in and I found the size large frame, with its 465mm reach, gave me a great riding position when standing up. On Santa Cruz’s naturally-aspirated bikes I can happily ride an XL (490mm reach), but on the Heckler I didn’t feel the need to upsize, simply because the mass of the bike made it extremely stable on fast, rough descents. Having said that, I’d consider running a 40mm stem instead of the stock 50mm to offset some of its forward weight bias. More on that later.
Scan the geometry numbers at the end of this first ride and you’ll notice that the Heckler has a steep, 77º effective seat angle. This was measured at my saddle height, with the Reverb dropper post about 10mm from fully slammed. What this means, in combination with the mid-length chainstays, is that the Heckler makes a respectable hillclimber. It’s not difficult to get the right balance between keeping the front wheel down and the rear wheel from losing traction, so you can use the motor to your advantage and get up trails you’d normally only ever ride down. Santa Cruz has also reduced the anti-squat, to allow the suspension more freedom under pedalling loads. This is exactly what you want on an e-bike, as you spend more time in the saddle anyway, and the input from the motor is smoother and more consistent than if the bike was powered by legs alone.
To improve ground clearance, Santa Cruz has fitted 165mm Shimano cranks across the size range, but despite this move we did suffer quite a few pedal strikes. A bit of familiarity and we learned to time our pedal strokes more accurately, but the Shimano motor is quick to cut out when you stop pedalling, so you can end up grinding to a frustrating halt on technical climbs as a result.
Back to the question of handling though, and does the Heckler live up to its audacious claim of being the most agile e-bike on the market? In a word, no, although I would qualify that by saying it is far from being the least agile, either. It’s good, but not great; adept in the turns, but front heavy, so it gets a bit cumbersome when you want to lift the front end, or get it over an obstacle on the trail. Manuals and bunny hops are much more difficult, even than rival bikes with bigger (heavier) batteries and longer chainstays. How playful a bike feels is closely related to how poppy the front end feels, and the Heckler has the heavy head of a teenager on a Monday morning during exam week. Depending on which frame size fits you, that balance will change. The smaller frame sizes will have an even greater front end weight bias, whereas the XL and XXL will be more neutral.
Those small wheels mean you can make direction changes with consummate ease, trusting in the grip generated by the meaty 2.6in Maxxis tyres and the unflinching stability of the central mass. But the small front wheel can push a bit in certain situations, and it can be tricky to get settled mid-turn. I would love to try a Heckler with a 29in wheel up front, as I think a mullet option could make it easier to commit once in the turn without taking away some of its willingness to initiate direction changes.
Suspension response feels perfectly matched front to rear. There’s good grip on small chatter from both the 36 Grip2 fork and the VPP with its Super Deluxe shock. Support builds with a predictable, linear progression that holds you up in turns and gives plenty to lean against when generating speed and pop. Full travel is reserved for big drops and jumps, and never arrives with a metallic fanfare. There’s plenty of grip when you’re off the brakes, but get on the big four-piston Code brakes, with their 200mm rotors, and the Heckler seems to tense up and skip across braking bumps.
Where does that leave the Heckler then? It's not a bad first attempt at an e-bike for a brand that was so vociferously against them. It's well made, has a couple of smart features, boasts a comprehensive warranty and the sizing is excellent. But it's also expensive, it doesn't deliver on its promise of class-leading handling, and there are alternatives on the market with more up-to-date power units and larger capacity batteries.