With 25 years of engineering behind it, the latest incarnation of the Santa Cruz Chameleon is a thoroughly modern hardtail with a versatile design and animated nature.
The much-revered Santa Cruz Chameleon turns 25 in 2022 (much like our beloved MBR magazine). This do-it-all hardtail rolled into production in 1997 and is one of the longest-running model names in this Californian brand’s line, has often been listed among the best hardtail mountain bikes, and is now in its eighth generation. How’s that for heritage?
The Chameleon has always had a good dose of in-built versatility, but the design has wandered a touch over the years: morphing into a 160mm forked hard-hitter in 2003 and more recently a bikepacking capable all-rounder with a carbon frame and 27.5in Plus size wheels. Changing with the times and trends? Most certainly, but the latest evolution is pitched squarely as a modern trail hardtail. But however rich its pedigree, with a price tag that now buys you a very capable full suspension bike, how does the new Chameleon stack up? And, more importantly, is it still relevant?
Need to know:
- Latest generation Chameleon has replaceable dropouts for running 29in and MX wheels
- Alloy frame comes in four sizes with geometry designed around 130mm travel forks
- Slotted dropouts offer adjustable chainstay length – 428mm to 440mm
- Three build options with prices starting at £2,399, frame only for £799
The evolution of the Santa Cruz Chameleon
Before I attempt to answer those questions, let’s take a closer look at the latest transformation. Now based solely around an aluminium frame and a 130mm fork – in my opinion the sweet spot for suspension travel on a hardtail – the Chameleon uses replaceable dropouts to give two wheel configurations.
Switching between these neat dropouts lets you run it as a full 29er or a mullet/MX set up (29in front/27.5in rear) with no change to geometry or bottom bracket height. The dropouts are a sliding design, so there’s also 12mm of horizontal adjustment, giving you the option to run it as a single speed or tweak the effective chainstay length to fine tune the ride feel.
Versatile? You bet. And when you add in well executed internal routing, comprehensive chainstay protection, a threaded bottom bracket shell and ISCG 05 chain guide tabs, you’ve got all the boxes ticked for a future-proof ride. There’s also a lifetime warranty on the frame, so you know it’s built to last.
When it comes to build kits, Santa Cruz offers three options and two wheel packages, starting at £2,399 for the D spec. I rode the mid-level R spec bike, in 29er guise and in a size XL, the largest of the four available options. With a price tag just shy of £3K it’s serious money for a hardtail and in another league price-wise from category benchmarks like the Canyon Stoic and Whyte 629. The Chameleon is also one of the very few trail-focused aluminium options in a price arena where steel, titanium and carbon frames dominate.
Take a look at the spec though and you’ll see SRAM’s tried and tested but unremarkable basic 4-piston Guide T brakes and NX Eagle transmission, with the heavier 11-50T cassette. It’s matched up front with a 30T chainring – a wise choice – giving a lower gear ratio for climbing. Sure, some of the specification feels underwhelming at this price point, but thankfully other aspects of the finishing kit are a notch above. Burgtec’s 800mm aluminium bar and stubby Enduro Mk3 stem along with a 170mm stroke SDG Tellis dropper post and a well-built pair of wheels all look up to the job.
When it comes to suspension, this R spec Chameleon sports a 130mm Fox 34 Rhythm fork. It’s an upgrade from the base model’s RockShox Recon and not a world apart from the flagship bike’s Performance spec 34 fork, as both use the GRIP damper.
One aspect of the specification that is consistent throughout the three models is the tyre choice… Maxxis but with an interesting twist. The Chameleon runs 2.5in stock rubber front and rear – even when you spec the mixed wheel MX option – with plenty of clearance for winter filth. The EXO casing Maxxis Minion DHF and Aggressor tyres are common sights but what’s unusual is the choice of a super-sticky Maxx Grip compound up front, paired with a fast-rolling dual compound on the rear. But more on that later…
How it rides
It sounds superficial, but I was instantly won over by the look of the ‘Golden Yellow’ Chameleon from the moment I lifted it from the box – the finish, colour and low slung stance of the bike had me buzzing. And with a trail hardtail test wrapped up just a few months previously and a twelve month stint on a Nukeproof Scout longtermer I was itching to hit the dirt as I had plenty of reference points for comparison.
The silhouette of this eighth generation Chameleon casts a familiar shadow to its predecessor, but the geometry has had a full rethink. A slacker 65º head angle and not-too-steep 75º effective seat angle are matched to a longer 493mm reach on the XL. So the numbers are on the money but not extreme. The bottom bracket, at 318mm, is a touch higher than similar hardtails fitted with 130mm forks though. I was riding the XL size so I slid the dropouts to the longest position resulting in a 1,255mm wheelbase, which is still 30mm shorter than Whyte’s limousine-like 629.
Balanced, animated, responsive and silent were my immediate thoughts and these words remained in my mind throughout the ride. At 14.19kg the Chameleon is not that light for a hardtail, adjustable dropouts add weight, but it has a spark that encourages a more dynamic riding style, with a solid feel when putting the power down.
There’s no compromise to the ride quality – which is super-smooth and certainly aided by the large volume tyres – and comfort is up there with class leading benchmarks. Although this bike certainly works well for a heavier or more powerful rider, I did feel that the 35mm diameter bar and stem a shade too stiff and overkill.
Sure, that sticky Maxx Grip rubber up front tyre can drag at times but it enables you to take risks and push into territory that’s at the very edge of your comfort zone. Of course you can switch it out depending on the bike’s intentions and tap into the Chameleon’s versatility – invest in a Maxx Terra tyre that will work front or rear and you’ve got flexible options that will take you from a bike park session to a long haul trail ride.
And for all the talk of versatility, it was on the trail that the Chameleon really showed its true colours.
Wherever I pointed this bike it was a blast to ride; forgiving yet massively capable, with a dose of versatility and future-proofing thrown into the mix. Expensive it may be, but if you can make the numbers work then the Chameleon could be a sound long-term investment for the hardtail enthusiast.