Santa Cruz introduce the third generation Hightower. The look remains the same, but they’ve added new and practical features. It’s marketed as a mountain bike, promising to strike the perfect balance as an all-rounder. Not too much and not too little. We put the new Hightower to the test to find out more.
Those who know Santa Cruz know that the Hightower sits between the big-hitting 165 mm travel Megatower and the smaller 120 mm travel Tallboy. As such, it’s marketed as an everyday mountain bike, perfect for your home trails where a more capable would be overkill. The geometry has been adapted slightly and some useful frame details have been added, some of which we already know from the new Megatower. To find out how it fares, we tested the 14.5 kg C-grade carbon bike featuring the GX AXS RSV build-kit for € 9,199.
The 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 C GX AXS – The devil is in the detail
At first glance, the new Hightower doesn’t look much different and it continues to rely on Santa Cruz’s tried and trusted VPP rear end. It’s only at second glance that you’ll notice some of the sensible updates. One of these is the storage compartment in the down tube, which we’ve already seen on its big brother, the Megatower. You can fit a bottle cage on top of the specially designed plastic flap and it seals tightly thanks to a high-quality metal closure
The downtube is closed at the bottom so that your things can’t slide into the bottom bracket and get lost. Moreover, it comes with two purpose-made bags, allowing you to keep everything neatly organised. One bag holds a spare tube and the other has compartments for a pump, multi-tool and even a waterproof compartment for cash or important documents. Thanks to the guided internal cable routing and threaded bottom bracket, you’ll have minimal stress during maintenance and repairs. The new model continues to rely on proven details like the small mudguard for the shock and the high-quality seat and chainstay protectors.
That way the shock stays clean and the rear end remains quiet. As usual, Santa Cruz also offer the Hightower in two different carbon grades: C and CC. The latter doesn’t stand for cross-country; it’s just the designation used for their high-end carbon fibre. It promises the same stiffness at a lower weight and fewer carbon layers.
The components of the 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 C GX AXS RSV on test
Santa Cruz rely predominantly on SRAM and FOX components for the € 9,199 GX AXS RSV build, paired with a host of in-house solutions. By now, the brand’s preferred combination of suspension components could almost be considered a tradition and they’re not about to break it here. Up front, you get a FOX 36 Performance Elite fork offering 150 mm travel without the gold Kashima coating, though with the same extensive adjustment options and performance as the more expensive Factory model. At the rear, you get a RockShox Super Deluxe Select+ shock. Its adjustment options are rather limited: air pressure and rebound, that’s it. In addition, the shock also has a lockout lever for the climbs. The small cut-out in the frame for the sag indicator on the RockShox shock is very useful. That way, setting up the shock is a lot less fiddly – great!
Santa Cruz Hightower C GX AXS RSV
Fork FOX 36 Performance Elite 150 mm
Rear Shock RockShox Deluxe Select+ 145 mm
Seatpost RockShox Reverb Stealth 175 mm
Brakes SRAM Code RS 180/180 mm
Drivetrain SRAM GX AXS 1x12
Stem Burgtec Enduro MK3 42 mm
Handlebar Santa Cruz 35 Carbon Bar 800 mm
Wheelset Reserve 30 HD 29"
Tires MAXXIS Minion DHR II MaxxGrip EXO/Minion DHR ll MaxxTerra EXO 2.4"/2.4"
Size S M L XL XXL
The cryptic GX AXS RSV model name hints at the components of this build. The GX AXS stands for the SRAM groupset, consisting of a wireless GX AXS 12-speed drivetrain and robust aluminium cranks. RSV describes the in-house Reserve carbon wheels with their distinct reinforcing around the nipples. These come fitted with Reserve Fillmore valves as standard, which proved to be very useful in our long-term review. The rims are shod with 2.4″ MAXXIS Minion DHR II tires, with the front tire sensibly featuring the softest MaxxGrip rubber compound. However, both tires have to make do with the thin EXO casing, requiring you to run high tire pressures to protect the expensive carbon rims. Unfortunately, higher tire pressures come at the expense of grip and damping. We highly recommend upgrading to the more robust EXO+ or Doubledown casing to be able to run lower tire pressures and avoid damaging the rims.
What you won’t be able to read from the model name is the components specced for the dropper post, brakes and cockpit. The SRAM CODE RS brakes feature tool-free lever reach adjustment and SwingLink technology to reduce the force required for braking, resulting in less arm pump. However, Santa Cruz pair the brakes with small 180 mm rotors front and rear. These don’t do justice to the bike’s potential and overheat very quickly on steep descents. We would recommend upgrading to a bigger 200 mm rotor at least at the front, but preferably also at the rear.
The added weight is insignificant given the advantages regarding modulation and reliability thanks to the optimised heat dissipation. In size L, the bike comes specced with a 175 mm RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post which can be inserted all the way into the frame, offering maximum freedom of movement. Thanks to the hydraulic mechanism, it requires very little force to actuate and the pressure point feels pleasantly defined. Therefore, however, maintaining or doing any work on the dropper is a bit more of a chore. The cockpit consists of a 42 mm Burgtec stem combined with an 800 mm wide in-house carbon handlebar.
Tuning tip: bigger rotors | tires with thicker casings to protect the carbon rims
Other builds and availability of the 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3
The product range of the new Hightower 3 includes four C-grade carbon models, two CC-grade carbon models and a frame kit. The C-grade carbon models featuring the heavier carbon lay-up are available from € 5,499 to € 9,199. The entry-level R model relies on the opposite suspension combination as the other models, fitted with a RockShox Lyrik Base fork and a FOX FLOAT Performance shock. One down from the most expensive C-grade carbon model you’ll find the GX AXS build for € 7,999, featuring the same sensible components as our € 1,200 more expensive test bike, minus the Reserve carbon wheels. Instead, you get a set of alloy Race Face ARC alloy wheels, which are just slightly heavier. The two carbon models featuring the lighter CC-grade carbon frame are available either with a mechanical X01 groupset and aluminium wheelset for € 8,999 or a wireless X01 AXS drivetrain for € 10,999. Topping the range is the CC X01 AXS RSV model, which relies on the same in-house carbon wheels as the model on test. For the suspension, the two high-end models come with FOX 36 Factory forks featuring the Kashima coating and RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate shocks, offering extensive adjustability at the rear. All models come with the RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post in lengths ranging from 125–200 mm, depending on the frame size. The above-mentioned models will be available from the beginning of July with two additional aluminium variants added in the spring of 2023.
The geometry of the 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3
In terms of geometry, the most significant change is that the chainstay length is frame-size dependent. In other words, the chainstays grow by 3 mm in length as you go up in size, promising the keep the handling consistent on the 2023 Hightower. With sizes ranging from S–XXL, Santa Cruz cater to riders from 155 to 200 cm tall. Besides that, the head tube angle has become 0.5° slacker and they’ve made the seat tube angle a touch steeper. Thanks to the flip chip, both can be made 0.3° steeper in the “Hi” setting. The 472 mm reach of the size L is rather short, though it makes for a confidence inspiring ride on the trail when combined with the 636 mm stack height. Unfortunately, the seat tube gets very long on the XL and XXL sizes, making it difficult to choose the frame size based on the desired reach.
Santa Cruz Hightower C GX AXS RSV 2023 first ride review – A classic mountain bike
Santa Cruz market the new Hightower as a classic mountain bike with all-round capabilities. To find out how versatile and capable it really is, we put it to the test on the varying trails around Port du Soleil as well as our home trails in Stuttgart, Germany.
The Hightower C GX AXS RSV fares well on the climbs. The riding position is relaxed and not too hand-heavy. The bike accelerates willingly, and the carbon wheels pick up speed with ease. However, the VPP rear end bobs slightly, which makes it somewhat less efficient. You can mitigate this by locking out the shock when riding up woodland roads, though doing so on technical climbs reduces traction, in which case you’ll be better off with the suspension left open.
When pointing it downhill, you’ll feel nicely centred aboard the Santa Cruz, providing a balanced weight distribution on the trail. This places you in an active position on the bike and you don’t have to weigh the front wheel to get enough traction through the corners. The soft MaxxGrip rubber compound of the front MAXXIS tire only serves to reinforce this. As such, the Hightower instils you with the confidence to chuck the bike from one corner into the next.
At higher speeds, the Hightower feels sufficiently composed, though the undersized brake rotors tend to overheat and ultimately hold it back. Moreover, the progressive rear end will motivate you to swerve around or jump over bigger hits instead of ploughing right through on rough descents. Fortunately, the Hightower’s agility will let you do so, happy to make quick direction changes, whether it’s to the left, right, or up into the air. The suspension also provides plenty of feedback from the trail, so you’ll always know what’s going on the trail beneath you. The Hightower rewards an active riding style and having fun instead of chasing the clock, sure to leave a grin on your face as you exit the trail. Mission accomplished: an all-purpose weapon that’s guaranteed to make you smile on everything from your home trails to rougher all-mountain terrain.
Our conclusion on the Santa Cruz Hightower C GX AXS RSV 2023
The 2023 Santa Cruz’s Hightower isn’t a revolution so much as a refinement, featuring a host of sensible updates. These are underlined by its performance on the trail and the sophisticated innovations that have trickled down from its big brother. Overall, Santa Cruz offer excellent workmanship and an almost flawless spec, though you wouldn’t expect anything less for the price. What you get is a playful all-rounder with a convenient glovebox and lots of attention to detail.
- integrated glovebox in the downtube with purpose-made bags
- intuitive handling
- undersized brake rotors
- puncture prone tires
For more information, visit santacruzbicycles.com
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Words: Julian Schwede Photos: Mike Hunger