We haven’t had a lot of hardtails on the blog. That’s something we are trying to fix. Why? Hardtails are a ton of fun and are pretty inexpensive compared to their full-squish siblings. Both are great things if you ask me. So here we go — the Santa Cruz Chameleon. The Chameleon is the least expensive bike in the Santa Cruz lineup. Does that mean that it’s the worst? Or the least fun? Stick around to find out.
Santa Cruz Chameleon Geometry and Build
We don’t normally dive too deep into build and price when we review a bike. We try to keep it about the bike as a whole and not so much the individual build. Frankly, the level of components you get on your bike makes a very small difference to the overall ride quality in my mind. Anywho, that’s an argument for a different day. This review is a little different, however. We are talking about price, so the actual build now becomes relevant. In this case, we have the Santa Cruz Chameleon D AL 29 in Golden Yellow. Why does the color matter? Because this yellow is amazing—think early 90’s Trapper Keeper vibes.
This exact build, out of the box costs $2399. That’s still a pretty penny, but relative to full suspension bikes it’s a fraction of the cost. For your hard-earned cash, you’ll get an aluminum frame, RockShox Recon RL fork with 130mm of travel, Sram Level T brakes, a Sram NX/SX drivetrain, and some cheaper WTB rims. It’s no surprise that most of these components are on the lower end of the competent grade spectrum. The great thing is, they’re still quality bike-shop-brand components. They’re durable, reliable, and aren’t going to blow up in 5 rides.
While the Chameleon doesn’t dazzle on the components, it absolutely crushes the geo charts. For a bike named the Chameleon, you’d expect it to be versatile and adaptable to a huge variety of trails, terrain, and riding style—well, it’s exactly that. It has a well-rounded 65° head tube angle paired to a 74.6° seat tube angle. That seat tube angle might look slack compared to full suspension bikes, but keep in mind, a hardtail doesn’t have any rear travel to sag into. I’d bet when you sit on your 77° full-squish bike, it ends up getting pretty close to the Chameleon’s seat tube angle. The reach is a little on the shorter side at 490mm in XL. This bike isn’t designed to be a brawler, though. It’s designed to go everywhere—bikepacking, pump track, neighborhood rides with the kids, steep and rugged trails, and jumps. The shorter reach and steep HTA keep the wheelbase nice and tidy at 1237mm.
Santa Cruz Chameleon Ride Impressions
Right from the get-go, the Chameleon shows its lack of bias for either uphill or downhill performance. It is happy to sit on the fence between the two. The geometry and components selection reinforce that as well. The Chameleon goes uphill well. The handling is my favorite thing about the uphill performance. It’s lively and quick, easy to get around a tight switchback, and overall makes the bike feel very responsive. You can actually steer the bike around tight corners instead of having to lean, hope, and pray that you make it. The quick handling keeps the bike agile when the climbs get technical. You can pick your line through the rocks instead of having to go over the top of them. Avoiding rocks on a hardtail is huge—you don’t have suspension to keep things smooth.
The body position on the climbs feels fairly centered to maybe a little rearward. The short chainstays and seat tube angle might have something to do with this. If you don’t consciously keep your weight forward, the front wheel tends to want to wheelie and wander. That rearward position can make getting around tight switchbacks tricky too if you’re not shifting your weight over the bars. It’s not a huge deal, but something to be aware of.
It seems silly to talk about efficiency on a hardtail. They’re all efficient. You don’t have rear suspension to rob any of your pedaling energy. The efficiency now comes down to how smooth you can pedal. For the first mile or two on a hardtail, I notice I’m bouncing out of the saddle a little bit. Once I correct my poor form and start spinning smooth circles, the bike start to feel fast and smooth. I did notice a bit of frame flex on the Chameleon. When you’re really putting down some power, the bottom bracket wiggles a bit side to side. I’d rather have that flex than have an ultra-rigid frame— it smooths out the ride, especially on the downhills. I’m a bit on the bigger side at 6’2”. I don’t think lighter and smaller riders are going to notice it too much.
The Chameleon isn’t an ultra-light XC whip. It’s over 30lb. It doesn’t feel like you’re dragging a boat anchor though. I think the saving grace is the tire selection. The front is a rough and rugged Minion DHF, which is great for providing some traction and control on the descents, but the rear is a faster-rolling Aggressor. Now, the Aggressor is still a tough and durable tire, but out of the beefier tires, I think it’s probably the fastest rolling.
In my mind, a hardtail should be a go everywhere, do everything sort of bike. It should be able to handle a wide variety of terrain. The Chameleon’s geometry is perfect for that type of bike. The 65° head tube angle is slack enough to keep things relatively stable, without going so far as to make the bike feel slow and sluggish and flatter terrain. That said, the Chameleon makes you bring your A-game if you want to ride harder trails. The bike doesn’t do the work for you like a 170mm enduro bike would. It makes you choose smooth lines, use your leg suspension, and generate your own traction.
I maybe didn’t realize how much traction a full suspension bike generates until I started spending a lot of time on the Chameleon. The bike can get a little squirrely from time to time because the wheels tend to bounce around a lot more than what I’m used to. I’m going to chalk this up to rider error more than anything. A little bit of good form, body position, and line choice goes a long way in making the Chameleon a viable option for rough and rugged terrain.
As you would expect with a shorter wheelbase and steeper head tube angle, the handling on this bike is very quick and lively. It gets around a corner easily with one caveat—you have to maintain traction. When it comes to fast, pumpy, and rolling terrain, the Chameleon is incredibly fast. The quick handling, shorter wheelbase, and lack of energy-robbing rear suspension make it the perfect bike for generating free speed. It’s easy to pump rollers and berms to start picking up speed. At times it can be a little scary how fast you end up going—keep in mind it’s not the most stable bike out there.
Jumping on the Chameleon is a riot. It’s also a little tricky to figure out. If you keep strong legs off the lip of a jump, you’re going to land on the moon, especially when you’re going Chameleon speeds. There’s no rear suspension to absorb any of that upward momentum. On the other hand, if you soak up the jump and try to squash it you’ll case it just like you would on any other bike. Except when you case a jump on this one, you really feel it. Your ankles aren’t going to be happy. It took me a couple of days of riding to get the amount of pop figured out.
I think that’s part of the draw to the bike for me —it’s a good teacher. By being less forgiving, it lets you know when you’ve screwed up. You’ll know when your body position wasn’t right or when you picked up too early on a jump, or heaven forbid, picked a poor line. One of my favorite things about begging mountain biking was the learning, progression, and failure cycle. Over the years it seems to have slowed down. The Chameleon has brought that back recently.
The other thing I love about the bike is how simple it is. There aren’t a ton of moving parts, figuratively and literally. You can grab the bike, put air in the tires, and hit the trail. You spend less time worrying about the bike and more time focusing on your technique. I’m convinced that riding a hardtail is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your skill level. It makes you do the work.
Who is THe Santa Cruz Chameleon for?
The Chameleon is makes answering this question easy. It’s for pretty much everyone. It’s super versatile. It will go from a full 29” geared bike to a mullet singlespeed to a cruise-around-the neighborhood-with-the-kids bike. It really goes everywhere and does everything. Because of its balanced geometry, it covers a wide variety of terrain.
It’s also a great bike for most people because it’s going to fit in a lot of budgets. It’s a great option for the high school NICA racer, or someone looking to add a second bike to the garage without breaking the bank.
It’s the least expensive but is it the least fun?
To answer the big question. Is it the worst or the least fun because it costs nearly half as much as everything else? The answer is a big, resounding no. I would almost argue that pound for pound it’s the best purchase you could make. You don’t lose out on any of the MTB experience or have any less fun because of it. It doesn’t ruin anything about the biking experience.
One-Line Bike Review
The easiest bike to recommend to everyone regardless of skill level, terrain, or riding style.