by Wil Barrett
March 15, 2017
Like a money-hungry 1970’s pop rock band, the Santa Cruz Chameleon just doesn’t know how to say die. Unlike the former however, that’s undoubtedly a good thing.
The Chameleon is a long-standing model in the Santa Cruz Bicycles lineup that’s occupied some solid time on the trails alongside classic well-loved bikes such as the Heckler, Bullit and Superlight. Pitched as a versatile do-it-all hardtail, the Chameleon initially started its life as more of punk-rock dirt jumper. Though just like the Blur 4X, trail riders found themselves drawn to the nimbleness and flickability of the Chameleon, and started building frames up with lighter trail-oriented wheels and tyres. Santa Cruz picked up on this, and the Chameleon responded by slowly evolving into a more trail-oriented package in more recent years.
After quietly fading away from the Santa Cruz lineup however, the Chameleon is back for 2017. Looking to carry on that evolution with the aid of modern frame and wheel standards, Santa Cruz Bicycles has just launched the brand new Chameleon, and it looks to be more versatile than ever.
Lucky for us though, we’ve had the chance to ride one. So, what’s it like then?
Like the Chameleon’s before it, the new frame is also built from alloy. It’s got a hydroformed 6000-Series tubeset that keeps things light, stiff and tidy without going to the price extremities of using carbon fibre. It shares a similar silhouette to the alloy Highball hardtail, but whereas the Highball is designed for a 100mm travel fork, the Chameleon rocks a longer 120mm travel fork. It’s also slackerer and longerer for the good times.
For the first time in the Chameleon’s history though, the new frame is capable of fitting 29in wheels. Just like the current Tallboy and Hightower, the Chameleon will fit either regular 29in wheels, or 27.5+ wheels. Unlike the full suspension bikes, it does this with interchangeable dropouts, which alter the position of the rear axle to keep geometry the same between the two setups. The dropouts are also available in either geared or singlespeed versions, making for a massive amount of flexibility.
“As the name implies, the Chameleon is a Swiss army knife of bikes, capable of shifting from hardtail ripper to bikepacking mule and everything in between. Adaptable from 29er to 27.5-plus, geared or singlespeed, the Chameleon utilizes a series of swappable dropouts to change modes. With a low stance and laidback geometry, the Chameleon delivers that stable feel that defines the modern trail bike.” – Santa Cruz Bicycles.
The Santa Cruz Chameleon Features
- 6000-Series alloy frame
- Designed for use with 120mm suspension forks
- 67.5° head angle
- Adjustable 415-430mm chainstay length
- Compatible with 29in and 27.5+ wheels
- Modular dropout design: Setup for gears or singlespeed
- Boost 148x12mm spacing (geared) and 142x12mm spacing (singlespeed)
- Two water bottle mounts
- 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell
- Available sizes: Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- Claimed frame weight: 2.09kg (4.6lbs)
- Frame RRP: £549
- Complete bike RRP: £1599 (D Build) – £1999 (R Build)
Like Santa Cruz’s other alloy frames, the Chameleon is built with a low-fuss approach that sees strength and durability favoured over lightweight and fancy standards. There’s a 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell, external cable routing for the drivetrain and brakes, and you get the option of routing a dropper post internally or externally. The frame is also compatible with front derailleurs.
As we weren’t able to swap wheels out, we don’t as of yet have confirmation on the maximum tyre width available on the Chameleon frame. However, complete Chameleons setup in the 27.5+ mode will be equipped with 2.8in Maxxis Rekon tyres, so there’s definitely some room to play with. The bridgeless seat and chainstays offer greater mud clearance, which is a nice touch for British mountain bikers.
With some careful thought put into the potential setups available, Santa Cruz developed a modular Swappable Dropout system for the back of the Chameleon frame. These bolt-on dropouts are available in four different versions. There are 27.5+ and 29in dropouts, and each version is available in geared (148x12mm Boost) and singlespeed (142x12mm) versions.
All up, there’s 15mm of adjustability in the chainstay length, with the rear centre going as short as 415mm.
Compared to the previous Chameleon, the new bike is a much more trail-oriented affair. Geometry gets longer across the board, with the Medium frame size featuring a decent 437mm reach measurement. That’s quite long for a Santa Cruz, and it meant that we could stick with the Medium size, rather than upsizing to a Large like we would normally do with other Santa Cruz models.
The combination of the stiff Boost wheelset and the tough alloy frame creates a lively and responsive package. Overall, the new Chameleon feels lighter than it says on the scales, and it doesn’t have any troubles nipping along the trail at speed.
But whilst it’s quick and agile, it still offers a strongly playful feel when the trail turns technical and in a downwards direction. The 120mm travel Fox Rhythm soaks up impacts well, and the slackened head angle keeps the front wheel tracking over the next bump ahead of you for a nicely grounded feel.
To match the new frame geometry, Santa Cruz has spec’d an appropriate cockpit setup with 760mm wide Raceface handlebars and a short wee stem. The riding position is comfortable, open and upright, and even with the 120mm travel fork and 29in wheel on the front, the grips don’t feel like they’re jacked up skywards.
While our test bike didn’t feature a dropper post, the Chameleon frame is ready to take one in either an external or internally routed fashion. Given the technical capabilities lurking beneath the unassuming paint job, this is an upgrade we can highly recommend for anyone considering a new Chameleon. On the note of the frame colour, it looks ace in the flesh!
The Chameleon will be offered in both ‘R’ and ‘D’ build options in the 29in setup. The more expensive Chameleon R (pictured) features a Fox Rhythm fork on the front, which uses 34mm stanchions for a stiffer and stronger chassis that delivers an impressively plush action. There’s also Race Face cranks and SRAM Level T brakes.
The cheaper Chameleon D will run a RockShox Reckon Silver fork (with skinnier 32mm stanchions), and SRAM Level brakes.
Both models will be spec’d with a SRAM NX 1×11 drivetrain, a WTB tubeless wheelset, along with a Maxxis Minion 2.3in tyre up front, and a 2.25in wide Crossmark out back.
The build kit is largely shared with the 27.5+ Chameleon models, though the wheels change to wider Race Face AR40 rims to support the 2.8in Maxxis Rekon tyres. The suspension forks are identical between the 27.5+ and 29in setups, so you’ve got the flexibility to change the wheels out in the future, without need for changing the forks as well.
While we don’t have a whole lot of saddle time aboard the new Chameleon, early impressions are very favourable. There’s definitely something to be said for the simplicity of a hardtail and the satisfaction that comes with riding one on proper singletrack trails. With the Chameleon and it’s new frame, new geometry and wheelsize flexibility, it offers loads of versatility and technical capability for what is otherwise a simple alloy hardtail.
For more information on the Chameleon, head to santacruzbicycles.com