A Bike That Really Stands Out: the Santa Cruz Chameleon 27.5+ Hardtail

Chameleons don’t actually change color to “blend” into their surroundings. Contrarily, their colors are used to mark territory, attract mates and display moods, often resulting in these unique lizards “standing out” more than blending in. The Santa Cruz Bicycles Chameleon adheres to this logic, standing out from many of the other production hardtails on the market but before we get ahead of ourselves here, and lizard anecdotes aside, when I first saw the newly-designed Chameleon last year it checked a lot of boxes and left me with a few questions.

Sure, Santa Cruz is saying the chameleon is a master of adaptation, which metaphorically makes a lot of sense. This bike can really do a lot, but isn’t that the nature of hardtails in general? For me, my thoughts on the Chameleon stem from its legacy, its updated design and most importantly, to a lot of people, the cost.

Legacy

The Chameleon was always that odd little shreddy frame offering amidst a catalog of heavy-hitters in the Santa Cruz lineup, which spans from lightweight XC-race models like the Highball to the big and rambunctious V10. So what is the Chameleon anyway, or I suppose, what was it? Everyone has a Chameleon story and most of these tales started with the phrase “it was my first real mountain bike.” My experiences with the Chameleon centered on the rental market. If I was somewhere that had mountain bike rentals, and the trails didn’t demand an AM or DH bike, I’d always go for the Chameleon because I knew exactly what to expect from it. This platform has a lot of heart for mountain bikers, so adapting it is in a lot of ways, a resuscitation.

Updated Design

Staying true to its easily-adapted to singlespeed roots, the aluminum Chameleon sports adjustable and removable dropouts. These are for either gears with a boosted 148mm x 12mm axle or single speed with 142mm x 12mm axle. The geometry got slightly tweaked too, with a short 415mm chainstay, a head angle of 67.5º and a bb height of 315mm. Based on a 120mm fork, the Chameleon might seem under-equipped, sitting in there amidst big bikes like the V10, but alas, this bike, like its natural world namesake, has a few evolutionary tricks up its sleeve.

Being able to fit a 3″, 27.5″ or a 29″ x 2.4″ wheel, thanks to the dropouts which add 15mm of adjustment, is not necessarily a new thing for the MTB industry, or Santa Cruz itself, but it is for the Chameleon and its exactly what it needed. This frame has evolved to be up-to-date and relevant in this ever-changing industry, resulting in one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve experienced on a production hardtail. The bigger tires also drastically reduce the otherwise chattering experience common with aluminum hardtails. In fact, I tried my hardest to compare this bike to my steel bikes in terms of stiffness or resonance but couldn’t.

Best of all, the Chameleon comes in two build kit options and a frameset offering, all of which are very appealing to your wallet ($1,699 for the D complete kit, $2,349 for the R complete kit and $749 for the frame!)

Build Kit

This particular Chameleon was custom-built for a tradeshow using Hope UK parts and a few fancy upgrades. While these components certainly add to the experience of the review, I’d say the meat of the ride quality lies with the frame design itself. Although, purple does look damn good mixed in with that high desert sage green!

This was my first time riding so much Hope and it gave me just that: so much hope. Hope that you can still make kick-ass hydro disc brakes in the UK, or Europe. Hope that a hub’s engagement and sound would be so confidence-inspiring. Hope that the anodizing would be consistent across the entirety of a catalog. I’m very grateful to be able to experience all this Hope, first-hand. Now, I just hope I can keep riding some of this stuff for a longer-term review.

Back to the frame. Fitting two water bottle bosses in such a compact front triangle is tough, yet Santa Cruz did what so many people opt out of: adding a bottle mount to the underside of the downtube. This, along with all the internal routing, make the Chameleon a prime candidate for bikepacking as well. Sure, the frame bag would be quite small, but it’s still got enough room to cram in supplies. There’s even a direct-mount front derailleur attachment point which may or may not be your thing.

Riding Experience

With big, fat, traction-friendly tires and a short rear end, even out of the box I was amazed that I, of all people, could wheelie this bike for a block with ease. On the first ride, whoops and dips that I’ve always tried to manual over were suddenly easier as well. There’s a magic numeric triangle that results in a wheelie-friendly bike, but if that triangle gets too skewed, it can drastically affect how the bike rides as a whole. For instance, if the rear end is too snappy and the front end is too slack, or floppy, it can get real interesting, in a bad way for me. The back of the bike is like “PARTTYYYYY!,” meanwhile, the front is like “NOT SOOOO FAST…” Figuring out how to make a bike responsibly party is Santa Cruz’s MO. In an industry where everything seems to be going in the “longer, slacker, lower” direction, SCB prefers a bit of moderation.

Not So Fast

Before we go any further down this review chute, let me just say my only critique of this bike hasn’t changed from when I first saw it launched on the SCB website last year: why is the stack the same for the entirety of the sizing lineup, save for the XL? 615mm is not a lot of stack. Not for a 6’2″ human with a 36″ inseam. While it does wonders for the photographic stance of the Chameleon, especially with the saddle slammed, it does create a bit of discomfort for me while climbing for 2 hours up a mountain, usually hauling a camera bag and snacks. I eat a lot of snacks too!

There are two points I need to make here. The first being, I’m usually in between an XL and a L frameset with Santa Cruz and that applies to the Chameleon as well. With the XL, I would have gained more stack height but would have lost some of the snappy responsiveness due to the extended reach. Also, since this bike was built up as a show bike, the steerer had been cut down, so I’m not even sure it would have fit on an XL. That being my last point: normally, if the steerer was longer, I would have just put a few more spacers under the stem to compensate for the low – to me – stack. All this aside, the Chameleon has always been that interstitial design between a DJ and a HT.

Did I make the wrong choice in reviewing the size large? I don’t think so. The experience of throwing this bike around, jumping it, and descending the “steeps” much faster than I ever have before has a lot to do with the size frame I selected. I’m able to get wayyyyyy far back behind the saddle on tight switchbacks, pull up easily to manual or wheelie, and really flick it around on jumps.

Adaptation and Take-Away

Charles Darwin is my homie. His theory of evolution helps us all understand how this world became so diverse. The short of it is: environmental influences affect the phenotype of living creatures over an extended period of time. The Chameleon has done a damn fine job at adapting to the current MTB environment and save for a few snags, it’s established its space within that realm, marking its territory with a flashy display of colors, thanks to SCB’s art department. I think we’re all at the agreement that no bicycle will do everything we want, well. There’s always going to be a compromise.

That said, if I lost all of my bikes and had to buy one frame, it would be the Chameleon. Head to Santa Cruz Bicycles to see the specs, your local dealer to test ride one and to the comments for any questions!

  • barry mcwilliams

    This, singlespeed, may well be my next bike, now that the Log Lady is heading into the sunset (and because I don’t have the cash on hand to swoop one of the last Log Ladies before they’re gobbled up). Pretty stoked. Now I’ve just got to book a bunch more work!

    • jtbadge

      I’ve got a large Log Lady, barely ridden. You want?

  • trololo

    Those Nike SPDs tho. eBay purchase or a sneak peek at something new?

  • benreed

    L.A. people are like: “It’s below zero in the Midwest. Time to post photos of me riding around in shorts and a t-shirt on the internet.”

    • It’s ok, we’re all going to be frying in the summer, or on fire. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • Jared Jerome

        By “summer” he means March.

  • Froste

    Planning on purchasing the D 27.5+ build to celebratemy 30th B-day. I am test riding later in the week and this got me very excited! Not sure if a L or XL will be my choice. I am also 6’2″ with slightly shorter inseam than you John so maybe the XL will be the preferred choice, especially since bikepacking will be one of the main uses for this rig? WOOA!

    • Yeah, I would say if you want it to be a quiver-killer, opt for the XL.

  • Alexander Rigda

    this bike does not suck. or maybe it does who knows i’m no John Watson

  • Chris Valente

    I have an kind of meh aluminum Scott hardtail that I have been itching to upgrade to something 27.5+. I don’t get to do a ton of MTB riding so the price point seems particularly appealing on this one. Between this and the Electric Lady whatever, I am liking the options out there.

  • Bluejaystr

    This thing reminds me a lot of a Kona Honzo. I wonder how they compare???

    • benreed

      The Honzo is a bit shorter in the rear end, a bit lower BB and a half a degree steeper in head tube angle.

    • Jeffrey Chase

      It actually looks closer to the Explosif, which was at/near the top of my list for a new hardtail. Might just flip a coin.

    • xeren

      This thing is basically modeled after the honzo, as are a lot of bikes these days, like the Salsa Timberjack. I know Kona didn’t *invent* long, low, with short chainstays, but they have to have been the first bigger bike company to take the leap, now everyone seems to be jumping on board.

    • AaronBenjamin

      Honzo. Steel. Heavier. Just a burly bike in general. The Ti Honzo on the other hand is oh so sick.

  • Florianhassler

    Does it not bother you this thing is not made of steel? I‘m really not into aluminum any more, what a pitty!

    • In a blind riding test – if that is such a thing – I wouldn’t be able to tell what the frame material is. Part of that are the tires and probably the wheels, plus the fork, but aluminum frame tech, paired with modern mtb tech, makes it hard to tell. If it were steel, it’d be a lot heavier too…

      • benreed

        Agreed. Especially at this price point. For example, you can pick up a steel Honzo frame (if you can find one) for about the same price as this frame. But that thing weights 8 damn pounds.

        • xeren

          IIRC, the chameleon frame is $750. The steel honzo frame is only $550, alu is $500. The $1700 alu honzo comes with a dropper, the chameleon does not. can you tell which bike I would pick?

          • AaronBenjamin

            Ironically, it’s more expensive to live in Santa Cruz than Kailua (Kona), so it figures itself out.

          • Kona HQ is in Canada…

          • Freeheel PNW

            Ferndale, WA.

          • AdamBike99

            Not Canada, but Ferndale, WA just north of Bellingham… and just south of the Canadian border ;-).

            Copy/pasted from their website:
            WORLD HEADQUARTERS – USA
            Kona USA
            2455 Salashan Loop
            Ferndale, Washington
            98248

          • Apologies. I thought their head office was the Canadian office (which they also have.)

          • AdamBike99

            No apologies necessary John! Just know that your community always has your back (not that you need it very often). 8-)

      • Florianhassler

        Ah yeah, I wouldn‘t pretend I was able to tell the materials apart in a blind riding test. But I‘ve always found I don‘t really trust aluminum bikes to last a lifetime. Maybe that‘s different for Santa Cruz, I‘ve read something about lifetime guarantees on frames. Anybody has some experience with that? I‘ve heard from a huge european bike manufacturer they expect aluminum frames to last for about 5 years, which is ridiculous, if you ask me…

  • Andrew

    As a 6’3″ rider on an OG Krampus (which also has a shared stack height across frame sizes), I hope all sorts of bike industry folks take notice of this problem. Thanks to moonrisers with a 4″ rise in the handlebar, I’ve got a handlebar that’s only slightly lower than my seat on the XL/21″ frame. It’d sure be nice to have a higher front end so that this could be accomplished without aftermarket bars or giant riser stacks.

  • sospeedy

    I hadn’t had so much fun on a bike in a long while until i went to this 27.5+ hardtail! Now my friends ask why i dont ride my full suss anymore…

  • Sirasam

    How does this compare with the Electric Queen?

    • Derek

      The SC is cheaper, lighter, has better parts and will clear a slightly bigger tire. It might also have better geometry.

      • Agreed but I would clarify, it has a different geometry. I liked the EQ a lot and I like this bike a lot. If it came down to it I’d buy the Chameleon though due to the aforementioned characteristics.

      • Savoldelli

        I never understood all the rage about the EQ. Most of the pantrybrand’s full builds are sub-par for the price tag.

        • Nicolas Ponroy

          Don’t know if the Sram GX groupset is sub-par, but the EQ is a damn sexy bike for those that was a steel frame. I would love a Niner SIR 9 27.5+, but it’s $1500 more. So maybe the part are a bit better, but for many riders, the difference will be negligible

  • Adem Rudin

    I pulled the trigger on one of these around Christmas. Wheels are finally showing up this week, can’t wait to ride it!

  • Avuncular

    This bike is the interstitial phenotype of my desire.

  • Thorsten Bastian

    What is for you the best hardtail you have ridden?

    • My Retrotec – over all – since best is subjective. I’ve taken it bikepacking, all over California and Utah. It’s been the best tool for the job. The Chameleon is the most fun hardtail I’ve ridden though.

  • andygowans

    According to SC suggested sizing you should have been on an XL. I agree with that. I have the TB3 and at 6ft the XL feels better then the L.

    • I hopped on an XL last week and it was a bit longer, but I still think riding a smaller size hardtail contributes to the flick factor. I honestly don’t know how I would have felt about the XL. FWIW, my Stinner has a longer reach and it’s great for all day excursions, but not nearly as shreddy.

      • Michael

        Interesting, perusing the geo on your Stinner and with exception of the very slack seat tube angle it seems it would be decently shreddy. Short rear, much lower and slacker.

  • Mr Sun

    look perfect with the hope things^^

  • Ian Stone

    Grabbed one with Eagle and some blingy bits. It’s just a blast to ride and looks SO GOOD.

  • Scott

    Can’t understand how a size L hardtail cannot be designed to hold two water bottles in the front triangle… Seems like a great bike otherwise, but that concession to standover and unnecessarily long dropper posts (IMO) rules it out for me.

    • Sure, but part of why this bike is so much fun is because it’s super compact. Like I said, all bikes have compromises. :-)

  • gutenbergler

    When I was looking to purchase a hardtail last year this bike was at the top of my list. Unfortunately it seems like there are supply issues, and the dealer couldn’t even order me one. Disappointing. This problem wasn’t limited to SC, I couldn’t find a Surly or Salsa in this price range/size XL either… Ended up with a Big Honzo, and am loving it. Great bike for a first time off-roader

    • The Chameleons were late to all dealers. They “launched” it with no stock…

  • R.P. Treb

    Basically a beautiful Swiss army knife. Bike can handle quite a bit and look damn good doing so. Long live the AM hardtail.

  • Pascal K

    Looks like a really cool bike. Would you go for more travel if you could?

  • all i see is purp bits and rad times.

  • Farneybuster

    Curious what johns thoughts on a slacker STA were. I had read some reviewers who weren’t a fan, at least for longer climbing.

    • The Chameleon has a 73º STA. Doesn’t seem too slack to me. I had no issues climbing on it and all of our climbs are long and steep.

  • Ben

    You’ve now done extensive reviews of the Chameleon and the Highball (I think a couple years ago?). Price aside, how do they compare? Which do you prefer?

    • Chameleon all the way. Bigger tires, snappier geometry. The Highball strikes me as a race-oriented frame, while the Chameleon is more of a fun bike.

  • rainer

    Hey! Anyone knows what seat bag that is?

  • George

    Hope, proper company that.

  • Joe

    Looks a bit similar to a Ritchey Timberwolf. Looking for a hardtail this year — which would you go for? Steel vs. aluminum; the Ritchey has a slightly lower STA, lower stack, higher standover, and is a little shorter overall. Would mostly be riding singletrack, Great Divide bits, and short bikepacking trips.

    • The Chameleon fits me better. The Ritchey L is more like a medium and the Chameleon is lighter, cheaper, fits a 3″ tire.

  • As a tall guy I’m curious why you favor 27.5+ over 29 typically? At least, it seems that way following your reviews over the past few years. Do you think the plus size tires in 27.5 are that much better than wide 29 tires (2.4, 2.6)? I’ve been trying to embrace 27.5 after riding 29 for years but every time I’m on one I feel like the front is twitchy with less control. I’m also in SoCal and planning on a new MTB after selling my Honzo. The Chameleon is on my short list. Cheers.

    • It honestly depends on the bike for me. Some bikes I like the 29r version, others, the 27.5+. 29 x 2.6 is a great setup, but for snappy bikes like the Chameleon, I prefer the 27.5×3.

  • Tom Williams

    Nice write-up John and beautiful photos too!

    Just wanted to say that you touched on one of my biggest pet hates in bike design: very low stack heights that don’t vary across sizes, combined with seat tube lengths that vary significantly. Looking at the geometry chart for the Chameleon, the stack varies by 9mm from S to XL sizes, whilst the seat tube length varies by 100mm. I just don’t understand this, but see the same thing in so many different bikes from different manufacturers. Seat height is by far and away the most easily increased dimension on any bike (using a long dropper post or just a big old seat post), but designers hard-code big step ups in seat tube length between sizes. Whilst at the handlebar end, raising stack height sufficiently can be like extracting blood from a stone, and yet headtube lengths remain resolutely unchanging. From my point of view, either both seat tube lengths and stack heights should be consistent across sizes, so that you choose your bike purely on length, or they should both scale up together.

    Apologies for the lengthy rant, just felt the need to vent a little bit (I’m 6′ 4″ with a 38″ inseam, so getting a nicely fitting bike can be frustrating…)

    I’d be interested to know if you’ve rode a Trek Stache, and what you thought of that bike, as I think there’s a few similarities to the Chameleon. Cheers!

  • Antoine G

    I’m looking to replace my Superfly 29r (too xc) for something more fun. Torn between stache and chameleon. At 6’2 the Chameleon is really hard to decide on size. It would just be for easier local trails that my hightower is too much for…

    • Mark Forbes

      That is funny….I just left the bike shop tonight looking at the Chameleon to supplement my trail bike and my Superfly Carbon SS. Can’t decide if I want to buy another bike, but I really liked it, and it is pretty cheap.

  • Melissa J Thomas

    Trying to decide on a new bike and I am going from a Cannondale Scalpel (26) to a 27.5 or 29. I am 5 ft female. Has Anyone out there who is short tried out the chameleon? Just trying to get some input as I do some research on different bikes before I pull the trigger.