Back in 2018, I reviewed the Santa Cruz Chameleon in the 27.5+ platform with a tricked-out build spec thanks to Hope Tech. Much like its namesake, the Chameleon really stood out from the crowd of other production hardtails on the market, making it a proper icon in the world of hardtail mountain bikes. Fast forward three years and I’ve had the new and improved 2022 Chameleon model under my butt for a few weeks now, have taken it on similar terrain as I did in Los Angeles with its predecessor, and have a few thoughts about the two models. Which one is worth your money? Read on below to find out…
The V1 Chameleon
For all intents and purposes, I’ll be referring to the 2018 Chameleon as V1 here, and yes, I’m aware the Chameleon has been around for a lot longer than that – the 2022 frame is Santa Cruz’s 8th Chameleon model – but the last iteration feels like a completely new bike and a total departure compared to the Chameleon of the early 2000s, so let’s move past that previous phenotype for this review…
V1 of the new Chameleon had a lot going for it and a few pitfalls. For starters, the bike’s aesthetic and stance fits somewhere in between a DJ and a hardtail. The super compact frame had the looks of a dirt jumper but the geometry was a tad behind where modern hardtails were situated at the time. Hardtails, in general, are often put on the backburner with mountain bike brands as they’re just not as popular as bigger, full-suspension bikes and the Chameleon is an even odder lizard in the Santa Cruz quiver in that it’s neither an XC race machine nor a fully-built rowdy hardtail, equipped to tackle proper all-mountain terrain. This gives bikes like the Chameleon an identity crisis, which I actually enjoy. It’s not often a big brand like Santa Cruz puts this much thought into one of its lowest-tier bikes.
To summarize, what I really liked about the V1 Chameleon was its flickibility, relatively light chassis, colors, stance, and the build kit I got to ride. In this iteration, the production Chameleon had a retail of $2,399 for NX Eagle, a 120mm Fox Rhythm Float 34, and other in-line spec parts. Back then, my main critiques were that I thought it could use a bit more travel up front, improved stack/reach numbers, and a bit slacker front end to really elevate it to a proper quiver-killing, do-it-all hardtail.
For my full thoughts on the V1 Chameleon, you can read all about it in our archives.
The 2022 Chameleon Overview
For 2022, the team at Santa Cruz updated the Chameleon with all the above and more. For starters, it now comes in two wheel configurations: 29er as shown here, or “MX” mullet with a 27.5 rear wheel and 29er front. Within those options, lie three build kit tiers: the SX Eagle, RockShox Recon RL-equipped D (reviewed here $2399), the NX Eagle and Fox Rhythm 34-equipped R ($2949), and the top-tier GX Eagle, FOX 34 Float Performance-equipped S build, topping out at a whopping $3749. The geometry saw some tweaking as well…
In my opinion, the geometry is a huge improvement over its predecessor’s, with a slacker front end coming in at 65º (versus 67.2º), +/- 10mm of extended reach per size, an increase of +/-10mm of stack, and an increase in seat tube angle across the size run. The bottom bracket also got lower, which may or may not be favorable in your preferred geometric formula. Overall, it’s fair to say the V2 Chameleon received the same longer, slacker, lower mountain bike progression other models within the Santa Cruz lineup have seen over the years. I should note here that in this review period I was able to ride the size XL whereas, in the previous review, I was on a size Large.
What I really like about the 2022 Chameleon is that it feels like a major progression from V1 even though the changes might appear to be more subtle. Take for instance the chain slap guard. It’s now more robust, with raised fins to keep your chainstays chip-free and most importantly on a hardtail, silent. The rear dropouts also saw an improvement, most likely due to the “mullet”, or MX, configuration. You now adjust these dropouts to raise the effective BB more when running a smaller size 27.5″ rear wheel, and like V1, you can ride it singlespeed thanks to the dropout’s tensioner design. The same bottle cage arrangement remains from the V1 frame with one on the top of the downtube and one on the bottom. You might be able to use a system like Wolf Tooth’s B-Rad to squeeze two bottles on that upper downtube mount on an XL.
Can we all collectively agree that Santa Cruz’s paint jobs are always spot-on?
Here’s where the V2 Chameleon falls short of its predecessor and I am by no means throwing shade, it’s just the byproduct of supply chain shortages and raw material cost, amongst other factors that influenced this slide of hand. For $2399 you get the same bike as the V1 Chameleon on the surface, yet the NX Eagle drivetrain and Fox Rhythm Float 34 have been replaced for lower-tier parts. The V2 Chameleon baseline build spec is now built around the SX Eagle platform and a RockShox Recon RL fork, both of which are considerable downgrades in terms of ride quality and overall spec. Like I said, on the surface, the Chameleon V2 didn’t get pricier than its predecessor, it just got cheaper parts to hit that $2399 MSRP.
Let me just say that I ride a lot of hardtails and have ridden a lot of aluminum bikes over the years. For this review, it took a handful of longer rides to get used to aluminum again after putting a few hundred miles or so on my Moots Womble this year. I built that bike up to be as “supple” as possible, so switching from a high-end build spec and US-made titanium frameset to a lower-tier build kit and aluminum frame took some adjustment.
To be quite frank, it was a jarring experience. Yet, I will say, once I adjusted my riding to this new bike, it felt very familiar. The 29er wheels are more agile than the 27.5×3″ setup I previously rode – thanks to the choice tire spec! – so finding the proper balance between line choice while riding and tire pressure really made a big difference. I think calling an aluminum frame “harsh” or “stiff” is a disservice. Truth be told it’s just a different ride quality than carbon, steel, or even titanium. In riding all these bikes, I try to not compare frame materials too much, rather, I focus on what makes each material resonate, for lack of a better term.
If anything is stiff, it’s the 35mm bars and stem! This bike would ride even better with a cockpit that had a bit more give. Doom Bars anyone?
Aluminum is, in many ways, a perfect material for a mountain bike like this. If it were steel, it’d be heavier, or carbon and it’d have a shorter lifespan. Hardtails are perpetually under-gunned on a lot of trails and that means you’re going to wreck a few times pushing its boundaries and setting both the bike’s and your own limitations. Wrecking on a carbon bike is not fun (well, is wrecking ever fun?) and all it takes is one bad line to ruin a frame. With aluminum, you don’t have to worry as much about that, especially with Santa Cruz’s exceptional warranty! The Chameleon has always been a jack of all trades bike, so it makes sense its materiality should be the same. Now, the previous version Chameleon also came in a carbon frame option and it would make sense it would be on the way for this bike as well.
Once I got used to its lower-tier build kit, 29er wheels, 130mm travel, and new geometry, I found the V2 to be as fun and playful, if not even more, as V1 in trails of low consequence and more capable the further up the mountain you take it. 130mm vs 120mm isn’t that much difference on paper, yet neither is 140mm versus 150mm for that matter, but the longer reach and higher stack makes all the difference when pointing the bike straight down a mountain. The lower bottom bracket makes rock gardens interesting, particularly with flat pedals, but not as bad as other bikes I’ve ridden with even lower drop. I should also note that Santa Cruz says the bike can be built up around a 140mm fork, which would up that ante even more.
While descending, it felt on-par with the Chameleon’s fun and flickible DNA, however, climbing was a bit of a give/take scenario.
What I’ve found with lower-tier builds is the wheels are a literal anchor to achieving a zen-like experience while climbing and the SX kit isn’t helping in this regard. Right now, I have multiple 29ers, with varying build specs, ranging from SX, NX, to GX, and XXO. The difference in ride quality between SX – which is what V2 is specced with – and NX – which is what was on V1 – is very noticeable. Whereas the tech gap between NX and GX, not so much. SX’s rear derailleur shifting lag (this build has an NX shifter pod) and spongy pedal quality paired with the WTB ST i30 TCS 2.0 29″ rims laced to SRAM MTH 746 hubs makes for a painfully slow experience when you hit the steep and loose climbs. For me, I tend to just walk those sections anyway but it is something to note. This bike didn’t mind XC trails with their short and punchy changes in elevation but it suffered on multi-thousand-foot climbs, which we have plenty of here in Santa Fe. Or maybe I’m just old and out of shape?
All of this adds up to a ride experience that feels conflicted. In order to enjoy the new geo tweaks, I felt like I had to spend a lot of time overcoming the lower-tier component spec. In short, to really get sustained descents to feel the new geometry as it screams downhill, you’ve got to climb pretty high and on this bike, that takes a bit of effort. Although I did find myself really vibing with the bike on fast and flowy XC sections found in our foothills.
It’s a juggernaut descending compared to V1 but man, it could use some help on the steep, long climbs. Does that mean some nicer wheels and perhaps a new drivetrain? Well, at that point is it really worth $2949 for the R build spec? That’s a lot of money for an aluminum hardtail. Comparatively elsewhere in the market, the new 2022 Kona Honzo comes specced with Deore 12 speed and a 140mm RockShox Revelation RC DebonAir fork for $2499.
I don’t often say the sequels are better than the original (Ok, maybe Aliens), and save for a downgrade in parts spec, the V2 Chameleon surpasses its predecessor in every way. While you might not be into the cheaper parts, you could always upgrade/swap and sell the old parts to make the sting less severe. Believe me, in this parts shortage environment, you’ll have no problem offloading parts! In this instance, I’d argue that it would make sense to upgrade your frame if you have a V1 and want the newly-refined geo and details of the V2, but Santa Cruz Bicycles is not sure when they will have Chameleons frames back in stock ($949) as they sold through their first batch quickly.
TL;DR: The New (V2) Chameleon is a superior riding experience with more travel, a better geometry, improved dropouts, a new chainstay protector, and a great coat of paint. Although, the new Chameleon suffers from a significant parts downgrade in the lowest tier model reviewed here. What I will say is: you know that vague economics concept you keep hearing about all over the media regarding supply chain shortages and inflation? This is what it looks like in real life. How long will it last? Nobody knows for sure so get used to it. The size XL Chameleon I reviewed here, bone stock but with a single bottle cage and platform pedals weighs in at 33lbs on the nose. It fits me perfectly as a 6’2″, 195lb human.
What do you think? Are you prepared to pay more for less in the age of inflation and supply chain issues? Or, perhaps Santa Cruz should offer a singlespeed build option? Do you have an older Chameleon and were hoping this review would sway you to upgrade? Drop some of your thoughts in the comments.
See more information on the new Chameleon at Santa Cruz Bicycles.