The Santa Cruz Chameleon is designed as do-it-all hardtail that’s just as happy being loaded up with bikepacking kit as it is when faced with fast singletrack. During testing, it’s proven to be just as versatile as promised demonstrating incredibly fun trail manners when you're smashing singletrack or munching miles. However, such a capable and engaging ride comes at quite the price.
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With the Chameleon, Santa Cruz has pushed the envelope of the do-it-all hardtail recipe. That’s thanks to the interchangeable and adjustable dropouts. By swapping these, you can set the bike up to run a single-speed drivetrain or with a mixed wheel size. There’s even a triple-bolt cargo cage mount on the underside of the downtube, making it more than capable of carrying extra kit for a pedal-powered overnighter. Elsewhere on the frame, there’s a bottle cage mount in the front triangle, a given for a hardtail and tidy internal cable routing.
The bike on test was set up with SRAM’s 12-speed NX drivetrain and four-pot Guide T Brakes, with 29-inch wheels comprising RaceFace's AR Offset 30 rims laced to SRAM hubs at both ends. The dropouts were fixed in their middle setting, though they allow the chainstay to be stretched from 425 to 437mm.
In terms of geometry, the Santa Cruz Chameleon benefits from a 465mm reach on this large frame. This isn't terribly long but it's definitely not short. The 74.4-degree seat tube isn’t particularly steep but the pair results in a pretty spacious cockpit and, to a point, it can feel slightly stretched while seated when the 800mm Burgtech bar and 42.5mm stem are thrown into the mix.
Even though there were moments when the cockpit felt a little too vast, I was happy and comfortable on the bike - even when saddled over long distances. So if you are one for loading up a mountain bike and disappearing for a day or two, the Chameleon looks like it could be an awesome companion for such adventures.
So the seat tube is not mega steep but this is one of the reasons why the Chameleon is so comfortable while tackling a gradient. It puts the rider in a position over the bike that spreads weight evenly over both axles. The benefit of that comes when cranking up a hill where it’s well planted and a pleasure to pedal. There’s little front-end lift not to mention enough weight over the rear to keep traction.
When descending, the Chameleon’s hooliganess comes out to play. It’s shaped nicely enough to egg you on to go that bit quicker with surprising levels of confidence, especially considering that there’s only the 2.6in Maxxis Aggressor’s squish at the rear to keep your knees from blowing out, which is helpful considering the somewhat harsh stiffness of the alloy frame.
This is where the very cool choice of the mega-soft Maxx Grip rubber compound on the 2.6in Maxxis Minion DHF comes into the mix. It offers extra grip up front, which raises the confidence levels, especially when cornering while the chainstay makes for easy and snappy changes of direction. It's an incredibly lively bike that’s more capable and encouraging than it lets off.
It’s a stable bit of kit, too. As momentum ramps up, the bike remains as planted in typical hardtail fashion, and comfortable thanks to its 1207.8mm wheelbase and rather slack 65-degree head angle. Those measurements are what make it capable while tackling steeper sections of downhill and assured enough to keep you from reaching for the brakes. The front wheel is nice and far out in front and, the Fox 34 Rhythm fork rustles up enough support to keep the front end nicely propped up while handling bumps, which is impressive considering that this is fork sits at Fox’s budget end.
Speaking of the fork, it handles 130mm of suspension. Not a lot of travel , no, but I reckon this is the sweet spot for a trail hardtail because the bike’s geometry isn’t massively affected as the fork moves through its travel but it is enough to cope fairly big hits. It’s not Fox’s most sophisticated or lightest fork by any means but it’s a very solid performer at its price point. Though, for the cash, something a bit higher in Fox's range would make the Chameleon R Al 29's value a little more competitive, but we'll get to that later.
Something that is a bit of a let down is the 180mm brake rotor at the front. While it may have made me a faster rider owing to the lack of immediate bite, I felt it was rather limiting considering the bike’s potential. Sure, it’s enough for general trail use but, if you’re looking to edge into more technical and natural riding where the bike can excel, the braking power isn’t quite up to the job. Solving this issue is a relatively cheap upgrade, however.
Braking ignored, the Chameleon is a confident and wildly entertaining ride that can be changed to suit a variety of tastes. Its geometry is both welcoming and accommodating enough for long stints in the saddle, but aggressive enough for those looking for a rowdy winch-and-plummet machine.
There’s no getting away from the fact that £3,000 is quite the asking price for a bike of this spec, though but for a bike sporting the Santa Cruz moniker, it’s not surprising. In a jampacked segment, there are a lot of other worthy considerations. For the same money, you could get a Nukeproof Scout in the RS build which comes with a RockShox Lyrik Select+ with a Charger 2.1 damper, and SRAM GX 12-speed shifting. It’s got a shorter reach at 458.3mm but a slightly slacker 64.5-degree head angle.
The Merida Big.Trail 700 pips the Chameleon in terms of value, too. At £2,200 it gets a Fox 34 in its Performance spec with a Shimano SLX groupset. Though, it forgoes a posh Burgtech finishing kit. A large framed Big.Trail isn’t quite as long as the Santa Cruz and its head- and seat tube angle are half a degree steeper. However, the Big.Trail is very welcoming of sizing up thanks to a short seat tube. If that works for you, the XL gets a longer 475mm reach. The Big.Trail in its 600 model reviewed rather well in our tests.
You can even get something fashioned from steel for less money, the Stif Squatch being a great-but-much-more-aggressive example that's now priced at £2,749 with a RockShox Pike Ultimate fork. It's a great example of just what's available if you're happy to look away from the Santa Cruz head badge.
Santa Cruz Chameleon R AL 29 | Verdict
Before swinging a leg over the Chameleon R AL 29, it was hard to look past its asking price considering the build spec However, the Chameleon has proven to be much more than a sum of its parts. It’s a charming hardtail with a fun but malleable ride very much at its heart, and Santa Cruz has hit it out of the park with the bike’s versatile design. Though, to be picky, a bigger front rotor wouldn’t go amiss.