2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 Review: The Highs and Lows

The Santa Cruz Hightower has always been one of the best trail bikes. The new 2023 Hightower 3 improves the breed with revised geometry, tweaked suspension, and cool new features like in-frame storage.

2022 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 Review: The Highs and Lows

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Bikes

Images courtesy Santa Cruz Bicycles.

The new Santa Cruz Hightower is here, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it looks exactly the same as the previous version. Santa Cruz even has pithy taglines to describe it: “Refined, not re-defined” and “more evolution than revolution.”

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 reviewThere are subtle updates to the geometry and kinematics, plus a couple of nifty new features make an already impressive trail MTB better than ever. But is it perfect? Here are five things I love about the latest Hightower, and two things I don't.

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Five things I love about the 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3

Glovebox in-frame storage

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review gloveboxIn-frame storage is one of the best things to happen to modern mountain bikes. Right now, only a few brands offer it, but Santa Cruz has finally joined the party with its new Glovebox system. Introduced earlier this year on the new Megatower, Glovebox repurposes the empty space in the Hightower’s down tube into a storage area for spare tools, tubes, and any other knick-knacks you can fit. The included Tool Wallet and Tube Purse bags keep everything nice and organized behind the easy-to-open Glovebox door.  

Evolved geometry

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review geometryAs we’ve come to expect with every mountain bike update, the latest Hightower is longer, lower, and slacker. But Santa Cruz hasn’t gone crazy with the frame stretching. Reach is only 2mm longer, and the bottom bracket 2mm lower. The big news is the head angle. While many competitors have settled around 65 degrees, Santa Cruz has slacked out the Hightower’s head angle to a class-leading 64.5 degrees (low setting), matching many hard-hitting enduro bikes. It’s now one of the slackest trail bikes on the market, which means it’ll be more capable on steep and gnarly trails. 

Size-specific design

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review chainstaysFor years, short chain stays were all the rage. Sure, they make a bike more agile and playful, but if you’re tall, short chain stays can leave you feeling off-center on the bike. It turns out that riders need chain stays that match their bike size. Now, the Hightower’s chain stay lengths scale up proportionally with bike size from 431mm for small sizes up to 443mm for XXLs, increasing by 3mm per size. Small frames also have more front triangle flex to suit lighter riders while bigger frames are stiffer to suit heavier riders. 

Refined suspension 

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review suspensionSanta Cruz engineers wanted more from the Hightower’s modest 145mm of travel — more comfort, more support, and more bottom-out resistance. To achieve this, anti-squat has been reduced in the first 40% of the Hightower’s travel and the suspension leverage curve is now straighter with more progression towards the end of the travel. This provides initial sensitivity to absorb small bumps, consistent support and damping throughout the middle of the travel, and plenty of ramp-up to absorb bigger hits.

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review sag windowAs an added bonus, Santa Cruz also added a “sag setup window” to the frame so it’s easier to dial in the Hightower’s lower-link-mounted shock. 

Flashy new colors

2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 review colorsIf you ask me, Santa Cruz’s paint options have gotten a bit too safe and boring in the last few years. Your options were a matte earth tone or black. Well, the new Hightower is anything but boring thanks to the eye-catching colors like Translucent Purple and Matte Evergreen. I like bikes that pop, and the flashy new Hightower is sure to turn a few heads. 

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Two things I don’t like about the 2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3

2.5” tire clearance.

The Hightower is designed to clear 2.5” wide tires, which is more than enough for most riders. But what if you want just a bit more width than that? There are a lot of fantastic 2.6” tires on the market, but if you ride the new Hightower, you might never get to try them. In reality, there’s a good chance 2.6” tires will fit the Hightower just fine, but it’s a bummer that they don’t officially fit. 

Higher stack

I love everything about the Hightower’s evolved geometry except for one thing — the higher stack. Stack height has increased by 10mm for small sizes, 5mm for XXL, and 15mm for all other sizes. Santa Cruz says this higher stack increase suits “modern handlebar setups.” As riders become more downhill-focused, their cockpit positions get higher, so Santa Cruz jacked up the Hightower’s front end to allow riders to get their desired bar height with fewer spacers. This may work for a lot of riders, but if you like a lower bar position like me, this is unwelcome news. I thought the last Hightower was close to perfect, so I guess I’ll have to run 5mm rise bars instead of 20mm rise bars on the new one. 

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2023 Santa Cruz Hightower 3 reviewThe revisions to the Hightower 3 give it a slight boost in downhill performance, making it a top contender for the ultimate do-it-all trail bike. If you want the latest and greatest, it’s the easy choice.

That being said, because the changes are so incremental, the 2020-2022 Hightower 2 is still a great option for riders on a tighter budget. The previous generation’s geometry and suspension kinematics are still thoroughly modern, and no matter which version you get, it will be comfortable and capable on any trail. That’s why riders love the Hightower.

[product-block handle="2020-santa-cruz-hightower-xx1-axs-reserve-carbon-cc-29-l"/]

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