Santa Cruz Chameleon Review: A Three-horned Beast
Just announced, the 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon went through a complete metamorphosis, including a whole new geometry and redesigned sliding dropouts. The new design works with three tire size configurations, and they offer a complete mullet (mixed wheel size). We put several hundred miles on the new Chameleon MX while bikepacking and trail riding, both in mullet and 29er modes, for this in-depth review.
I was obsessed with the Rwenzori three-horned chameleon when we were bikepacking through Uganda back in 2016 (pictured below). We found several of these endemic wonders in the wild near the Rwenzori Mountains and were shown another by a young gentleman outside the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They’re peculiar and fantastic creatures with a contemplative stare and kaleidoscopic coloring of green, bright yellow, and aqua tones that change based on their mood and environment. That’s the first thing I thought of when I unboxed the new 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon. It’s pretty vivid, without a doubt, though in full disclosure, I’m colorblind (or color-challenged), and perceived the magenta lettering as teal when I first saw it, hence the correlation.
Of course, the bike’s not named for its flashy colors. Since it was released way back in ‘97, the Chameleon has always been about adaptation. The trope is obviously based on its namesake’s ability to change skin coloring. Chameleons do this to signal a mate, assert dominance, or regulate body temperature and adapt to a changing environment—the latter statement is most apropos to the name choice.
The original aluminum Chameleon played on that idea by allowing its owners to adapt it to how and where they were riding. It could morph from a “freeride hardtail” to a singlespeed XC rig and back again via a sliding dropout. Since then, the Chameleon has undergone several transmutations, the last of which—the seventh-generation 2017 alloy model and the eighth-gen 2019 carbon version—were designed to shapeshift from a trail hardtail or a singlespeed 29er to a plus-tire bikepacking rig via swappable pivoting dropouts.
- Highlights (Size L)
- Angles: 65° Headtube, 74.4° Seattube
- Reach/Stack: 465/638mm
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm BSA, 40mm drop (MX)
- Hub specs: 148 x 12mm (rear), 110 x 15mm (front)
- Seatpost Diameter: 31.6mm
- Max Tire Size: 29 x 2.6” or 27.5 x 2.8″
- Price: $2,949 (AL MX R)
Continuing that trend, the Santa Cruz Chameleon just underwent another major permutation that runs deeper than its fresh yellow paint. That makes me wonder if Santa Cruz’s interpretation of the word Chameleon might be homonymic—making it just as much about metamorphosis as it is about adaptation. It still has the underlying intention of being multiple bikes in one, but the ninth-generation Chameleon is a different animal than the previous version I tested. The V9 Chameleon has substantially divergent angles, loud colors, and the super power to transform from a rowdy singlespeed or trail 29er to an ultra-shreddy mixed-wheel mullet bike. All this moves it toward a more aggressive side of the hardtail spectrum. Either way, the latest Chameleon frame carries on its lineage with the ability to work for a range of disciplines and be set up in multiple configurations.
To preemptively wrangle the elephant in the room, the 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon comes in two main variations: a “29” model with 29 x 2.5” tires and the “MX” version with a 27.5 x 2.5” tire on the back and a 29 x 2.5” up front. It’s easy to assume that MX stands for mixed, although this trend is probably better known as a mullet (or reverse mullet). Santa Cruz sent us the Chameleon MX to test, because, why not!?
Mixed-wheel bikes are becoming more and more common among the enduro crowd these days, but this phenomenon still isn’t common on production mountain bikes. And, mixed wheel sizes are nothing new in the two-wheel game. Motos were first specced with smaller rear wheels and larger fronts back in the 1970s. The first commercial mullet bicycle that I know of came out in 2004 when Specialized launched the Big Hit with a 24” rear wheel and 26” front, although it didn’t last long. That said, a reader pointed out that Cannondale used a 24″ rear and 26″ front on the SM in 1984. For those unfamiliar, the reasoning behind mixed tire sizes is to have a larger front wheel with a more rollover-friendly diameter for tackling chunk, rocks, and roots and a smaller rear tire to keep the backend nimble and agile—the best of both worlds, as they say. I’ll talk a little more about that later, but let’s first look at what has changed with the latest Chameleon.
At the outset, despite maintaining a 130mm travel fork, it’s pretty clear that the new Chameleon got a structural overhaul, but there’s a lot of smaller stuff, too. Here’s a rundown.
Santa Cruz states the official tire clearance of the 2022 Chameleon is 29 x 2.6” or 27.5 x 2.8”. For what it’s worth, I think you could probably squeeze 29 x 2.8” or 27.5 x 3.0 rubber in there, should you wish. There are technically three main tire configurations the Chameleon could be set up with: 29-plus(ish) or wide trail, mixed/mullet, or 27.5+, although it could just be a standard 29er, too. All this can be accomplished via two versions of the new swappable dropouts.
The photos in the grouping above show the Chameleon mounted with 29 x 2.6″ tires on 36mm (inner width) rims. The dropouts were slid exactly into middle position. As you can see, there’s plenty of room, even with a pair of well-broken in WTB Rangers, which measure 2.7″ according to my calipers. I don’t think 29 x 2.8″ tires would be a problem to fit in there, and there’d be even more wiggle room with the sliders positioned all the way back.
The all-new dropouts were redesigned from the ground up. While the old version was based on a pivoting design that took place at the top bolt, the new dropout slides rather than pivots. The old dropout also had an integrated derailleur hanger, whereas the new dropout has a replaceable SRAM Universal Derailleur Hanger (UDH). This is a massive improvement over the former version, in my opinion. And, rumor has it that the old dropout design had some issues, namely there were reports of some frames cracking at the dropout adjuster on the alloy model.
The new dropout is also much simpler. The two previous Chameleons had singlespeed and geared dropouts. So, there were two sets of dropouts for each wheel size (SS and geared) and a separate singlespeed-specific dropout to be used with 142mm hubs. There are now just two versions that each have different axle positions to allow the Chameleon to maintain the same geometry (both Boost 148mm only): one for a 29er or 27.5+ setup, and one for a mixed wheelset. Both have a derailleur hanger, and both are singlespeed compatible. In fact, the new dropout is similar to the swappable dropouts used on the older model Chameleons with a singlespeed-compatible sliding mechanism and post-mount brakes, but now they use the UDH hanger and a front-access allen key for adjustment. The thru-bolt slider provides 425-437mm of chainstay length adjustment.
As you may have gathered, the geometry changed significantly on the V9 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon, harkening back to its roots as a progressive “freeride” bike, a term that kind of morphed over the years, to later be all but abandoned. The two most notable changes are the head tube and seat tube angles. The HTA was slackened by a whopping 2.3° to sit at an even 65°, and the seat tube increased 1.4° on the large to 74.4°. That said, these number shifts aren’t as dramatic as they might seem. Sure, it’s now more of an aggressive hardtail—particularly the head tube angle—but the old Chameleon leaned a little bit toward the conservative end of the spectrum, which some folks like and others thought was a little under-equipped for proper trail bike duties.
The 2022 model also got a 13mm higher stack, 5mm of additional reach, and surprisingly, a 10mm longer chainstay. It went from 415-430 to 425-437mm. It’s also much longer in general, with 35 more millimeters in the front-center measurement (783mm) and a +48mm wheelbase (1208mm). Still, the most visible change is the significantly lower standover height, made possible by a 20mm shorter seat tube.
There are a few other minor details and tweaks on the 2022 Chameleon worth mentioning. It has a fancy new molded rubber chainstay protector. Internal rear brake and derailleur routing was added through the top tube. And there’s a slightly smaller gap between the internal dropper cable routing ports on the seat tube and downtube, which obstructs the bottom corner of a frame bag a little less than the previous model, for what that’s worth.
Build and Kits
The 2022 Chameleon comes in either Slate Blue or Yellow Magenta in three main kit lines. The S KIT is the top-shelf option and retails for $3,749 with a Fox 34 Float Performance 130 and a SRAM GX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain. The R KIT (which we tested) is the middle-tier model that has a price tag of $2,949 with a Fox Rhythm 34 130 and a SRAM NX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain. And the base $2,399 D KIT comes with a RockShox Recon RL 130 and the SRAM SX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain. You can also get a frame-only for $949.
2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon AL MX R Build Kit
- Frame Aluminum 29/MX Hardtail
- Fork FOX Rhythm 34, 130mm
- Crankset SRAM Descendant Eagle DUB 32t
- Derailleur SRAM NX Eagle, 12spd
- Shifter SRAM NX Eagle, 12spd
- Cassette SRAM PG1230, 12spd, 11-50t
- Chain SRAM NX Eagle, 12spd
- Bottom Bracket SRAM DUB 68/73mm Threaded BB
- Handlebar Burgtec Alloy Bar, 800mm, 30mm Rise
- Stem Burgtec Enduro MK3, 42.5mm
- Headset Cane Creek 10 IS Integrated Headset
- Brakes SRAM Guide T
- Saddle WTB
- Seatpost SDG Tellis Dropper, 31.6
- Front Hub SRAM MTH 716, 15×110, 32h
- Rear Hub SRAM MTH 746, 12×148, 32h
- Rims RaceFace AR Offset 30 29″ (F) RaceFace AR Offset 30 27.5” (R)
- Rotors Avid Centerline 180mm
- Rear Tire Maxxis Aggressor, 27.5 x 2.5″ WT, EXO, TR
- Front Tire Maxxis Minion DHF 29 x 2.5″, 3C, Maxx-Grip, EXO, TR
This kit is generally just okay and frankly pretty heavy. It’s also expensive. That said, I think the rather high price tag and interesting mix of low-end parts demonstrates the pandemic-driven supply chain challenges bike companies are currently facing. Component prices are going up, and getting parts has become a major issue for many companies.
Even so, I don’t think the pricing is 100% parts-recession based. For $3,000, I’d expect XT or GX Eagle on a hardtail, plus a higher-end Pike or Fox 34 fork. The Salsa Timberjack XT build goes for $2,099, and their GX build sells for about $2,500. Then again, there are availability issues with that bike at the moment. It’s pretty clear that Santa Cruz had to work a little bit to fulfil the parts spec for large orders. The use of Burgtec cockpit components, for example, makes it seem that there are some availability issues with mainstream component brands. There’s nothing wrong with Burgtec; they’ve been around for a while, and I have no beef with them, but there’s probably some added weight in there, as evidenced by the 30+ pound weight of this bike (sans pedals). Most of all, it would have been nice to see—at the very least—the GX drivetrain with the wider 10-52 cassette on this bike for $2,949.
On the Trail
As I was scratching my head and wondering why Santa Cruz sent the MX Chameleon to a bikepacking publication, a friend of mine said, “you’re going to love the mullet.” That seemed fitting since I actually had one when I was around 14 years old—the haircut, that is. Joking aside, I was excited to try out a mixed-wheel bike. The specced 27.5” Aggressor and 29er DHF combo seemed fitting for Pisgah’s trails, so I thought I’d start with some of my favorite local loops to get a feel for it. Rolling out on the first ride, it felt a little sluggish on the gravel bike path and two-track climb up to the Black Mountain Trail here in Brevard. That was likely the heavy build, knobbly tires, and the fact that it was a new-to-me bike. It also felt a little wobbly on the steep bits of climb working my way up, as if the larger front wheel was a little unwieldy. This calmed down over time, and was non-existent when the bike was loaded up (which I’ll talk about later). Going down was a different story; this bike rips, and riding it substantiated all the mixed-wheel claims I’d heard. For the record, I left the chainstay at the shortest position (325mm) and the Chameleon’s geometry didn’t falter one bit on the descents. My immediate impression was that this thing corners, carves berms, handles quick moves, and is confident on the steeps better than any hardtail I’ve ridden.
Folks who are still reading this might be wondering how this frame feels. In truth, it’s been a long while since I’ve ridden an aluminum hardtail, and they’re noticeably harsher than I remember. At some point on my first ride, I dropped the rear tire pressure to around 15-17PSI to avoid getting overly beaten up during a long downhill on the new Black Mountain Trail. I double flatted the tubeless setup about half a mile in going full steam over a rocky, technical section near the top, requiring three tubeless plugs to get rolling again. From then on, I kept the pressure at about 20 PSI in the 2.5” Maxxis Aggressor tire. With that in mind, I think Santa Cruz should have probably specced this bike with the Aggressor in the Double Down dual-ply casing or a foam core tire insert. Aluminum frames have no give, whatsoever, and it’s pretty easy to bottom out a 2.5” tire on the rough stuff.
A couple of weeks ago, TJ and I went on a pretty big ride in the forest to tackle the full length of a trail neither of us have ridden before. All in all, it was a 23-mile ride with loads of river crossings, log hops, rocks, and roots. The ride finished on the Black Mountain Trail from Clawhammer Road, up and over, and the entire downhill, which is about five miles of chunky singletrack with about 2,200 feet of descent. Sitting down for a beer afterward, I gingerly straddled the picnic table and told TJ, “Aluminum hardtails hurt.” He replied, “That’s a young man’s game.”
Loaded Up Bikepacking
As it happens, that harshness in the frame I felt while trail riding—which is likely amplified by the fact that I’m in my 40s and have had a back surgery—was almost non-existent when this bike was loaded up for bikepacking. That’s often the case with bikes that aren’t plush from the get go, but it seemed to be significantly more noticeable on the new Chameleon. I also really liked how this bike pedaled when loaded up. It seemed to settle into itself and climb well—even when in mullet mode—and was a sharp and nimble descender, maintaining all of the great handling characteristics I felt while riding it unloaded.
As far as specs go, the new Chameleon has about everything you need for a basic, rackless bikepacking setup. There are no provisions for a rear rack, which might bother some folks, but it comes with a three pack of mounts on the downtube. I mounted a King Cage Many Things cargo cage in that position and strapped a small camp chair to it during a weekend outing. There was never an issue with the front tire hitting it due to the slack front end. That packing technique could also work with a food bag, shelter, or a Nalgene bottle, I believe.
Obviously, the new Chameleon has a significantly smaller triangle than the former iteration. As mentioned in the Geometry section above, this is due to a 20mm lower top tube, which follows in the footsteps of the “Longer dropper! More room for body English!” trend that’s pervasive in new trail bikes these days. People who need the standover clearance might appreciate that, but it’s not a favorable trait for us long-legged folks. Either way, Rockgest made a perfect-fitting custom frame bag for it—featuring their new zip and olive X-pac Cotton Duck—and it maximized the space and ultimately held more than I expected.
On the Trail (In 29er Mode)
As mentioned, the Chameleon felt a little clumsy to me at first on steep and technical climbs with the mixed wheelset and the rear end in the short chainstay position—not ridiculously so, but the quality was noticeable compared to two other trail bikes I’d ridden recently: the Ibis Ripley and Pivot Trail 429. I’m sure it would have helped to simply lengthen the chainstay, but I was having too much fun otherwise, so I left it alone for a while. However, Santa Cruz also sent me the 29er dropouts, so I swapped them out just a few days ago, popped on a pair of 29 x 2.6” WTB Rangers, and slid the dropouts to the middle chainstay position (making the stay length about 431mm). I managed to squeak in a couple rides and grab some photos in this config.
My first impression was that this might be the Chameleon’s best self, for lack of a better way to put it. It just felt right. The 2.6″ WTB Rangers are one of my favorite all-around tires and they provided that little bit of extra speed and cushion. It felt quick and very responsive with these tires, and coupled with the chainstays set to a slightly longer position, it seemed to be more stable while climbing, not to mention more comfy. Granted the Rangers are a little more plush than many other 2.6″ mountain bike tires (and they’re technically 2.7″ wide), the “plus-ish” platform might be the way to go with this bike. It wasn’t quite as fleet-footed as it was in the shreddy mullet setup, but it’s still plenty nimble. At any rate, it’s nice to have the options, which is what the Chameleon is all about in the first place.
- Model/Size Tested: 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon MX (large)
- Actual Weight (no pedals): 13.82 kilograms (30.46 lbs)
- Place of Manufacture: Taiwan
- Price: $2,949
- Manufacturer’s Details: SantaCruzBicycles.com
- Updated geometry that’s a lot of fun for more aggressive trail mountain bikers and still pretty good for all-purpose MTB/mixed-terrain riding
- It remains a versatile bike with some nice features and good tire size compatibility—namely three main tire configs (29-plusish/wide trail, mixed, and 27.5+
- Excellent new sliding dropout design is easy to use and well-engineered
- In 29 x 2.6″ tire mode, it makes an excellent bikepacking rig and all around MTB
- Flashy colors photograph well :-)
- Fairly heavy build for $3,000, which is expensive compared to other bikes in its class
- It’s an aluminum frame, so the Chameleon has a pretty sharp ride on anything smaller than 2.6” tires
- Shrunken frame triangle is a bit of a bummer, especially for those of us with longer legs who don’t need the extra-generous standover
Although you probably noticed a few negative points in this review, as we always aim to flush them out with new bikes, there’s a lot to love about the 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon. I ultimately found the new geometry to a significant improvement over the last iteration, which I really liked at the time as you may recall from my review. In summary, the 2022 Chameleon is very well-balanced, super fun to pedal, responsive, and of course, it’s a much more capable and fun descender, both with the MX mixed wheel configuration and as a wide-trail 29er. The new sliding dropouts are a major structural upgrade, too. They’re well-engineered, accurate, easy to use, and perhaps one of the better implementations of a modern sliding dropout insert that I’ve seen.
I also think the Chameleon makes a great backcountry bike or bikepacking rig, and it certainly retains its spot on our recommended hardtail shortlist. The versatility of three tire configs in one bike is a plus, but 29 x 2.6″ mode is particularly good for this type of riding. Not only does it take the sting out of the alloy frame, it just seems like a really good fit that balances out the geometry. But even with the MX setup, once it was dressed up in full weekend camping regalia, it seemed to perform even better, with many of its traits shining through and others being subdued in all the right ways. That’s not always the case with other bikes. While an aluminum bike might not be my first choice, mainly because I’m old, that’s perhaps one of its perks.
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