How else do you explain that the only two pickups built in the state are both crossovers instead of traditional trucks?
The first was the midsize Honda Pilot/Passport-based Honda Ridgeline, which has now been joined by the compact Hyundai Santa Cruz that shares its platform with the compact Hyundai Tucson SUV manufactured alongside it.
The Santa Cruz is also the first pickup Hyundai has ever sold in the U.S. and this summer became the first compact pickup available here since the Subaru Baja went out of production in 2006, but now it has the recently-introduced Ford Maverick to contend with.
The Santa Cruz is a little smaller than the Maverick and about the same length as a full-size Hyundai Palisade SUV. It comes standard with front-wheel-drive and a 191 hp four-cylinder engine at a starting price of $ 25,215, but all-wheel-drive can be added and is available with a 281 hp turbocharged four-cylinder with 311 lb-ft of torque.
From the front seats forward it’s basically a Tucson, right down to the dashboard and digital instrument cluster, but it gets a lever for the transmission selector instead of buttons. The rear seat area is as roomy as a midsize pickup’s, but doesn’t have nearly as much legroom as the spacious Tucson and the seatback is very upright.
Behind it, there’s a four-foot long bed that’s not that wide between its flat-top wheel arches, but can support the proverbial 4×8 piece of plywood on top of them and the tailgate set to its half-open position via cable repositioning. There are two small cubbies in the bed walls – one with a power outlet on higher trims – and a watertight trunk with a drain under the bed floor that’s big enough for a few backpacks. A roll-top lockable bed cover that keeps out most, but not all of rain also comes as part of an optional Activity Package and is included on turbocharged models.
As for its pickup prowess, the Santa Cruz has a payload capacity of 1,411 pounds for passengers and cargo and can tow 3,500 pounds with front-wheel-drive and 5,000 pounds with all-wheel drive, the latter as much as the larger Ridgeline can pull.
But while Hyundai does expect buyers to tow things like small campers and ATV trailers, the Santa Cruz isn’t being positioned as a work truck. It’s a play for active lifestyle and hobby types who’d prefer their daily driver to provide the experience of a small SUV rather than a big truck.
They’ll definitely get that. From the driver’s seat, the Santa Cruz might as well be a Tucson. It is exceptionally quiet and the ride quality and handling are outstanding. The Tucson is among the best in its class and the Santa Cruz trades none of its qualities for the added hauling ability.
It’s arguably better, because you can’t get the turbocharged engine like my tester had in the Tucson and it delivers more power through the quick-shifting dual-clutch 8-speed automatic than you’ll ever need in a vehicle this size. Through some black magic it also gets the same 27 mpg highway rating as the non-turbo AWD model, which both somehow beat the FWD’s 26 mpg.
The figures compare well to the less-powerful AWD Maverick turbo’s 29 mpg rating, but can’t compete with the ~40 mpg the Maverick hybrid is expected to get. That said, it’s not much of a stretch to see the Tucson hybrid’s 38 mpg 1.6-liter powertrain added to the Santa Cruz lineup. (In fact, a “typo” I found on the spec sheet with that number suggests one is on the way.)
Despite being a pickup, however, the Santa Cruz is very much a street machine. It’s not available with an off-road package — at least not yet — and the wheels and tires aren’t really designed for the rough stuff, but it can handle a flat dirt road as well as a mainstream SUV.
The Santa Cruz also offers all of the Tucson’s electronic driver aid technology, which ranges from automatic emergency brakes and blind spot video monitors to a full 360-degree bird’s-eye-view camera and cruise control with an aggressive lane-centering feature. It’s infotainment system is comprehensive and equipped with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration and a wireless charging pad on high end trims. Most of the controls are of the touchpad variety, though, which is always a bit tricky compared to knobs and buttons.
Forget your keys? The Santa Cruz is compatible with Hyundai’s new system that lets you use a card or your Android phone as the key to both unlock and start the vehicle, like many luxury cars today.
All in, a fully loaded Santa Cruz will run $ 40,945, or a few grand more than a top spec Mexican-made Maverick. Is the price right? It’s hard to say.
Hyundai has indicated that the entire first year model run allocation is already spoken for and a few dealers have been listing the Santa Cruz with markups over $ 20,000, but it’s kind of a crazy year with the car shortages and all, so that’s hardly an accurate indication of whether or not America is ready to embrace small trucks again.
Either way, the Santa Cruz deserves a hug.
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz
Base price: $ 25,215
As tested: $ 40,945
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger AWD pickup
Engine: Turbocharged 2.5L four-cylinder
Power: 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
MPG: 19 city/27 hwy