Santa Cruz

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2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Test Drive Review

With its first pickup truck, Hyundai hits the ball hard into left field.

8 /10
Overall Score

Being a newbie in a given field means having to catch up to established leaders, but it can also bring a different perspective. Hyundai has never sold a pickup truck in the United States, and its first effort is unlike anything else on the market.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is the first truly compact pickup to be sold in the U.S. in over a decade, and unlike conventional body-on-frame pickups, it features car-like unibody construction. This packaging sacrifices some capability, but that’s beside the point. Hyundai didn’t design the Santa Cruz to compete directly with conventional trucks. It doesn’t even call the Santa Cruz a pickup; it prefers the term “sport adventure vehicle.”

While it may win over some truck buyers who want a pickup that’s easier to park, the Santa Cruz will appeal mainly to new-car buyers who want to replace a sedan or crossover SUV with something a bit more rugged.

To figure out where the Santa Cruz fits into the current automotive landscape, we spent a day driving it around on roads in and around its namesake California city. Hyundai also offers base SE, SEL Activity Package, and SEL Premium trim levels, but we sampled a range-topping Santa Cruz Limited model for this test drive.

Look and Feel

9/ 10

With a footprint smaller than those of current midsize pickups, the Santa Cruz may seem at first glance like a throwback to the mini trucks of the 1970s to 1990s. But with its unibody construction and unorthodox styling, this Hyundai is more like the second coming of the Subaru Baja or a smaller Honda Ridgeline.

At 195.7 inches long, 75.0 inches wide, and 66.7 inches tall, the Santa Cruz is over a foot shorter than a Toyota Tacoma, but nearly as wide. Its 118.3-inch wheelbase is 9.1 inches shorter than the Toyota’s. However, the Santa Cruz is a bit bigger than the recently-redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson compact crossover SUV, so it’s not exactly tiny.

The Santa Cruz looks more like an SUV with a bed than a traditional small pickup which, along with a toothy grille and blended headlights (similar to the Tucson), means this Hyundai should stand out from pretty much anything else on the road. The only concessions to truck-styling orthodoxy are the “Santa Cruz” name stamped into the tailgate, some plastic body cladding, and a smattering of chrome.

The Santa Cruz is available with 20-inch wheels that fill the arches nicely, but Hyundai also offers 18-inch wheels, able to accommodate tires with thicker sidewalls, for off-roading.

The interior is much more conventional looking than the exterior, and nothing about the design really says “truck.” That doesn’t mean it’s bad, though. An honest design is better than the faux ruggedness of some current truck interiors, and we liked the way the air vents were integrated with a ring of trim encircling the dashboard. Even on our top Limited test vehicle, the materials weren’t fancy, but they seemed appropriate for the price range and for the Santa Cruz’s ostensible mission as a rugged “adventure vehicle.”

Performance

9/ 10

Every Santa Cruz gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). The base, naturally aspirated engine produces 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, while an optional turbocharged engine produces 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. The naturally aspirated version comes with standard front-wheel drive (FWD) or optional all-wheel drive (AWD), while the turbocharged 2.5-liter is AWD only.

There is nothing truck-like about the way the Santa Cruz drives. The standard multi-link suspension made the Santa Cruz genuinely fun in the corners, and it includes a self-leveling feature to account for a loaded bed. Even on our test vehicle’s 20-inch wheels, ride quality was impressive, as was the fairly low level of cabin noise. The turbo engine provided more than enough thrust when driving unloaded. However, we didn’t get to tow with the Santa Cruz, nor did we have the opportunity to try the base naturally-aspirated engine.

Most current pickups offer some degree of off-road capability. The Santa Cruz provides a respectable 8.6 inches of ground clearance and four driven wheels, but it wouldn’t be our first choice for serious off-roading. The optional HTRAC AWD system lacks low range and locking differentials, and Hyundai didn’t include any underbody protection, either.

The Santa Cruz has a maximum towing capacity of 3,500 pounds with the naturally-aspirated engine and 5,000 pounds with the turbo engine, as well as a maximum payload capacity of 1,906 pounds, according to Hyundai. The tow ratings are more in line with midsize SUVs than current pickup trucks but should be adequate for a vehicle designed more for recreation than work.

Form and Function

6/ 10

The maximum payload capacity is impressive, but the Santa Cruz’s small truck bed will likely limit utility. At 52.1 inches long, it’s much shorter than, for example, the short bed available on the Toyota Tacoma. That means typical cargo like bicycles or a 4x8 sheet of plywood won’t fit completely in the bed. Hyundai suggested strapping bikes in place with a wheel hanging over the edge of the composite bed, or carrying a sheet of plywood with the tailgate down, but that seems suboptimal.

Granted, Hyundai did include many features to make the most of the space available, including a standard lockable tonneau cover, a height-adjustable tailgate, tie-down points, and in-bed LED lighting and 115-volt power outlet. Designers also included indents that allow you to place wood planks in the bed to create a shelf, and you get storage compartments under the bed and under the rear seats. Corner steps make it easier to access the bed and, unlike in larger trucks, stepping onto them doesn’t require assuming a yoga pose.

The Santa Cruz is available in only a four-door crew-cab configuration with seating for five. Rear-seat passengers won’t find much space, as legroom is particularly tight, but that’s also the case with some larger midsize trucks. Front-seat space is a bit more generous, and outward visibility is fairly good for a pickup, thanks in part to a low hood and stubby front end.

Hyundai managed to squeeze a decent amount of storage space into the center console, plus the aforementioned storage bin under the back seats. We liked the placement of the controls for our test vehicle’s optional heated and ventilated seats on the center console, and the angled steering-wheel controls that stand proud of the wheel itself. However, in place of physical buttons, Hyundai used touch pads for functions like audio volume and climate control, which were harder to use while driving.

Tech Level

9/ 10

The standard 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 10.25-inch touchscreen, wireless phone charging, and a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster are available on higher trim levels. As on other Hyundai models, the digital cluster can show images of the blind spots from the optional surround-view camera system. Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics service also includes smartwatch and Google Assistant connectivity.

In our Santa Cruz Limited test vehicle, the 10.25-inch touchscreen and digital instrument cluster looked great and worked well. Even without a hood, the instrument cluster was impervious to glare, while the touchscreen had nice-looking graphics, including a radio-station display with old-fashioned vacuum tubes (a feature of all recent Hyundai and Kia systems). The screen was also quick to boot up and responded quickly to inputs (not something you can always count on in this price range).

Wireless device charging and Hyundai’s digital-key feature are also available. The latter lets you ditch the key fob by using a smartphone instead, but it only works with Android phones.

Safety

7/ 10

Because the Santa Cruz is a new model, safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) aren’t available yet.

Hyundai does offer standard forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, lane-follow assist, rear-seat reminder, and a driver-attention monitor. Blind-spot collision-avoidance assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, safe exist assist, a surround-view camera system, and Highway Driving Assist (which combines adaptive cruise control with automated lane centering) are available on higher trim levels.

Most major automakers have an equivalent to Highway Driving Assist at this point, and Hyundai’s system performs about as well as others available at this price point. That means it can accelerate and decelerate quickly enough for safe highway driving, but it has trouble handling even the gentle curves found on highways. It would be unfair to single out Hyundai at this point, as that’s an issue with virtually all of these systems.

Cost-Effectiveness

8/ 10

EPA fuel-economy ratings for the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz are 23 mpg combined (21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway) with the base naturally-aspirated engine and FWD; AWD adds 1 mpg highway. With the AWD-only turbo engine, the Santa Cruz gets an EPA-rated 22 mpg combined (19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway). Those ratings indicate the Santa Cruz won’t have much of an advantage over conventional pickups in gas mileage. Hyundai has included hybrid powertrain options with most of its recent models, but the automaker hasn’t discussed a Santa Cruz hybrid.

Hyundai offers a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and five-year, 60,000-mile new-vehicle warranty, plus three years or 36,000 miles of free routine maintenance. That’s still one of the best warranties in the business, and it surpasses what you’ll get from Ford or Toyota.

Pricing starts at $25,175 for the base model Santa Cruz, the SE trim level with FWD, rising to $40,455 for the range-topping AWD Santa Cruz Limited trim (all prices include a mandatory $1,185 destination charge). As a Limited, our test vehicle has leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, the larger touchscreen, and 20-inch wheels in addition to AWD and the turbo engine.

The Hyundai’s only true rival isn’t on sale yet. When it launches this fall, the 2022 Ford Maverick should offer better fuel economy (thanks to a standard hybrid powertrain) and a lower base MSRP, but it will have less tech, a lower payload rating, and less maximum towing capacity. We haven’t had our first drive of the Maverick yet, but Ford knows trucks and truck buyers, so it should be a contender.

Maverick aside, the Santa Cruz splits the difference between compact crossovers and midsize pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, Nissan Frontier, and Toyota Tacoma. It can tow and haul more than most compact crossovers but less than the average midsize pickup, and its small bed will likely be a limiting factor. However, the Santa Cruz offers a crossover-like driving experience and interior, and our loaded Santa Cruz Limited was about $7,000 less than a range-topping Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro.

The Santa Cruz is the perfect vehicle for someone who wants a pickup truck but doesn’t need one. It has the looks and (most of) the utility of a truck, but without the truck-like ride and handling. The question is whether pickup buyers, whose purchasing decisions are sometimes based more on emotion than logic, will choose a Santa Cruz as a more rational decision over a more conventional truck.

Updated by Stephen Edelstein

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Hyundai Santa Cruz Questions

Tonneau Cover IS It Available /

Is the santa cruz bed cover/tonneau available as a Hyundai accessory ? Why would I want to pay for a $3000 plus "Activity " package just to get a bed cover ??