by Ian Wright
Once in a while, an automaker will come to the conclusion that a truck doesn't have to be a heavy-duty work-biased machine and do something completely different. That's exactly the case for the Hyundai Santa Cruz, the all-new entrant and founder of a new small truck segment in the USA. Spiritual ancestors of the all-new Hyundai Santa Cruz include the El Camino and Subaru Brat, but, the Santa Cruz is different from those in one key area. At its core, it's a crossover with a truck bed, but, unlike the Honda Ridgeline, it doesn't try to compete with body-on-frame trucks, and will instead face tough competition from the new Ford Maverick. Designed in California and built in America, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a comfortable five-seater crossover with a truck bed for those with an active lifestyle who partake in adventures and hobbies where you don't want to put wet or dirty stuff in the back of a crossover like camping, hiking, surfing, scuba diving, mountain biking, canoeing, spelunking, or anything else you can think of involving wet, dusty, or muddy gear.
Sharing bones and a modicum of style with the all-new Tucson, the Santa Cruz is powered by either a naturally aspirated or turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generating up to 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft in the latter. Suspension tuned for light off-road work and available all-wheel-drive are also weapons in the Santa Cruz's arsenal.
To show us what the Santa Cruz is capable of, we drove up to Northern California to explore the coast and redwoods in, predictably, Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz is an all-new model, unlike anything we've seen from Hyundai before. It's essentially a downsized pickup truck without a ladder-frame chassis. Some of you will stop reading at this point because a truck absolutely has to have a ladder frame, right? No, sorry. According to the dictionary, a pickup only needs an open part on the back in which goods can be carried. The Hyundai can do that, so it's a pickup.
This is a new take on the pickup truck, but Hyundai is not the first. Honda can rightfully claim to be the first manufacturer to build a pickup truck without adding unnecessary mechanical bits that you don't need on the school run. Hyundai just takes it a step further and in the right direction. The pickup truck segment needs some disruption, in our opinion, and since Elon seems to be struggling with the CyberTruck, the Santa Cruz is the next big thing.
See trim levels and configurations:
2.5L Inline-4 Gas
2.5L Inline-4 Gas
2.5L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
2.5L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
Most people will compare the Santa Cruz to the Honda Ridgeline due to the same approach in the underpinnings department. However, those people are missing the point. The Ridgeline is designed to be a more comfortable alternative to work trucks that are also often used as lifestyle trucks - think Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. The Santa Cruz is a size down compared to the Ridgeline and doesn't pretend anyone is going to use it for their gardening business or tow an ATV out to the desert. Its closest competition will be the upcoming Ford Maverick. However, the Maverick is still trying to appeal to traditional truck owners; hence it looks like a traditional truck.
As it's not constrained by tradition, Hyundai's designers have been able to cut loose and get creative. As a result, the Santa Cruz is the coolest-looking truck we've seen for a while. It takes the usual Etch-A-Sketch-inspired blocky design and chucks it out the window. Instead, you get a front that looks like a Mandalorian helmet and a rear with attractive light clusters and the Santa Cruz name stamped into the sheet metal. LED daytime running lights and taillights are standard from the base upwards but bi-LED headlights are only equipped on the SEL Premium and Limited. Base models get a set of dual-tone 18-inch alloy wheels. The top-spec Limited upgrades to 20-inch alloys but also gets dark chrome accents and premium fascia designs.
In this department, it's worth providing some context. The USA's current best-selling vehicle (if you've been living under a rock) is the Ford F-150. Size-wise, the smallest F-150 is 209.1 inches long and 95.7 inches wide. The F-150's curb weight ranges from 4,021 to 5,540 pounds. Keep in mind that the Ford is on the lighter side due to its aluminum construction.
Enter the Santa Cruz, which keeps things simple by offering only one body style and a 4.3-foot bed. It has an overall length of 195.7 inches and is 75 inches wide. Include the roof rails, and it measures 66.7 inches tall. All of this sits on a wheelbase that's 118.3 inches in length. It's shorter in both length and height than the Maverick. The heaviest, most premium model with AWD weighs just 4,164 lbs, dropping down to a curb weight of 3,704 lbs for the entry-level front-wheel-drive model.
The ground clearance is rated at 8.6 inches. Regarding approach, breakover, and departure angles, you're looking at 17.5/18.6/23.2 degrees, respectively. It's pretty clear from these figures that the Santa Cruz is not a hardcore off-roader but instead aimed at a bit of light gravel travel and hitting dirt tracks to get to the start of on-foot adventures.
The color palette is limited to six colors, but most of the available hues contrast nicely with the black grille, body cladding, and dual-tone alloys. No-cost options include Ice White, Phantom Black, Hampton Gray, Blue Stone, and Mojave Sand. For Sage Gray, Hyundai charges an additional $400. The entire color palette is available on all models.
The Santa Cruz is available with two engines. One is a 2.5-liter four-pot that breathes normally, while the other uses a turbocharger. The naturally-aspirated motor produces 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque, while the turbocharged derivative takes the figures up to 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque.
The base model is currently only available in front-wheel-drive format, while the turbocharged engine can only be coupled to the HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. Hyundai does state that front- and all-wheel-drive derivatives of both are coming soon. Sans turbocharger, the power is sent to the wheels via an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission. Upgrade to the turbocharged model and Hyundai includes an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters on the inside. Hyundai doesn't make any claims as to how quick the Santa Cruz is to 60, but we expect a 0 to 60 mph figure of under seven seconds for the turbocharged variant.
All models come as standard with Trailer Prep Package included. FWD models can tow 3,500 lbs, while AWD models can manage 5,000 lbs. This is where we start to see the difference between the Santa Cruz and the traditional ladder-frame pickup truck. A turbocharged four-pot Ranger with rugged leaf springs at the rear can tow a full 7,500 lbs, but compared to similarly-sized crossovers, the Santa Cruz is strong. The maximum payload of 1,906 lbs (entry-level FWD) is impressive, too.
All models are equipped with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. On the SE and SEL, it's naturally aspirated while the SEL Premium and Limited have a turbocharger strapped on for good measure. The naturally-aspirated engine delivers 191 hp at 6,100 rpm and 181 lb-ft of torque at 4,00 rpm. Once Hyundai adds a turbocharger, these figures increase to 281 hp at 5,800 rpm and 311 lb-ft from an impressively low-down 1,700 rpm. The naturally-aspirated four-pot is mated to an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, while the turbocharged engine is bolted to a sportier eight-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The standard 2.5-liter engine delivers slightly more horsepower and torque than in the Tucson, and we find it unlikely it makes the engine anything more than perfectly adequate in the slightly larger Santa Cruz. Our experience is with the turbocharged version, which is full of pep for commuting and joining freeway traffic safely. The low-down torque is noticeable and welcome, bringing an air of confidence for when the going gets a bit tougher. Matched with the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the drivetrain is crisp and clean in its shifts and has a reliable habit of being in the right gear at the right time.
Essentially, the Santa Cruz is built upon a modified "upscaled" version of the Tucson chassis and drives much like the slightly smaller SUV. Its road manners are agreeable, and its handling is surprisingly sharp for something with a truck bed. Despite the suspension being firm enough to keep it flat under duress in corners, the ride is smooth and crossover comfortable. It doesn't take long driving the Santa Cruz to realize it really is a crossover with a truck bed, and the truck bed has no noticeable negative effect on the driving dynamics or comfort. The unibody construction and beefed-up crossover suspension pay dividends when it comes to connecting with the car. The steering feels great and so does the suspension, and there's none of the rubbery vagueness you'd experience in a ladder-frame truck.
Freeway driving is a breeze, whether you judge the Santa Cruz as a crossover or a truck. For slippery conditions, all-wheel-drive is a must for the demographic Hyundai is seeking with its new truck. We got the chance to experience the HTRAC system in off-road mode and its ability to make sure there's adequate traction when the going gets challenging. That translates into both city traffic and long winding roads or bumping off the road onto dirt and gravel. Sport mode adds a sharper throttle response, and that's all that was noticeable and all we would demand from a lifestyle truck. Importantly.
According to the EPA, the FWD naturally aspirated models will consume 21/26/23 mpg city/highway/combined. Oddly, the AWD model is more efficient on the highway, with EPA-estimated figures of 21/27/23 mpg. There are currently no consumption figures for the FWD turbo model, but its figures are 19/27/22 mpg in AWD guise.
All models are equipped with a 17.7-gallon tank, giving non-turbocharged models an estimated range of 407 miles. The penalty for going the turbocharged route is negligible, as these models can do 389 miles on a full tank.
Given the low curb weight, we were expecting the Santa Cruz to be more efficient. Its relatively high consumption will count against it once it goes up against the upcoming Ford Maverick hybrid. Ford estimates its compact hybrid truck will be capable of 40 mpg on the combined cycle.
The first thing that strikes you about the Santa Cruz interior is just how spacious it is. Considering it's a size down from trucks like the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado, it's noticeably bigger in the second row. You get more than six additional inches over both these pickup trucks, for example. The kids will love you. That's just one of the upsides of using unibody construction and focusing on passenger comfort instead of bed size.
From entry-level SE, the Santa Cruz offers a luxury interior space with quality seats and upmarket materials. Most models get a high-resolution eight-inch display and a functional layout. High-end models come with a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster and dual-zone climate control, both of which elevate the interior ambiance.
The Santa Cruz is a five-seater through the trim levels, although the usual stipulation applies that the center-rear passenger isn't going to be thrilled if they are a teenager or adult. Legroom in the front is a generous 41.4 inches, while passengers in the back of the cab have an adequate 36.5 inches. Tall people will manage in the back, but if someone has long legs, they'll want to ride up front. Headroom is over 40 inches front and back which makes the back feel roomier than it is. Hip room is generous enough (54.5 inches front, 53.5 inches back), though, and nobody will be uncomfortable in the back. Despite being smaller outside than the Ford Maverick, the Santa Cruz has more headroom and more rear-seat legroom than the Ford, as well as more overall passenger volume.
SE and SEL models come as standard with cloth seats in black or gray. From SEL Premium specification, Hyundai adds leather trim on the steering wheel and shifter. The top-spec Limited model ships as standard with black leather upholstery. The Limited model can also be equipped with a Launch Package, which upgrades the interior to dark grey leather with orange accents.
The Santa Cruz has a 4.3-foot bed, which is smaller than we're used to but not insignificant. It's 52.1 inches long, 53.9 inches wide (42.7 inches between the wheel wells), and 19.2 inches tall.
The available cargo capacity is ideally suited to the application of the car. The bed is big enough for everything you need for a camping trip with the family and when the tailgate is open, you have 74.8 inches of length so you can load dirt bikes standing up in the back. We're also big fans of the hidden storage compartment underneath the bed floor. It's big enough for two backpacks and it's lockable. It's an additional layer of security over and above the $195 tailgate cover. It also takes care of that silly problem all small pickups like the Ford Ranger suffer from. If you want to stop quickly at the shops on the way home from the school run, where do you put the groceries? Do you inconvenience the kids, put it by their feet, or chuck it in the bed and hope the eggs are still in one piece when you get home? In the Santa Cruz, you simply use this nifty storage space.
Interior storage is not great. Front passengers get dual cupholders and storage space underneath the center armrest. Rear passengers get door pockets and cupholders on the door panel. The Santa Cruz does have additional storage space underneath the rear seats, perfect for hiding valuables, but it's otherwise pretty limited.
As per usual, Hyundai was feeling particularly generous the day it specced the Santa Cruz. Base models already boast most of the comfort and convenience items you need, with higher-spec models unlocking mostly cosmetic upgrades and a few additional nice-to-have features.
As standard, the SE gets remote keyless entry, automatic on/off halogen headlights, a multifunction steering wheel, air conditioning, a six-way manually adjustable driver's seat, dual front USB charge ports, and a 4.2-inch information screen in the instrument cluster. From the next step up, you get remote engine start, a power driver's seat, and heated front seats. The SEL Premium adds LED headlights, a digital key and dual-zone climate control, wireless charging, and the much nicer 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster. The top-spec Limited trim unlocks ambient lighting, ventilated front seats, leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, and rear USB ports.
From the base upward, you get a decent set of driver assistance features. Base models boast forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane-keeping assist, lane follow assist, and high-beam assist. SEL trim adds blind-spot collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic avoidance, while the Premium trim adds adaptive cruise control with Stop/Start, highway driving assistance, and a surround-view camera.
Here in the middle of 2021, Hyundai is best in class when it comes to infotainment systems, and it's only presentation that can fool people into thinking the German brands are making slicker systems. You don't need flashy graphics to appreciate the slick interface in the Santa Cruz, though. The 10.5-inch screen on our test vehicle was bright, crisp, and responsive with an intuitive user interface. Standard is an eight-inch screen along with wired and wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto, which sets a high bar before even considering that Bluetooth connectivity, HD Radio, and four USB ports are standard. Six speakers come standard for the audio system, while the top-level Limited trim gets a Bose setup with eight speakers. SEL trims and above gets SiriusXM satellite radio with a three-month trial included as well.
Optional on SEL and standard on SEL Premium and Limited trims is Hyundai's excellent 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster that is bright and crisp enough it doesn't require a hood to be perfectly usable even on the brightest of California summer days.
The Santa Cruz is an all-new model, which means there are no recalls yet. Looking at Hyundai's recall history, there's a good chance this particular model will also be reliable. Hyundai has a history of sorting problems quickly and efficiently, and few complaints are lodged against the manufacturer.
Hyundai also has another ace up its sleeve. All models come as standard with a ten-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile limited warranty. That shows a lot of confidence in the product.
The Santa Cruz hasn't been around long enough to receive a comprehensive safety review from the NHTSA and the IIHS. We do have safety ratings for the Tucson, with which it shares a front end. The Tucson scored five stars from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS. Still, the body structure from the A-pillar backward is too different to make a call based on the Tucson's rating, so we'll reserve comment until a thorough review of the Hyundai Santa Cruz is conducted.
As standard, the Santa Cruz comes with six airbags and a host of acronyms meant to keep you from scraping the roof. These include VSM, ESC, TCS, HAC, ABS, BA, EBD, and TPMS.
When it comes to driver assistance, Hyundai was feeling particularly generous. All models come with forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane-keeping assist, lane follow assist, and high-beam assist. In addition to the above, SEL trim adds blind-spot collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic avoidance. Premium trim adds all of the above plus adaptive cruise control with Stop/Start, highway driving assistance, and a surround-view camera.
We also feel the need to name the AWD system as a safety feature. You see, most part-time 4WD systems don't have a center differential, which means 4WD high-range can't be used on tarmac. The Hyundai has a basic AWD system, but it is active at all speeds and can be used on tarmac without worrying about damaging components.
Hyundai has made it clear that the Santa Cruz is squarely aimed at SUV and crossover owners looking for "a more versatile solution with an open bed." In those terms, it's absolutely mission accomplished, and we find it unlikely that someone switching from any of the mainstream crossovers isn't going to feel they've compromised on ride quality and performance. As far as the execution of creating a lifestyle truck that works equally well as a daily commuter and family vehicle, it's damn near perfect straight out of the gate. There's also no real alternative to what the Santa Cruz aims to be on the market. It's something new, but because it's built on the bones of the Tucson and Hyundai now has a habit of delivering new vehicles requiring few, if any, recalls, so we wouldn't hesitate to grab one in the first year of availability.
One of the benefits of building a small truck is that the price of the Hyundai Santa Cruz is remarkably low. The base SE has an MSRP of $23,990, while the SEL model retails for $27,190. These prices are for FWD models, with AWD adding another $1,500 to your invoice. An SEL Premium AWD costs $35,680, while the top-spec Limited AWD retails for $39,720. The SEL Premium and Limited will also be offered in FWD, but pricing for these is not yet available. All of these prices exclude the destination charge of $1,185.
Pricing-wise, the Santa Cruz is more than we were expecting. The Ford Maverick's pricing starts at $19,995 and ends at $25,490 for the top-spec Lariat. That's a significant $14,230 price gap, but it's worth noting this has more standard features and a lot more power.
There are four trim levels to choose from: SE, SEL, SEL Premium, and Limited.
The SE and SEL are equipped with the naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter engine, with the turbocharged 2.5-liter made standard on the upper two trims.
SE trim comes standard with remote keyless entry, automatic on/off halogen headlights, tilt-and-telescoping multifunction steering wheel, air conditioning, a six-way manually adjustable driver's seat, dual front USB charge ports, a 4.2-inch information screen in the instrument cluster, and an eight-inch infotainment screen mated to a six-speaker sound system. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, as are forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane-keeping assist, lane follow assist, and high-beam assist.
The SEL trim adds blind-spot collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic avoidance, remote engine start, keyless entry, push-button start, a power driver's seat, and heated front seats. It also adds SiriusXM and Blue Link functionality and illuminated vanity mirrors.
SEL Premium models add LED headlights and LED bed lighting, a power sunroof, tonneau cover, 115-volt power outlet, leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, paddle shifters, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The top-spec Limited comes with all of the above plus 20-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, heated steering wheel, leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, a larger 10.25-inch touchscreen interface, a Bose surround sound system, ambient lighting, adaptive cruise control with stop/start, highway driving assistance, and a surround-view camera.
Hyundai doesn't usually offer packages, choosing to add more features as you climb up through the trim levels. The most notable package for the Santa Cruz is the Activity Package, only available on the SEL trim. It costs $3,270 and is effectively a more affordable way to get most of the high-spec toys and some adventure-related features in a model with a base engine. The Activity Package includes an integrated tonneau cover, sunroof, rear sliding glass with a defroster, a 115-volt AC power inverter in the bed, dual C-channel utility tracks, LED lights for the bed, wireless device charging, and the 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster. A few standalone items can also be equipped such as an auto-dimming rearview mirror for $295.
With an entry price of $23,990 and an impressive list of standard safety and infotainment systems, including forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking and Apple Carplay and Android Auto, the Santa Cruz is an attractive deal for anyone looking for a useful daily driver and weekend lifestyle vehicle, even in base form. But we can't help but feel it's a little expensive in this guise compared to a Maverick without any true USP. That's why the turbo engine is a must, and why we'd spring for the SEL Premium. It currently only comes with AWD, but as an adventure vehicle, that's a boon. If you can't stretch the budget for a $35,680 truck, then the E with the Activity Package is a great buy in FWD guise at just over $30,000.
Frankly, we expect the most sales of the Santa Cruz to be specced in SEL trim with the Activity Package.
The Honda Ridgeline was the first pickup truck to ask the question, "do you really need a ladder frame chassis and an old-school part-time 4WD system?" And the USA answered with a resounding, "no."
That should be the end of the discussion, but Honda made two mistakes and missed creating a new exciting segment. First, it made the Ridgeline the same size as midsize trucks like the Ranger and Colorado, and then it put a 3.5-liter lump of an engine underneath the hood. It was lighter than a ladder frame truck but still weighed 4,500 lbs. And the size still made it difficult to live with one in the city. That's the case here, where the Santa Cruz is easier to live with in suburbia, but that doesn't mean the Ridgeline loses out entirely. With that larger engine and a larger bed, it's more practical when you need to move large things, but with a towing capacity of only 5,000 lbs, the Santa Cruz in AWD guise matches it. The Ridgeline is more spacious inside and still drives well because of its SUV underpinnings, but it's thirstier than the Santa Cruz and not as quick. It's better off-road, though. The big issue for us is its price. The Ridgeline is circa $10,000 more expensive, and its biggest advantage is more space. The Santa Cruz is superbly equipped for the money, and considering the Ridgeline's poor towing capacity, we'd recommend the Santa Cruz as the better vehicle.
We haven't driven the Maverick yet, but it's going to make life extremely difficult for the Santa Cruz on paper. Ford's pricing structure is more appealing, and the two engine offerings appear to offer a broader range of talents. The Ford's base engine is a 2.5-liter four-pot hybrid delivering 191 hp and 155 lb-ft. This is within the same ballpark as the 191 hp/181 lb-ft Santa Cruz, but with possible 40 mpg combined-cycle gas mileage. The turbocharged Ford provides 250 hp and 277 lb-ft and can tow 4,000 lbs. That's 1,000 lbs less than the Santa Cruz.
Hyundai will have to work extremely hard to convince people that the Santa Cruz is worth all that extra money, but it does come with a host of extra safety and convenience features, drives superbly, and has more interior space despite being a smaller vehicle on the outside. Hyundai has made a smart move in being first to the market, but a definitive answer to which is better in this comparison will have to wait until the Maverick officially arrives.
The most popular competitors of 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz: