It's the truck that's not a truck.
Cars with a truck bed have come and gone here in the US. The station wagon-based Ford Ranchero and the "coupe pickup" Chevrolet El Camino were successful from the late 1950s until the 1980s. The Subaru BRAT hung around for longer but was a greater success in other countries. Despite a lot of fondness from car and truck enthusiasts, trucks that aren't viewed as "real trucks" haven't faired well in the US since the demise of the Ranchero and El Camino. However, times are changing again, and it's time for crossovers to gain a cargo bed. Honda's Pilot-based Ridgeline has been successful enough in America to remain on sale here for another generation, and Ford is finally joining the compact unibody pickup party with the new Maverick. More interesting, though, is the new Hyundai Santa Cruz as it doesn't pretend to be a truck. In fact, you won't see Hyundai refer to it as a truck, and with good reason.
If you can dislodge the idea that the Santa Cruz is a truck from your brain, it starts to make a lot of sense. Nobody is going to buy one to pull a trailer, load up with building materials, or take it off-roading for off-roading's sake or work. It has a cargo bed, but nobody is going to fill it with bags of concrete to cart to a building site. What's more likely to end up in the cargo bed is hiking gear, camping gear, wetsuits, and anything else wet or dirty you wouldn't want inside a crossover. Hyundai calls it a Sport Adventure Vehicle which will be about as memorable to consumers as BMW branding its crossovers as Sport Activity Vehicles (SAV), so we're just going to call it a lifestyle vehicle.
If you only use a cargo bed for hauling around things like diving tanks, fishing gear, camping and hiking gear, or any other personal outdoor activity gear, then even a Honda Ridgeline is overkill. While the Ridgeline is based on a massively strengthened version of the larger Pilot SUV to make it a truck, the Santa Cruz is based on the smaller Hyundai Tucson crossover and brings its interior and comfort along for the ride. Its small size makes the Santa Cruz a genuinely maneuverable daily driver and gives up nothing in space or comfort for passengers in the back. The small footprint around town and in parking lots makes life as easy as a small SUV can.
For those weekend adventures, we found the 4.3-foot cargo bed to be well designed. The underfloor storage is useful for smaller items, is lockable, and can work as a cooler - complete with the ability to drained afterward. The roll-out tonneau cover is lockable as well, and strong enough to stand on, which means it's also strong enough to sit on and watch sunrises and sunsets. For added usability, the tailgate is also adjustable in height to support long equipment and can be operated with the remote. While the loading height is on point, the designers also built three levels of steps on the back. There's a cutout step on each side of the bumper, a step under the license plate, and anti-tread patterning on the bumper itself.
When we first drove the new Hyundai Tucson, we were impressed by its stylish, comfortable, tech-laden, and ergonomically friendly interior. There's little difference in the Santa Cruz, and the driver and passengers benefit from the cozy, layered cockpit design and comfortable seating with decent legroom for adults. We're fans of Hyundai's bright digital dash gauge, which is bright and clear enough it doesn't need a hood for shade, even on a clear California summer's day. In the back, the seat bottoms can be lifted for some extra storage bins.
As the Santa Cruz isn't trying to appeal to traditional truck buyers, the designers were able to cut loose and get creative with styling. With no constraint to a blocky design, the Santa Cruz draws eyes around it with curved creases and sharp edges while hiding its running lights in the eye-catching front grille. Look closely at the light clusters, and you can see Hyundai's pride stamped inside to say "Designed In California." There's also a ton of Easter eggs dotted around inside and out of the Santa Cruz in the form of a small logo in the vehicle's shape. Some are obvious and easy to find; some are tucked away for owners to find later.
There are only six colors currently available and, while a lot of white and black models will be sold, we're fans of the no-cost Hampton Gray, Blue Stone, and Mojave Sand. The Sage Gray also looks great with the black grille, body cladding, and dual-tone alloys, but it's an extra $400 on the options sheet.
There is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine available in the base model, and the base model is, for now, limited to being front-wheel-drive. That's going to be fine for many people, but the more adventurous will go for the turbocharged version of the engine mated to Hyundai's HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. That iteration of the four-cylinder lump makes a healthy 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque, which is more than enough for zipping around town or tackling a steep grade to a hiking spot. While the ride height and clearance isn't going to allow any rock crawling, it's high enough for the kind of off-roading the Santa Cruz is designed for. The HTRAC system is intelligent, and we know from experience how well that plays in slippery conditions so, even in the wet and snow, you won't be worried. Curiously, the turbocharged version with all-wheel drive gets better fuel economy by a mile on the freeway with its 21/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined EPA estimate.
Here's where the Santa Cruz is tied together. It drives just like a Tucson, which is to say its road manners are excellent, and it has surprisingly sharp handling dynamics for something with a cargo bed. In that sense, there is no noticeable negative effect on the driving dynamics or comfort. With its compact size, the sharp handling translates into maneuverability at lower speeds, making the Santa Cruz equally at home in a tight parking spot or twisty route up to that excellent camping spot by the lake.
The bottom line is that the Santa Cruz is a crossover with a cargo bed, and that truly is a good thing. If towing capacity, payload capacity, and any other pickup truck metrics are relevant to someone, there's a ton of pickup trucks out there to choose from. However, right now, the Santa Cruz is playing in a segment of its own. If you want a compact crossover for a daily driver but with a cargo bed for your evening or weekend adventures, the Santa Cruz is the only game in town. Thankfully, Hyundai has set a high bar for automakers that follow its lead.