These are the only two unibody trucks in North America.
How do you compete with top-selling trucks from the likes of Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet? Well, maybe you don't. At least, that's the strategy that seems to have been taken by Honda and Hyundai when designing the Ridgeline and Santa Cruz.
The Ridgeline came first, of course, and it has been praised and derided in equal measure for its unibody underpinnings. The new entrant is the smaller and much flashier Hyundai Santa Cruz, doubling the number of unibody pickups in North America to a grand total of two. Despite the difference in size and aesthetics, these two trucks share their unibody construction and have emerged as unlikely rivals, so which one is better?
For the 2021 model year, Honda has given the Ridgeline a more aggressive look with additions like a power bulge hood, restyled headlights, and available black fender flares. It still lacks the bravado of a Chevy Colorado or Ford Ranger but it does come across as a more serious, rugged pickup than the Santa Cruz.
Hyundai threw the truck rulebook out of the window entirely when conceiving the Santa Cruz, which it calls a Sport Adventure Vehicle. It is intended to fill a gap between SUVs and trucks, something which it actually pulls off with its dramatic front fascia featuring daytime running lights integrated into the grille. In fact, other than the short open bed, not much about it is truck-like at all. Younger buyers or those who buy into Hyundai's SAV concept will likely prefer the Santa Cruz, while the Ridgeline adheres more closely to the traditional truck design brief.
The Honda is a significantly larger truck and its bed is over 10 inches longer than that of the Santa Cruz, making it a superior cargo hauler.
Inside, the divergent design philosophies of the two companies continue. Whereas the Ridgeline cabin is typically businesslike and solid, the Santa Cruz gets a sporty dual-cockpit layout along with features like an available 10-inch digital gauge cluster.
We've always appreciated the Honda's well-built and user-friendly interior which feels distinctly car-like. It's also spacious enough for five adults. It remains to be seen if the narrower and shorter body of the Santa Cruz can offer comparable accommodations. For now, Honda hasn't revealed the dimensions of the cabin space. The Ridgeline is likely to prove the more practical vehicle for larger families, though. However, both trucks offer luxuries and safety gear like adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, and heated seats.
Once again, the two vehicles differ as the Hyundai only comes with a pair of four-cylinder engines whereas the Honda relies on a larger-capacity V6. In the Santa Cruz, the base 2.5-liter powerplant delivers 190 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque. A more powerful 2.5-liter turbo-four has outputs of 275 hp and 310 lb-ft. The latter engine is much more torquey than the Ridgeline's 3.5-liter V6 which manages 280 hp and 262 lb-ft.
Both models are equipped with an all-wheel-drive system as standard. The Hyundai's less powerful engine gets an eight-speed automatic and the turbo is paired with a sportier eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. In the Honda, a nine-speed automatic is equipped.
Both vehicles can't match trucks like the Ford Ranger for towing capacity. The less powerful Santa Cruz can tow 3,500 pounds but the turbocharged variant can manage 5,000 lbs, matching the Ridgeline in this area. We found the Ridgeline to be one of the most composed trucks on the market when we drove it so will be impressed if the Santa Cruz matches it. At just over 7.5 inches of ground clearance, the Honda lags behind other trucks like the Ranger. Hyundai hasn't indicated the Santa Cruz's ground clearance figures as yet.
On another note, Hyundai has been keen to point out the Santa Cruz's smaller footprint area over other trucks, a trait that improves its maneuverability.
Following our recent test drive of the Honda Ridgeline, we said it was the best midsize truck in the country for most buyers. That statement holds true and the Hyundai Santa Cruz will need to have impeccable road manners to match the Honda. However, the Santa Cruz brings its own bag of tricks to the party. It has striking looks, a high-tech cabin design with all of the features you'd find in a Hyundai SUV, and it's likely to be more efficient than the Honda.
We don't know what the Santa Cruz will cost yet but since it is a smaller vehicle and has much in common with the Tuscon, we expect it to start at well below the Ridgeline's base MSRP of $36,490. If you need a bigger cargo area and prefer a V6 engine, the Honda is a solid choice. But the new Santa Cruz offers loads of appeal and will further challenge perceptions of how a pickup should look and what it feels like from behind the wheel.