I like it when auto manufacturers take a chance, when they break out of the tried-and-true mold of nondescript SUVs, trucks that look like the vehicle version of a triceratops, or sedans that offer nothing exciting. Give me bright colors, neat features, something to talk about. And that’s why I was so excited to drive the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai invited me to California to drive the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz and review it for A Girls Guide to Cars; they graciously said I could review it here as well. All opinions are my own.)
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is the Korean brand’s answer to years of teasing the possibility of a small pickup truck, but it wants you to know that this isn’t actually a pickup. Instead, it’s an “adventure vehicle,” which is marketing speak for a crossover that can do more than just be a crossover.
The relatively affordable trucklet clocks in at just under $24,000 for its base-level trim, but the beauty of this vehicle is the fact that it can be spec’d out to feel like an entry-level luxury vehicle without needing the sticker shock of a massive price tag. But whether or not this vehicle is going to revolutionize the automotive world remains to be seen.
We drove the fully-loaded top-of-the-line trim; we have yet to see what the other trims will look like.
No. The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is not a pickup truck. It cannot perform a full, celebrated range of Certified Truck Stuff™. It is not going to haul a massive trailer. It will not be the vehicle you use out on the farm. It is not the top-of-the-line luxury truck you drive to feel like king of the road. It’s not even the compact truck you buy because you need a decent amount of bed space but don’t need a large vehicle to accomplish your needs.
The Hyundai Santa Cruz is not a truck. But I think it’s a lot better served for it.
People love their trucks, and they love their SUVs. What Hyundai is doing here is blending the two for something that has, until now, really only worked in Australia. You have the compact body size and interior comfort of a nice crossover, and you have some bed space instead of an enclosed trunk.
It’s a bold move. Hyundai, of course, is confident that it’s going to work, and based on the sheer number of people who stopped me to ask about what I was driving bodes well for the company; no one has ever stopped me so much to ask about a press car, even when driving other first-of-its-kind cars. One older gentleman I chatted to was changing a tire and looked ruefully at the bed space.
“I wish I had something like that instead of having to put this dirty tire on the carpet.” he told me.
Hyundai keeps calling the Santa Cruz an ‘adventure vehicle’ as a way to transcend boundaries here… but it also featured some slides in its press presentation about how it compares to the Ford Maverick. It almost kind of seems like the brand itself has been unsure of who to target with this product, but I think it has potential for anyone who lives an active lifestyle but still wants something smaller. After all, no one wants to stick their gross, muddy boots or damp, sandy towels on a carpeted trunk space. You’re going to be much better served with something like the Santa Cruz’s bed.
I think comparing it to a truck is going to do the Santa Cruz a disservice. Hyundai would be much better served to emphasize what this vehicle can do compared to a crossover or SUV; those buyers will appreciate the flexibility of a truck bed, whereas I think truck buyers are looking for something more specific that the Santa Cruz can’t provide.
I’m going to start out by saying right away that I cannot imagine this vehicle with the base-level engine; the Santa Cruz needed the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine. It had just the right amount of power and punch you’d want from your car, but it was exactly that: just right. To have anything less than what the turbo engine provides would likely feel sluggish and uninspired. The turbo isn’t giving you tons of extra pep like you’d get on something like the Mazda CX-5; it’s making your base level performance feel a little more exciting.
Adding to that, Hyundai did a solid job making the ride enjoyable. The cabin is nice and quiet, even on windy coastal roads. The low ride height makes the Santa Cruz feel steady, capable, and agile when on long straights or tight turns. I had the chance to try out the Santa Cruz on a little bit of everything, from well-paved highways to bumpy gravel roads, and it handled everything with ease. It’s not the kind of vehicle you want to take off-roading, but it’s also not something you’ll cringe at taking through that rutted dirt road.
And, unlike some pickup trucks, you’ll have a comfortable ride whether you’ve got the bed loaded or not. I will say, though, that we didn’t get a chance to put the Santa Cruz’s towing or payload powers to the test during our drive. That will remain to be seen.
Overall, we’re talking about a very comfortable vehicle, but not necessarily one that’s going to blow your mind in terms of the drive. It drives more like a commuter car than a performance machine — and that’s fine. Not everyone needs a car with an angry exhaust and an overwhelming amount of power. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed for an N or N-Line Santa Cruz, where we can kick things up a notch.
That said, I didn’t have a chance to drive the most affordable trims, so my observations aren’t going to translate.
Many of my favorite things about the Hyundai Santa Cruz were in the little, thoughtful details that put this vehicle a step above others — ones that you actually use every day.
One of my favorite things was the infotainment system. There’s not actually a menu that you have to use to navigate from; instead, integrated tabs line the bottom of the screen. Give it a touch, and you’re immediately moved to navigation. Another touch, and you’ll have music available. It doesn’t require a whole lot of searching to find what you need, which can be a serious detriment with many other infotainment systems. You also had the option to select an arrow on the right side of the screen that would split the screen to show you, say, navigation and your music selection at the same time. I was really impressed.
It really seems like Hyundai paid attention to design through and through. The horizontal LED taillights stretch the truck out to give it a commanding stance while the hidden LEDs on the front end prove that you can create a statement grille without needing to rely on polarizing half of your audience. Further, the sloping cabin definitely retains SUV vibes, but it integrates well into the bed rails, proving that you can absolutely blend design barriers if you’re so inclined.
And we can’t talk about the good without talking about the truck bed. Sure, it’s on the small side, but Hyundai worked hard to ensure that flexibility is key here. Adjustable rails, latches, and molded bed inserts mean that you can secure plenty of goodies inside. You can turn it into a two-tiered bed with some plywood, and you can lock your valuables up in the under-bed storage.
The tonneau cover, too, is standard, not an option. It’s water-resistant (not waterproof; you’ll likely get some leaks in a hard rainstorm), it locks, and it’s self-retracting. Just push up on the tonneau handle, and it’ll roll up for you. Reach in and pull it back, and it’ll close. Best of all, you don’t need tons of strength or height to manage it.
And let’s talk about that under-bed trunk. It’s waterproof, and it features two drain plugs. It fit my backpack with ease, and I could also see it functioning as a cooler on the go for those of you out there who dig your tailgating.
The Santa Cruz was one of the first times I’ve had a truck-like vehicle that actually felt friendly for someone short like me. I know some smaller ladies enjoy the power they feel by driving a truck much bigger than them, but I’m not the kind of person that digs having to pole vault into the truck bed or turn into a bodybuilder to lift myself into the truck. Best of all, the sight lines inside were incredible. Seeing the road — what a concept!
I’ll be honest — there wasn’t a lot that I didn’t like about this truck, but I’ll also admit that it’s not an easy vehicle to review because there’s nothing like it to compare it to. I’ll start with some of the concerns that folks asked about previously:
- You’re probably not going to be able to fit a large adult human comfortably in the backseat for long periods of time. The seats were comfy, but the leg room left a lot to be desired.
- The digital dashboard was fine, but I would have preferred a cleaner display for speed.
- On a similar note, I would have also preferred a dial for volume, since it was a pain in the ass to quickly change volume with touch-screen buttons.
- The blind spots were pretty big, but I think that’s because I’m short and had the B-pillar right in my blind spot. Collision alerts and Hyundai’s blind spot cameras when activating the turn signal worked great, though. You just have to be comfortable relying on technology.
- Also a short-people problem, but it was tough to reach the heated/ventilated seat buttons without taking my eyes off the road.
- The presentation and marketing of the Santa Cruz has seemed a little confused, which makes it hard to hypothesize a really great target market.
- The truck bed can be a pain in the ass for anyone who has gotten used to the easy accessibility of an SUV’s trunk space.
- We averaged about 22 mpg during our drive, which is about mid-range for a vehicle like this.
- I didn’t have the chance to see anything but the top-of-the-line trim, so I can’t accurately predict that the entry-level trim is worth its price.
- 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine
- 8-inch color touchscreen
- Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
- Hyundai’s SmartSense safety features
- Sheet-molded composite bed
- 18-inch alloy wheels
- $23,995 for FWD, $25,490 for AWD
- Blind-spot collision and rear cross traffic avoidance assist
- BlueLink app
- Proximity key with push-button start
- Power driver’s seat
- Heated front seats
- $27,190 for FWD, $28,690 for AWD
- Integrated tonneau cover
- Dual C-channel utility rail in bed
- Rear sliding glass with defroster
- In-bed 115-volt power outlet
- Power sunroof
- Roof side rails
- $30,460 for FWD, $31,960 for AWD
- 2.5-liter turbo engine
- Steering wheel paddle shifters
- LED headlights
- Hyundai digital key
- Dual-zone climate control
- $35,680, AWD only
- 10.5-inch navigation system
- Surround and blind view monitor systems
- Smart cruise control with stop and go
- Ventilated front seats
- Heated steering wheel
- $39,720, AWD only — this is the trim I drove
- Starts at $23,995
- FWD/AWD options for the first three trims, AWD only for the last two
- Standard 2.5-liter four cylinder engine; makes 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft torque
- Optional 2.5-liter turbo engine; makes 281 hp, 311 lb-ft torque
- 2.5-liter fuel economy: 21 city / 27 highway / 23 combined
- 2.5-liter turbo fuel economy: 19 city / 27 highway / 22 combined
- 3,500 pound towing capacity for standard engine; 5,000 pound towing capacity for turbo AWD
- Payload: 1,748 pounds
- HTRAC AWD
- Multi-link self-leveling suspension
- Water resistant, self-retracting, and locking tonneau cover
- Sealed, lockable under-bed storage with two drains for water
- Two side bins for storage
- LED bed lighting
- Bed tie-downs, utility rail, adjustable cleats, and molded side pockets
- Length: 195.7 inches
- Width: 75 inches
- Height: 66.7 inches
- Wheelbase: 118.3 inches
- Ground clearance: 8.6 inches
- Track front / rear: 64.7 inches / 64.9 inches
- Approach angle: 17.5 degrees
- Breakover angle: 18.6 degrees
- Departure angle: 23.2 degrees
- Bed length at floor / open tailgate: 52.1 inches / 74.8 inches
- Bed width, max / between wheel house: 53.9 inches / 42.7 inches
- Bed height: 19.2 inches
- Lift-in height: 31.6 inches
- Rear bumper step height (lower / upper / side): 18.1 inches / 25.2 inches / 18.9 inches
I lost count of how many times Hyundai reminded our press group that the Santa Cruz isn’t designed to compete directly with the truck market before then comparing The Santa Cruz’s specs to those of the Ford Maverick. It makes sense; here are two small, affordable trucklets that are meant to be as comfortable in the city as they are on the dirt road heading to your favorite mountain trail. It makes sense that folks are cross-shopping these.
That said, I still think the Santa Cruz and the Maverick are competing for very different segments of the market, with the Santa Cruz appealing more to the SUV crowd and the Maverick aiming for a truck audience. Both have features that set them apart from the niche I think they’d most effectively appeal to — the Santa Cruz has a truck bed, the Maverick is electrified — which make both vehicles a bit of an outlier in their respective markets. But I don’t know that it’s ever occurred to me to compare these two on a one-to-one basis.
There’s no right or wrong answer as to which is better, since they’re both designed for different audiences. But let’s talk some general differences:
- More expensive.
- Shorter, squatter, and wider.
- Built on the Hyundai Tucson platform.
- Less bed space, but more storage options (under-floor storage and two extra side bins).
- Larger payload and towing capacity.
- No dedicated off-road package.
- Worse fuel mileage.
- No electrified option.
- Higher horsepower and torque.
- Taller, longer, and narrower.
- Built on the Ford Escape platform.
- More bed space, but fewer other storage options.
- Smaller payload and towing capacity.
- Dedicated off-road package.
- Better fuel mileage.
- Electrified option.
- Lower horsepower and torque.
Which is superior? That’s going to come down to your personal preferences and uses for the vehicle. Nothing more.
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a great, flexible, and approachable vehicle that definitely has the chops to convince an American market that the ute can be a glorious thing — but I don’t think Hyundai quite knows what it wants the Santa Cruz to be yet. Its marketing push toward young, active professionals is a little bland because that’s the market every semi-flexible sedan, crossover, SUV, or truck is aiming toward these days. That angle isn’t fresh or exciting enough to convince people to opt for the result of a sordid love affair between a crossover and a small truck.
Revise that marketing push, and I think Hyundai has a banger of a product. Sell this to small families with kids who like to get muddy. Sell it to short women who want to feel like a badass driving their succulents home from the nursery without sacrificing their comfort. Sell it to eternally-messy guys who want a reasonably sized vehicle that won’t be a pain in the ass to clean out. Sell it to older folks who just can’t climb in and out of their tall work trucks anymore. Sell it to the in-between crowds who aren’t sure if they want a truck or an SUV. If I have to see one more ad showing a 20-something city slicker pulling off her office-wear as she hits the bike trail, I’m gonna snap.
That bland effort isn’t worthy of the Santa Cruz, which is ultimately a fun, peppy little vehicle that makes you smile when you drive it — and when you check your bank account before you think about financing it. It has potential lasting power that means we’ll not only see the Santa Cruz on the road in 10 years but that we’ll also see a fair share of its trucklet competitors. Hyundai just needs to find the in-between places where the Santa Cruz will shine.