2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz first drive review: Half truck, totally rad
Hyundai’s genre-bending 2022 Santa Cruz is the duck-billed platypus of the automotive world, combining the best bits of multiple classes. It blends the bed of a pickup, the soul of a crossover, compact car sensibility and a dash of ‘ute styling to create something that’s a little weird, but undoubtedly awesome.
What Hyundai has here is more of a compact alternative to Honda’s Ridgeline rather than just a really small F-150. Hyundai points out that the Santa Cruz’s target audience is not traditional pickup truck owners, but SUV buyers looking for something different and a touch more rugged. The aesthetic, meanwhile, feels like a high-tech Subaru Baja revival, which I absolutely love.
More crossover than truck
The Santa Cruz rides on the same platform as the Hyundai Tucson. It’s even got the same jewel-like grille and triangular light signature up front. The crossover underpinnings mean a car-like unibody construction and roadgoing characteristics that should be more approachable for drivers not used to the idiosyncrasies of body-on-frame trucks.
More compact than any other pickup on the market — yes, even the upcoming Ford Maverick — the Santa Cruz is well-suited for urban parking and narrow lane maneuverability. But it isn’t exactly a microtruck, either. The Santa Cruz measures 195.7 inches bumper to bumper, 118.3 inches of which make up the wheelbase. That means this compact pickup is only about an inch shorter than Hyundai’s three-row Palisade SUV with a wheelbase that’s 4 inches longer. Standing next to the little ‘ute in the real world, however, it’s hard to jive with those numbers. With a fairly low 66.7-inch height, the Santa Cruz seems much more compact.
At 8.6 inches off the pavement, the Santa Cruz has the highest ground clearance of any current Hyundai crossover. Not an amazingly high lift, mind you, but it rivals that of go-anywhere utility vehicles like the Subaru Outback or Crosstrek.
The most important element of the Santa Cruz’s design is its 4-foot truck bed, which features a standard (and durable) composite liner, multiple tie-down points, sliding rail anchors and a gas-damped tailgate that opens with a tug of its handle or remotely with the key fob. Tucked into the rear corners are a pair of small covered storage bins, one of which houses a 115-volt inverter outlet.
At 52.1 inches long by 53.9 inches wide, the Santa Cruz’s bed has plenty of room for your average Home Depot garden supplies run and most hobbyist hauling. You can even fit a couple of bicycles back there with the front wheels hanging over the tailgate. And of course, unlike an SUV, there’s infinite vertical space for tall items like saplings or bulky boxes. However, the wheel wells intrude into the bed space with just 42.7 inches between them. So no, you won’t be able to fit a flat sheet of drywall back there.
The bed also has underfloor storage. Like the Honda Ridgeline, the Santa Cruz’s compartment is waterproof, drainable and lockable. However, the Hyundai’s truck trunk is rather shallow, only about as deep as my 7-inch-thick large camera pack. This somewhat limits what you can haul, but there should be enough room for a wetsuit, muddy boots, hiking gear or a flat toolbox.
The underfloor area’s small size makes the optional factory installed tonneau cover — standard at the SEL Premium trim and above — a more compelling upgrade. The hard, locking cover secures the entire bed, which is a big deal, especially since daily driving a Santa Cruz means making do without a traditional sedan’s trunk or SUV’s hatchback.
How much payload you can haul varies based on trim level, ranging from 1,568 pounds for the Santa Cruz Limited and 1,906 pounds for the SE. The front-wheel-drive Santa Cruz is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, but turbocharged, all-wheel-drive models can pull up to 5,000 pounds. Trailer sway control is standard, but Hyundai recommends you keep the load under 1,650 pounds for trailers without brakes.
The Santa Cruz’s carrying capability continues in the cabin where you’ll find tip-up rear seat cushions that reveal a storage bin. That said, I wish the tray was foldable — like the one under the rear bench of the Ford F-150 — which would help maximize second row space and minimize snags for really bulky items. Still, the extra bit of stowage space is very handy.
Two engine options
The base Santa Cruz is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission sends power to the front wheels or, optionally, Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel-drive system.
SEL Premium and Limited models add a turbocharger to that block, bumping output to 281 hp and 311 lb-ft. The more powerful unit also swaps in an eight-speed wet dual-clutch transmission and makes all-wheel drive standard. Front-drive turbo configurations should eventually join the lineup, but are listed as “coming soon” for now.
On the road, the Santa Cruz feels indistinguishable from a similarly sized crossover. If not for the occasional peep at the rear-view mirror, you could easily forget that this is a little pickup truck and not a compact sedan. There is a bit more wind noise in the Santa Cruz than in the similarly sized Tucson crossover, but not enough to be distracting.
Unladen, the turbocharged Santa Cruz is agile — even fun. The dual-clutch automatic makes decisive and predictable gear choices in its normal and sport modes, and there’s plenty of power for passing. It remains to be seen whether the Santa Cruz will feel as carefree when approaching its payload limits, but I reckon the little pickup will meet the needs of drivers looking for an easygoing and functional runabout.
What’s most surprising is that the more powerful turbo engine requires very little compromise on fuel economy. At 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined, the most potent Santa Cruz falls just 2 mpg short of the non-turbo, front-drive model in the city, and actually improves by 1 mpg on the highway.
Familiar Hyundai technology
Behind all of the truckish capability and flexibility is the same great cabin and safety tech you’ll find in Hyundai’s sedans and SUVs. The dashboard is home to an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with standard wirelessand . The SEL Premium model adds a 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster to the mix and the Limited swaps out the 8-inch screen for a 10.3-inch central screen. Weirdly, the large-screened Limited requires a downgrade to wired-only Android Auto and CarPlay — a head-scratcher of a quirk that’s annoying on other Hyundai models, too, even if it isn’t exactly a dealbreaker.
Hyundai’s Bluelink telematics suite allows remote monitoring of the Santa Cruz via a smartphone app. Also available is Hyundai’s Android-onlyfeature, allowing owners to tap their phones to access and start the truck if they don’t want to carry a fob. Digital Key also unlocks the ability to share access to the vehicle with others — like a family member that needs to borrow the Santa Cruz for an errand — and easily monitor and revoke that access via the app.
The Santa Cruz’s driver-assistance tech roster includes standard lane-keeping and lane-following assist, a driver alertness monitoring and rear occupant alert. Moving up to SEL spec adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and automatic high beams. Finally, the loaded Limited model features Highway Driving Assist adaptive cruise control, a surround-view camera system and Hyundai’s blind-spot monitor, which displays a video view of the adjacent lane in the instrument cluster when you activate the turn signal.
Pricing and availability
The Santa Cruz will go on sale later this year, just in time to do battle with the Ford Maverick small pickup. The Maverick is slightly larger, starts at a lower price and comes standard with a hybrid powertrain;. Also, for what it’s worth, while Hyundai acknowledges that the Santa Cruz’s platform supports the possibility of a hybrid or plug-in hybrid model, the company has yet to confirm such an offering.
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz starts at $25,175 for the base SE, including a $1,185 destination charge, or $26,675 with all-wheel drive. To get the turbocharged engine, you’ll have to step up at least to the $36,865 SEL Premium AWD, the sweet spot in the lineup that gets you infotainment upgrades, more safety features and a host of creature comforts and quality-of-life improvements. Still, the $10,000 premium over the base MSRP is a fairly large pill to swallow. At the top of the line, there’s the loaded Limited AWD model at $40,905.
This could have easily been a disaster; blending vehicle classes is always a gamble, but building a pickup that’s specifically not for truck people sounds like a terrible idea on paper. Yet Hyundai managed to thread the needle and create something special with the Santa Cruz. It’s not perfect and it’s definitely not for everyone, but I can’t help but dig this weird little platypus — and I think a lot of other folks will, too.