Car enthusiasts tend to be prescriptive when it comes to classifying vehicles—they believe everything on four wheels must be clearly defined by brand and body style. And that rigidity often breeds derision when any vehicle dares step out of line: Witness the scorn directed at co-developed cars such as the BMW-based Toyota GR Supra or vehicles that don’t meet the traditional criteria for a given segment, such as the unibody Honda Ridgeline pickup. It’s yet to be determined whether the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, a pickup truck and SUV mashup, will escape a similar fate.
This new Hyundai certainly flaunts its unibody roots, as it’s very clearly a compact SUV with a pickup bed grafted to its rear end. Amid traffic or in a crowded parking lot, however, the Santa Cruz stands out like a supercar, especially in our test vehicle’s eye-catching Sage Gray paint. The Santa Cruz looks like nothing else on the road, and it drew excited questions and curiosity everywhere we went. “What is it?” was a common first question, usually quickly followed by a comment about how cool it looks. But winning over eyeballs is only part of the battle. Ultimately, a vehicle’s success is determined by whether it fulfills its intended purpose. That raises the key question: Does the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz live up to its own hype as a lifestyle pickup?
How Does the Santa Cruz Drive?
The Hyundai Santa Cruz is quick, scooting from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.3 seconds at the test track thanks to our uplevel Limited’s 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s 282 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque. The four works through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that offers snappy upshifts under hard acceleration but exhibits some jerky characteristics in stop-and-go traffic, as well as when the driver suddenly lets off the throttle. (The base powertrain is a weaker 191-hp, 181-lb-ft naturally aspirated four paired to a conventional eight-speed automatic.)
In our figure-eight test, which evaluates a vehicle’s combination of acceleration, braking, grip, and handling, we noted the Hyundai’s all-wheel-drive system shuffled power around well but that the brakes started to feel overworked within a few laps—we had a similar impression during our 60-0-mph test, though the brakes never gave out. Plus, the steering feel was muddled. The Santa Cruz’s figure-eight time was 26.7 seconds, 0.1 second quicker than a 2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport AWD HPD.
Even so, the little Hyundai pickup proved capable enough—and something close to fun—on twisty roads. The Santa Cruz tracks true while carving canyon curves; although the steering doesn’t say enough to the driver, it’s accurate enough to place this trucklet where you want. Body roll is nicely controlled even through tight bends, and the ride never gets flinty or rough on broken pavement. We didn’t head off-road with the small truck during this test, but we had a chance to do so during our first drive of the Santa Cruz.
What’s the Interior Like?
The front seats feel super spacious thanks to the dashboard that sweeps away from the occupants. The center stack protrudes from the dash and is angled ever so slightly toward the driver. Most buttons are capacitive and live within a piano black surface that looks nice when it’s clean. That said, you should be prepared to wipe it down frequently given its tendency to show fingerprints. The mix of materials in the cabin combines high-quality fabrics, soft leathers, and some hard plastics. It all looks modern and cohesive, and frequent touchpoints feel solid and high-quality.
Both the 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster and the 10.3-inch infotainment display in our upper trim Santa Cruz feature attractive, high-resolution graphics, and all infotainment controls are laid out logically and responded quickly to inputs. There’s also a comical, Easter-eggy “Cube mode” for the cluster that shows vehicle speed and rpm using funky cubes in a cyberpunk, minimalistic layout. (Read more about other cool Hyundai Santa Cruz features here.) Of course, the standard layout is a lot easier to read.
In addition, Hyundai stuffs its top-level trim with useful standard features like ventilated and heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also aboard, as is a sharp 360-degree camera view that makes this compact truck even easier to fit into parking spots.
What Truck Stuff Can It Do?
The Hyundai Santa Cruz proved handy for the sort of basic truck tasks we imagine most owners will ask of this small pickup. For example, transporting a fully built propane grill was a snap thanks to a low load-in height compared to those of larger trucks; it was easy to hoist the cargo up and get it into position. The Santa Cruz’s bed has plenty of anchor points, too, which we used to snugly secure down the grill with ratchet straps. The initial loading occurred in a dimly lit parking garage, so the Hyundai’s bed lights were extremely helpful, shining enough light to get the job done with minimal fumbling. On the road, the Santa Cruz felt totally stable with the grill out back, and unloading was a cinch, too.
Later, MT editor and cycling enthusiast Alex Leanse had a critical bike failure due to a broken drivetrain bolt and called for a rescue. We arrived on the scene with the Santa Cruz to help our 6-foot-10 colleague. The bed had enough space to lay his bike in the bed. No small feat given his height means his bike is quite big. He felt the truck did a good job of safely hauling his wheels: “Loaded with the rear wheel toward the cab and the tailgate fully closed, only the handlebars and half of the front wheel stuck out above the tonneau cover,” Leanse said. “That made my bike seem protected and secure, relatively safe from being crushed in a rear-end crash or jumping out over an unexpected bump.” He also noted that “a bit of soft padding on the bedsides and a solid bungee cord or ratchet strap is all I’d add to make sure my bike stayed scratch-free and in place.”
Taking the Santa Cruz grocery shopping was another opportunity to explore its capabilities. The small rear doors give way to a cramped back seat—legroom is reduced from the Tucson SUV the Santa Cruz shares its platform with—and piling your purchases there is a bit awkward, so the bed ends up being the go-to place for groceries and the like. The in-bed trunk remained remarkably cool even under plenty of direct sunlight, which was nice for our perishable items, and despite it being a bit shallow, we managed to stash four full plastic bags in this space. A package of paper towel rolls fit in the bed with the tonneau closed. Hyundai’s pickup isn’t necessarily your normal grocery-getter, but it can probably get the job done for a small enough family.
What’s the Verdict?
The 2022 Santa Cruz compact pickup is a nice execution of a weird idea: an SUV with a truck bed. Hyundai doesn’t intend it to be a workhorse, but more of an easily parked, wieldy daily companion that allows you to do light-lift truck tasks without the fear of dirtying the cargo area SUV owners often have. No doubt, the Santa Cruz certainly proved capable of doing so during our week with it. It also helps that this little pickup is super stylish, which should count for a lot in its target demographic.
There is a (baby) elephant in the room, however, in the form of Ford’s new Maverick, another SUV-based pickup truck—it shares much with the Escape and Bronco Sport—but one that looks tougher and truckier. The Hyundai is more capable in both payload and towing, but the Ford stickers for much less—$21,490 for the Maverick versus $25,175 for the Santa Cruz—and offers sky-high fuel economy with its standard hybrid powertrain. We’re looking forward to putting these two into a comparison test to find out which one trucks better, but for now, the Santa Cruz fulfills its goal of being a charming utility vehicle with an identity all its own.
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