Those of us who have some sort of memory left, car-based pickup trucks have been around for a long time. Heck, we thought that no one makes them anymore.
It is a pickup truck? Or, some “Sports Adventure Vehicle?”
Hyundai has deemed the latter as their description for the new 2022 Santa Cruz. While there is a debate as to what to actually call this long-awaited vehicle (I remember seeing its concept unveiled in 2015). The fact that it is here is a huge statement on Hyundai’s part.
However, it is not without some inspiration. Those of us who have some sort of memory left, car-based pickup trucks have been around for a long time. Heck, we thought that no one makes them anymore.
You remember the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero?
The Santa Cruz may have taken some inspiration from other global vehicles. Vehicles that had been referred to as “utes,” “bakkies,” and “jumbucks.” Coupe Utilities, if you will! On this continent, we have witnessed Subaru taking a few stabs at this vehicle in the form of two generations of the BRAT and the Outback-based Baja.
Now, we have the Hyundai Santa Cruz. As with the larger Honda Ridgeline, the debate of what you would call this vehicle has been quite interesting to watch. My task here is to hopefully shed some light as to whether it is truck enough to be called as such. Or, to conclude that it is a lifestyle vehicle that just happens to resemble a pickup truck.
In a sense, Hyundai officially calls it a Sports Adventure Vehicle. Yet, they also consider this a CUV+. While it is based on the newest Tucson SUV, it has what Hyundai calls an “open box” at the rear.
As said in my Honda Ridgeline video: “If it looks like a duck…it is a duck! But, replace the word ‘duck’ with ‘truck.’” In the case of the Santa Cruz…maybe? Perhaps, possibly?
OK, it does have a pickup truck vibe. More Subaru Baja than Honda Ridgeline. The design works, however. It is a Tucson up front, albeit tweaked a bit. More aggressive in the front end to give you that purpose-built look. Still, you cannot deny the “wing”-like driving lamps, the headlamp clusters discreetly trucked onto the sides of the front fascia, and a bolder grille texture. It sweeps rearward with a sportier “crew cab” roofline. It is even an altered version of the Tucson’s silhouette that could be traced to the B-pillar.
While it is all business up front, there is a party in the back. It is a 52.1-inch-long bed that seems very useful for smaller items. A lockable tonneau cover can be slid away to open it up for taller and bulkier cargo. There is also an “brunk” – OK, a trunk on the bed – that can be used to hide items from prying eyes. Or, like the Ridgeline, you can use it as a cooler for drunks on a given tailgate somewhere. There is a drain plug when you are done using it as a cooler. One thing I noticed that it is not all that deep.
The tailgate opens like a traditional pickup truck. It is OK for access to the “brunk,” and, maybe, that’s fine. The taillight clusters have an interesting shape. A sledgehammer, perhaps?
Inside the four-door cab, you get the Tucson’s instrument panel with a few alterations elsewhere. The trim around the interior is a cloth-like material with some graphics on the passenger side. It looks and feels cool and makes this interior more inviting.
Inside of this Limited tester, you do get a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster with a different screen set than the Tucson. It is customizable with the information you need available in the middle frame. Controls on the center console, steering wheel, and most places are typical of Hyundai – tactile and logical.
A 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system is the focal point of the center stack. There are a lot of light touch “buttons” throughout this piano black surround. I’m on the fence about these controls, as I prefer actual tactile buttons. As for the infotainment system itself, you do get smartphone connectivity via a USB-A connection, along with wireless phone charging. Bose provided the sound throughout the “crew cab.”
If there is one welcomed feature on this Santa Cruz – it the shifter. Hyundai has gone to a four-button transmission actuation set on most vehicles. It is refreshing to use a real shifter for once. It is faster to use and adds more fun to your drive.
There is room for four adults, or a family of five, inside of the Santa Cruz’s cab. The seats are supportive and comfortable up front, especially with the Limited’s leather upholstery. Rear seat room is fine for adults, too. Underneath the rear seats is some compartments, mainly for the tire jack. Hyundai also did a good job giving everyone a choice of beverage holders all around the interior.
Powering this Limited tester is the 281-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It throws down plenty of power through its eight-speed dual clutch transmission and all-wheel drive system. It has 311 pound-feet of torque, which does its best to manage a 4,123-pound vehicle, its 1,609-pound maximum payload for the open bed, and maximum tow rating of 5,000 pounds for this configuration.
Unladen, the Santa Cruz holds its own quite well. There is some heavy feeling to this vehicle, but it gets around town just fine. On the highway, the Santa Cruz holds its own very well. In fact, it did an exceptional job of taking me to the Midwest Automotive Media Assciation 's 30th Anniversary Rally at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
In terms of fuel economy, I averaged 23.5 MPG. Not bad, really.
Overall, the ride is solid with no pitching or feedback from rougher road surfaces. It handles quite well, even with a raised ride height. Evasive maneuvers were managed just fine and there is an absence of roll and lean in many cases.
The best way I’ll describe the steering system is just fine. I wished it had a tighter turning radius for its relative size. On-center feel is quite good in Normal mode; heavier and on-point in Sport or Smart mode. The brakes were also just fine. Pedal feel is solid, as was the response down the wheels. I did experience decent stops in normal and panic situations.
My 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD tester came with a sticker price of $41,100. It came equipped with everything you can think of. With four trim levels and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, the Santa Cruz starts at $23,990.
We can debate what you should call this vehicle. What will win you over is the utility of the Hyundai Santa Cruz. The open box and the in-box compartment are key features that make this vehicle a fun one to utilize.
If you are looking for a pickup truck, the Santa Cruz has some specs that are worth considering. It might not have the capacity of a larger vehicle, but if you don’t care about carrying sheets of plywood, long boards or studs – the Santa Cruz can handle plenty of jobs you bring home from the home improvement center.
Yet the Santa Cruz is made for leisure activities. You could commute in it. No matter what you do – or how you describe this vehicle – just remember that there’s always a party in the back!
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America
All photos by Randy Stern