Hyundai Santa Cruz — A new kind of truck

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

(October 24, 2021) Our initial impression — it's a four-door 1970s Chevrolet El Camino. The idea back in those long-ago days was to take a mid-sized car and slam a bed on the back. It was popular at the time, and the El Camino can bring a lot of cash in restored condition today. In the case of the all-new 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, attach a bed to the back of the new Tucson — and abracadabra you have a truck. But, Hyundai says, don't call it a truck even though it has all the makings of a smallish compact pickup with its miniature four-foot-four-inch bed.

Hyundai calls its newest creation a Sports Activity Vehicle. And, indeed, it might just be more sports activity and less traditional pickup truck. Hyundai says it is aiming the Santa Cruz at city dwellers looking for a little more utility in their around-town vehicle while maintaining the practicality and comfort of an SUV.

Other long-departed vehicles come to mind when looking at the Santa Cruz such as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and the Subaru Baja, which lasted just four years. And going way back to the mid-point of the 20th Century, don't forget the El Camino's main rival and the vehicle that started the sedan-as-a-truck concept, the Ford Ranchero. It hit the market in 1957 based on the full-sized Ford sedan. In later years (1960-1965) it shrank in size, based on the compact Ford Falcon.

The Santa Cruz has two direct competitors for 2022 — the larger Honda Ridgeline, which has been a modest sales success for a number of years giving pickup buyers a choice of a smaller weekend hauler, and the all-new compact Ford Maverick, which is now reaching showrooms. For now, the Santa Cruz is the smallest pickup truck on the market.
The Santa Cruz, which measures 195.7 inches long with a 118.3-inch wheelbase is longer than the recently released 2022 Tucson, which measures 182.3 inches with a 108.5inch wheelbase.

But because of the 52.1-inch bed length, rear-seat legroom has been robbed making it a bit more uncomfortable for rear-seat adult riders than the Tucson. We figured at the outset the Santa Cruz would have the same spacious r
ear seat, but were dismayed when we planted our usual rear-seat passengers there. So a check of interior dimensions did not surprise us when we found the Santa Cruz had 36.5 inches of legroom, 4.8 inches less than the Tucson.

That being said, there is scads of headroom and there is a modicum of legroom, just not as much as the Tucson. And while the rear seats are comfortable, the seatbacks are upright and do not recline. You have to figure the Santa Cruz works better than the Tucson for hauling a load of mulch back from the home improvement store or outdoor playthings like bikes and scooters.

The Santa Cruz has been well thought-out and has cribbed some of the Ridgeline's best features. For instance, like the Ridgeline there's an in-bed storage area in front of the tailgate big enough to accommodate camping equipment, groceries, and for the next tailgate party a load of ice to keep canned beverages cold. A drain plug in the floor of the compartment lets leftover water flow out. When one of our riders asked where he could put his take-home box from the restaurant, we said "right here in the trunk." That was a hit.

There are several small storage areas as well in the bed, which by the way, comes with a standard bed liner. And it can all be covered with a standard slide forward tonneau cover. That might be a first for a pickup truck. And the tailgate can be conveniently opened with the keyfob.

The Santa Cruz comes in four trim levels — SE, SEL, SEL Premium and Limited. There are two engine options. The SE and SEL get a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The SEL Premium and Limited come with a much larger turbocharged 2.5-liter making 281 hp and 311 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission.

The Limited trim level gets all the bells and whistles including standard AWD. Along with the upgraded 10.25-inch center touchscreen, the top trim gets a navigation-based cruise control system that adjusts for curves in the road and posted speed limits. There's also a high-resolution 360-degree parking camera that's a big help when you're trying to fit into tight spaces.

The interior has a premium look and feel very similar to the new Tucson. Our biggest complaint with both the Santa Cruz and the Tucson is a lack of physical controls including volume and tuning knobs. But there are redundant switches on the steering wheel, which we used to regulate audio volume. Front seats proved comfortable and gauges including a digital speedometer are clear and easy to read.

We drove the bigger engine in our Limited AWD test truck and found it up to the task of pulling the 4,123-pound vehicle in excellent fashion. For comparison purposes the turbocharged engine can finish off a 0-to-60 run in just over 7 seconds, while the smaller engine is rated at about 9.0 seconds.

In addition to better performance than the base engine, the turbo has a larger tow rating of 5,000 pounds compared to the 3,500-pound rating of the smaller engine. Payload capacity is measured at 1,753 pounds with the smaller engine and a bit less (1,609 pounds) for the bigger engine.

We didn't drive the non-turbo engine, but we would recommend opting for the turbocharged 2.5-liter — which we think is more suitable for a truck this size — in the SEL Premium version, which starts at $36,905. The Santa Cruz starts at $25,215 for the SE and climbs to $40,095 for the loaded Limited.

FYI — At this writing the base engine was not yet available. If you are fortunate enough to find a Santa Cruz on a dealer lot now, it will include the larger engine in an upper trim level. And that's not a bad thing unless you are on a tight budget.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz


Base price: $25,215; as driven, $40,095
Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 281 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 311 pound-feet @ 1,700 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 118.3 inches
Length: 195.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,123 pounds
Turning circle: 39.6 feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 17.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 19 city, 27 highway, 22 combined
0-60: 7.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Honda Ridgeline, Ford Maverick

The Good
• Powerful turbocharged engine
• Smooth, quiet ride
• Loaded with technology

The Bad
• Limited rear-seat legroom

The Ugly
• Weak base engine