2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz First Drive - Style Meets Substance

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Let the minitruck wars begin.

While the Ford Maverick has gotten most of the spotlight, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz became available for the media horde – or at least those in the horde than Hyundai deemed worthy of an invitation – to drive before the Ford.

The comparisons are inevitable, and we’ll mention some of the spec similarities/differences as we go through this. But perhaps the most striking difference, the one visible to the naked eye, is the styling.

While the Maverick looks like a typical boxy pickup truck, just smaller, the Santa Cruz has sweeping, angular lines that make it look like a modern version of classic minitrucks like the El Camino or the Subaru Baja. Whether you like its looks or not, you can’t deny that it’s striking, and it sticks out in the crowd.

Hyundai says the Santa Cruz isn’t meant for traditional truck buyers because it won’t offer the bed sizes, towing capability, or off-road ability that traditional trucks do. Instead, it’s meant to be thought of as a small crossover SUV with a bed – with the bed allowing for certain cargo-hauling needs that most crossovers, especially smaller ones, can’t handle.

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me to Palo Alto, California, to drive the Santa Cruz and the Kona N. They fed me nice meals and left snacks in the room along with a t-shirt, coffee mug, and small backpack. I ate the snacks. I left the shirt, backpack, and mug behind.)

Two engines are on offer – a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque and pairs with an eight-speed automatic transmission, and a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque and pairs with an eight-speed wet dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. All-wheel drive that distributes torque between the axles depending on road conditions is optional, otherwise, the truck is front-drive. There is some confusion on whether the turbo is available with front-drive – some of the press materials indicate that one can get the turbo with front-drive, but the pricing press release suggests that turbos are AWD only. We’ve reached out to Hyundai for clarification and have not heard back. We will update if and when we do.

Fuel economy numbers are listed at 21/26/23 for the base engine with FWD, 21/27/23 for the base with AWD, and 19/27/22 for the 2.5T with AWD. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, with 20s optional.

Because I’d been given the keys to a Kona N, not a Santa Cruz, for my morning drive around the Bay Area, my experience with the truck – a fully-loaded Limited 2.5T, like all the others on hand – was short. And I didn’t drive the same roads as I did with the Kona, instead running the northern end of NorCal’s famed Skyline Boulevard before making my way to the 101 and back to the hotel.

Immediately I found myself pleasantly surprised by the turbo’s pull – it packs more of a punch than I’d have guessed. It’s the Santa Cruz’s best dynamic feature.

The minitruck did struggle a bit when I attacked the twisties, serving up some understeer and body roll. Steering feel was mostly acceptable, at least. All this was in Sport mode.

I don’t think the bed or the truck’s relative length was the culprit, and to be clear, the Santa Cruz was no worse than any small crossover would be. In fact, that’s what the experience was like – it was akin to pushing a small crossover hard.

In other words, the Santa Cruz isn’t terrible when it comes to back-road blasting, but it’s not a joy, either. It’s not the dance partner you’d choose for a run up Skyline. Which, obviously, is not its mission.

Indeed, the Santa Cruz felt much more comfortable around town and on the freeway. Yes, California roads are generally smooth, but the ride felt comfortable without being soft. It also avoided feeling compromised by having a truck bed behind the rear seat. I actually kept forgetting the bed was back there – again, it felt like I was piloting a compact crossover SUV, not a trucklet.

Float and wallow seemed non-existent. Santa Cruz is underpinned by a MacPherson strut setup with coil springs at the front and a multilink system at the rear. The rear suspension is auto-leveling.

The biggest letdown was a tad too much wind and road noise, especially at freeway speeds. Turning the radio up countered some of this, but not as well as I’d like.

I’d also like to ding Hyundai for forgoing radio volume and tuner knobs in favor of capacitive-touch controls. Yes, the look of the infotainment system is cleaner, but as Honda learned, the simplicity of knobs is generally preferable.

Available bed features include a locking tonneau cover, underfloor storage with a drain plug, side cubby holes for more storage, and a 115-volt power outlet. It’s measured at just over 48 inches with the tailgate up. The tailgate can be opened with the key fob and is height-adjustable. There’s also LED bed lighting.

Other bed features include pockets to accommodate shelving, tie-downs, and bumper steps.

Most models are rated to tow 3,500 pounds, though the 2.5T with AWD can handle up to 5,000.

Rear-seat entry and exit were fine, and I initially felt it to be quite roomy, but then I slid the passenger seat all the way back and found that I couldn’t get back there. If you plan on hauling rear-seat passengers who’ve aged past the Sesame Street phase on a regular basis, you may need to bear in mind the favored seating positions of the driver and any regular front-seat rider.

There are four trim levels to choose from: SE, SEL, SEL Premium, and Limited, plus an SEL Activity Package. Available features include LED lighting, high-beam assist, sunroof, leather seats, heated front seats, cooled front seats, split tip-up rear seats, 10.2-inch infotainment screen, navigation, satellite radio, Bose audio, Apple Carplay and Android Auto (wireless in some configurations), front dual USB ports, rear dual USB ports, rear-view camera, dual-zone climate control, heated steering wheel, keyless entry and starting, remote start, smart cruise control, and BlueLink telematics.

Available active safety/driver-assist tech includes forward collision-assist with pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist, 360-degree monitor, blind-spot monitor, leading vehicle departure alert, speed-limit assist, driver-attention warning, lane-keeping assist, lane-following assist, highway-driving assist, navigation-based smart cruise control with curve control, safe-exit warning, and rear-seat occupant alert.

Pricing starts at $23,990 for a base FWD SE, with the cheapest AWD model coming in at $25,490. The cheapest turbo model is $35,680, and a Limited like the one I drove will start at $39,720. Destination is $1,185.

I promised some size comparisons to Maverick, and the Santa Cruz is 2 inches shorter and 2 inches lower while being a bit more than 3 inches wider. The wheelbase is about 3 inches shorter, with ground clearance for both trucks at 8.6 inches with AWD and 8.3 for the Maverick with FWD.

Hyundai claims more headroom and rear-seat legroom than the Ford, and slightly more passenger volume, along with a bed that’s just a skoosh wider.

I can’t yet say which truck is a better urban/suburban runabout, though I do note the Maverick is available with a hybrid powertrain, should that matter to you. What I can say is that the Santa Cruz is, Maverick comps aside, well suited to the urban jungle.

The styling will polarize – I think it’s better looking in person than in photos – and buyers will have to understand that the Santa Cruz won’t do the things an F-150 will. It won’t bash boulders or tow huge Airstreams or handle huge payloads. What it will do is get your surfboard to the beach or the mulch to your garden while allowing you to forget you’re driving a truck.

The use case here is a bit weird – many buyers are just fine with the utility offered by most crossovers/SUVs. But if you need a small truck bed just often enough that you find yourself constantly at a rental counter, the Santa Cruz will fit your needs well enough.

Tailgaters, surfers, gardeners, take heed. The first of many minitrucks is here, and it’s an all-around performer.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Aug 12, 2021

    Hyundai seems to be having a hard time getting good fuel economy numbers from it's base 2.5 I-4 and 8 speed automatic in this and the Sante Fe. Even the much more powerful 2.5T is rated higher on the highway in most configurations of these two vehicles. This is puzzling considering this same drivetrain in the K5 (Optima) and Sonata went up in all mileage figures compared to the older 2.4 and 6 speed. Thaty or the EPA is way off what these really can achieve.

    • JMII JMII on Aug 12, 2021

      I wonder if its a gearing issue where the SC is setup more aggressive for towing.

  • Lux Lux on Aug 23, 2021

    I... I don't know how I feel about this, Hyundai... A mini-truck Santa Cruz!? Why not come out with a new model just for a truck line..?

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I use a now discontinued Kuhmo AT tire that is surprisingly good in the snow, even in 2WD. However since most of my driving is on road, I'm going to look for a more highway friendly tire for smoother quiet. I'm sure it can still handle the forest roads leading to my fishing spots.
  • MaintenanceCosts So this is really just a restyled VW Fox. Craptacular tin can but fun to drive in a "makes ordinary traffic seem like a NASCAR race" kind of way.
  • THX1136 While reading the article a thought crossed my mind. Does Mexico have a fairly good charging infrastructure in place? Knowing that it is a bit poorer economy than the US relatively speaking, that thought along with who's buying came to mind.
  • Lou_BC Maybe if I ever buy a new car or CUV
  • Lou_BC How about telling China and Mexico, we'll accept 1 EV for every illegal you take off our hands ;)
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