2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz First Drive Review: An SUV With a Pickup Bed

This one’s personal. I grew up in Santa Cruz County. My mom still lives in the house I grew up in, 20 minutes down the road from Santa Cruz. I surfed at Manresa, mountain-biked in Nisene Marks, rock-climbed at Pacific Edge. I am the target demographic for the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, but does it do justice to its namesake, my hometown?

I’ll admit, there was trepidation on my part. The Santa Cruz looks great on paper, but it’s based on the new Tucson SUV, which we found to be a triumph of form over function in a recent comparison test. It was slow and rode harshly, but it looked great and was bursting at the seams with style and tech. Does the Santa Cruz compact pickup truck suffer the same fate?

Good to Drive—at Least in Certain Trims

Five minutes behind the wheel of this small truck puts that fear to rest, so long as you pop for one of the top two trims. The Santa Cruz comes as a front-wheel-drive truck with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder, but you can upgrade both aspects, adding all-wheel drive and a turbocharger. Hyundai only provided a turbocharged all-wheel-drive model for this review, so we can’t tell you for certain the base model doesn’t suffer the Tucson’s ride and power deficiencies.

We can absolutely tell you the top models don’t. All tricked out, the Santa Cruz rides and drives wonderfully. Some pickup trucks struggle to ride nicely without any load in the bed, but not the Santa Cruz. On the bumpy roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the worn-out concrete of Bay Area freeways, the little truck rides beautifully. From behind the wheel, the Santa Cruz compact pickup drives like a better SUV than the Tucson. The only reminder you’re driving a truck is the mail slot of a rear window, a common problem even among larger midsize pickups.

We can take an educated guess about the base engine’s performance, though. Aside from model-specific programming, the standard powertrain is identical to the one in the Tucson we tested, only in the SUV it has to move a vehicle that’s at least 200 pounds heavier when similarly equipped. That thing needed 9.3 seconds to hit 60 mph from a stop, and efficiency-minded transmission programming made it feel even slower. We can only hope the base Santa Cruz is tuned for performance, or it’s going to be a real dog with any gear in the back.

Living the Lifestyle

Putting gear in the bed is the entire point. Hyundai is adamant: This is not a truck for truck people. If you don’t think it’s a real truck, it’s not for you. It’s for people who don’t want to park or fill up a full-size or even midsize pickup but who are tired of cramming their bike in the back of an SUV or lifting it onto the roof of their car.

This I get. When I lived in Santa Cruz, I drove a coupe and only surfed at the beach that was within walking distance from my house. If I wanted to mountain-bike, I had to ride to the state park. Getting the board or the bike into or onto the car was too much of a hassle. If I could’ve thrown either in a cargo bed, it would have been a game changer. That’s what Hyundai is going for, and if that and a run to the garden center are all you’d ever use a pickup for, the Santa Cruz succeeds. The 4-foot bed is just long enough to fit your bike or shortboard or hang either over the tailgate. The Honda Ridgeline-style trunk under the bed floor is just big enough to stow a wetsuit or muddy shoes.

Then there’s that factory-built, lockable, roll-up metal bed cover. If the Nextdoor app is accurate, a lot of people in my area have tools stolen from their truck beds on a regular basis. I don’t like leaving anything valuable in the back seat of a pickup, much less the bed. A secure space of that size offers huge peace of mind in the city. Same thing when camping. One can fill the back seat of a full-size pickup to the roof with camping gear pretty easily, and this truck’s back seat is a lot smaller than that. The storage under the back seat, under the bed, and in the locked bed provides an all new level of vehicular Tetris to master.

Filling the rear seat with gear shouldn’t be too hard. By the numbers, the Santa Cruz has almost the exact same rear legroom as a midsize Honda Ridgeline, but we aren’t sure how Hyundai came up with that measurement. The back seat of a Ridgeline is huge compared to other midsize trucks’, and the one in the Santa Cruz is definitely cozier. Adults with short legs will have plenty of space, but the long-legged are going to be squeezed, especially if the people up front are tall, too. The windowsill that sharply rises by your outboard shoulder also contributes to a feeling of snugness. At least it’s a quiet ride until a bit of wind noise around the door mirrors crops up at interstate speeds.

Off the Beaten Path

If the trailhead or camping site you’re headed to is farther off the beaten path than a dirt road, you’re going to need new tires. The included Michelin Primacy all-seasons are fine for everyday driving, but they’re mostly useless off-road. Even getting going on a steep dirt road sees wheelspin from all four corners as the rubber struggles for grip. Hyundai’s H-Trac all-wheel-drive system is quick to transfer power to the rear wheels, but it can only do so much when those wheels have as little traction to work with as the fronts. The truck’s ground clearance and approach, breakover, and departure angles are all decent, so with better tires the Santa Cruz could likely make it a lot farther into the woods.

On the pavement, where this small truck will spend most of its time, the uplevel Santa Cruz grips well and handles better. By both truck and SUV standards, it drives surprisingly sporty with direct steering and excellent body control. The only thing undercutting Hyundai’s boasting about the nimbleness and maneuverability of this truck is how wide it feels in the lane. Only an inch and a half wider than a Tucson, the Santa Cruz is nearly 5 inches narrower than an F-150, but it doesn’t feel like it. Up narrow mountain roads and trails, it feels like you really need to be vigilant to stay between the lane markers.

Helping you, should you put down enough cash, is a full suite of active and passive safety systems, up to and including lane keeping steering assistance and adaptive cruise control. Turn them all on, and a long road trip out to a national park is a breeze. Some may want to turn off the blind spot cameras, though. The live video that appears in the instrument cluster every time you use your turn signal can be distracting, and in this truck, a combination of bad camera angles and tiny images make it mostly unhelpful.

Feature Time

When the features are good, though, they’re great. The digital instrument cluster and widescreen infotainment system are so far ahead of the competition in graphic design it’s not even funny. Less can be said for the flat panel that houses the touch-sensitive HVAC and radio controls. They respond to every touch immediately like a phone, but there’s no using them without taking your eyes off the road. Also, absolutely no one wants a volume control you have to poke repeatedly. Even a touch slider is better. But really, just put the knob back. If you want to poke a screen, use the Blue Link app that lets you start the car, set the HVAC, and check the fuel level from your phone, which can also act as the vehicle key.

That’s the other part of Hyundai’s pitch. Yes, representatives will concede, the Santa Cruz starts thousands of dollars higher than the upcoming Ford Maverick and nearly equal to a midsize truck, but it doesn’t appear as though Ford will offer nearly as many high-tech gadgets, and the midsizers certainly don’t. Those items and the Santa Cruz’s sleeker, nontraditional truck styling are what you’re paying for. If you’re used to modern SUVs and all their convenience features, you’ll be happy to know you aren’t giving anything up going to a pickup, as long as it’s a Santa Cruz. From a 360-degree camera system to heated and cooled seats and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the Santa Cruz has all the bells and whistles you don’t find in a midsize truck and pay much, much more for in a full-size truck.

Ford does have Hyundai licked in fuel economy, though, thanks to the Maverick’s standard hybrid powertrain. Hyundai could absolutely install the Tucson Hybrid’s batteries and motors in the Santa Cruz but for now won’t commit to doing so. That’s too bad, because the truck’s fuel economy really isn’t much better than a midsize pickup’s. On the other hand, it’s also effectively the same as the Tucson’s, so if you’re the target buyer trading in a small SUV on one of these, you won’t give up your carlike fuel economy.

Turbo Time

If you can keep your foot out of it, of course. The optional turbocharged engine has an overabundance of midrange torque that’ll get you going in a hurry when you need it. The throttle’s tuned so you can cruise around town smoothly with just enough get up and go, but put your foot in it a bit more, and all the power is there to execute a pass or climb a hill. The standard dual-clutch automatic paired with this engine shifts quickly and unobtrusively, but it sometimes seems to hold gears longer than it needs to when you’re up to speed and have lifted off the accelerator. Conversely, it tends to upshift a little too soon when you’re ascending a grade and need to lift off the gas momentarily for a corner.

What about serious truck stuff, though? That answer will have to wait for another review when we can get a trailer on the hitch and a heavy load in the bed. On paper, the Santa Cruz has advantages in both payload and towing over the Maverick. Heck, the specs are as good or better than those of some midsize trucks. As soon as we’re able, we’ll see how well this compact truck actually drives when you load it up.

As an SUV replacement, though, it hits all the right notes. It looks and drives like an SUV, it has all the latest features available on a mainstream vehicle, and the bed is more than functional enough to support outdoorsy hobbies. Even if it doesn’t work for ranchers and contractors, the Santa Cruz will be a winner for the intended customer. Every city dweller who spends weekends out in the woods, in the hills, or at the ocean but worries about the size of their assigned parking space at their apartment owes it to themselves to check out this new class of compact pickup, because the Santa Cruz does exactly what it promises.

If I ever move back to Santa Cruz, I’d be so satisfied with the practicality I wouldn’t feel bad for a minute driving a truck named after the town. Take it from a hometown boy, the Hyundai Santa Cruz has earned its name.

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