- Photos: Kurt Bradley

The Hyundai Santa Cruz Is A Delightfully Weird Truck

It's a truck, sort of, but it's quite good. Really.

3w ago

Known for its affordable cars and crossovers, Hyundai hasn't really taken the plunge into mass market trucks. That has suddenly changed, as people in cities want a vehicle that offers more versatility than a crossover while still being a good car to daily drive. Small trucks are back, and every major manufacturer wants a piece of the action. By introducing the all-new Santa Cruz, Hyundai is sneaking a midsized pickup into the segment, that's based on an extended version its new Tucson crossover platform.

While it looks like Hyundai simply chopped the rear hatch part off of the crossover on which it's based, and inserted a bed, this little truck has a lot more up its sleeve. To find out it it was better than the Honda Ridgeline (which I recently reviewed), and either the Ford Maverick (review coming soon) or Ranger (reviewed that too) depending on how you want to spend your money, I had a week to see how it stacked up.

The Useful Specs

As previously mentioned, Hyundai builds the Santa Cruz pickup on the same steel unibody platform as its good Tucson crossover, in a setup that's not too small, but not too big. With two versions of a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine available, buyers have a choice between a naturally-aspirated or turbocharged powerplants. The atmospheric motor produces 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque, and the turbo one cranks out 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque.

The Honda Ridgeline has a 3.5-liter V6 under its hood, producing 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, and has all-wheel-drive standard. Ford's Maverick has a choice between a 2.5-liter hybrid 4-cylinder that has 191 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque (with a CVT powering the front wheels) or a 2.0-liter EcoBoost boasting 250 horsepower and 277 lb-ft, with the option between front- or all-wheel-drive. Ford's Ranger is equipped with a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-banger, which punches out 270 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, with rear-wheel-drive standard, and four-wheel-drive optional. Against these rivals, the Hyundai Santa Cruz has respectable specs, especially if you opt for the boosted engine.

No matter which engine you select in the Santa Cruz, front-wheel-drive is standard, with Hyundai's HTRAC Active On-Demand all-wheel-drive system available for a few bucks more. The front-wheel Santa Cruz has an 8-speed torque converter automatic transmission, and the all-wheel-drive model is set up with an 8-speed wet dual-clutch 'box. Size-wise, the Honda Ridgeline is the biggest in the group I've described, and the others share similar dimensions. The Hyundai Santa Cruz has a 4-foot bed, with lockable storage, just like the 5-foot long bed of the Honda Ridgeline, with the Maverick getting a 4-foot bed, and the Ranger having a choice between 5 or 6 feet, depending on which cab you select.

Base price for the front-wheel-drive and naturally-aspirated Hyundai Santa Cruz starts at just under $24,000, which is a few grand more than the next cheapest Ford Maverick base model. Opting for the turbocharged engine doesn't come cheap, at a $10,000 premium. In its top (and seriously loaded) Limited AWD trim, as I tested, the MSRP bumps up to $41,100. This makes it more expensive than a nicely equipped Maverick, but less than a comparable Ridgeline or Ranger.

Daily Practicality Enhanced

The Hyundai Santa Cruz is a great daily driver. The proportions are great for a midsized truck, and don't make it feel too big. Compared to the Ridgeline, which definitely looks and feels bigger, the Santa Cruz simply drives and feels like a reasonably-sized crossover. Quite the departure from the Ford Ranger, which definitely exhibits truck characteristics, but isn't quite as smooth and light on its feet as the Ford Maverick. Attribute the smooth ride in the Santa Cruz to its nicely tuned MacPherson struts and coil springs up front paired with a multi-link setup in the back. All-season 20-inch Michelin tires help keep the ride composure more compliant too.

I didn't test the less powerful engine option, but the 2.5-liter turbo is definitely the one to go for, so spend the extra cash. Its power is linear, considering it's a boosted 4-banger, and it's easily ready to go when you apply the throttle. The only trade-off in the fuel economy department is 2 MPGs in the city, still getting decent EPA estimates of 19 / 27 / 22 (city / highway / combined). The Santa Cruz's DCT makes shifts quick and smooth, and while the all-wheel-drive system is definitely front-biased, it's not clunky when shifting torque back and forth.

Hyundai went for a much more car-like interior for the Santa Cruz, which is more tame and tidy than its other truck competition. Rather than faking in rugged materials and appearances, the Santa Cruz is refined and intuitive. If you've been inside a new Hyundai Tucson, the cabin with be nearly identical. A 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen dominates the center stack that's above a huge array of capacitive touch controls for the audio and climate systems. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, bumping through a good Bose system, and wireless mobile charging is included too.

Looking a bit more like they belong in a crossover than a truck, the Santa Cruz's front seats are cushioned perfectly, with decent lateral support. Rear passengers will enjoy a good amount of legroom in the Santa Cruz, and headroom is great too. Hyundai was smart to include a lot of storage pockets and cupholders that hold bigger items, and there's a quick flip-up feature for additional storage under the back seats. The Santa Cruz's 4-foot bed isn't huge, but it gets the job done for average weekend warriors. With a standard bed cover that rolls back into its storage compartment, and easily pulls back thanks to an attached strap.

Doing Truck Stuff

Knowing most drivers don't need a truly hardcore pickup, Hyundai made the Santa Cruz practical yet functional. It may not look as tough up front as the Honda Ridgeline or Ford offerings, but the Santa Cruz gets it done with what it offers all-around. Don't expect to shred your favorite rocky trails in the Santa Cruz, as it's not exactly set up for off-road duty. Its drivetrain and suspension may be more thoughtfully designed for on-road manners rather than off-road activities, but Hyundai was smart to include some good hardware.

A lockable rear differential is fitted to all-wheel-drive models, in addition to a downhill brake control. There's decent ground clearance and the overhangs aren't bad at all, but the all-season Michelins are a limiting factor for the Santa Cruz. Some meatier tires would help this Hyundai truck be more capable, but this is a midsized pickup designed for city folk.

Payload capacity in the Hyundai Santa Cruz is 1,700 pounds with the front-wheel-drive model, and is just over 1,500 pounds in the all-wheel-drive one ( similar specs next to its rivals). Towing capacity is a respectable 3,500 pounds with the front-wheel-drive setup, and jumps to 5,000 pounds for the all-wheel-drive Santa Cruz, putting it on-par with its competition. There's also a trailer sway control system to keep you in control when towing.

A self-leveling rear suspension adjusts depending on what you've got loaded in the bed. The bed is also made from dent-resistant plastic to better cope with whatever you toss in the back, while slightly increasing space versus a conventionally stamped bed usually offered in pickups. Hyundai made a couple smart decisions to secure your stuff. Much like the Honda Ridgeline's bed, there's a lockable compartment at the tail end of the bed, met with a couple little cubbies, for even more storage capacity. There's also a 115V AC power inverter in the bed.

The Pros And Cons

The Santa Cruz may not look rugged, but it sports a refreshingly different design from every other truck on the road, in an era when too many trucks are trying to look tougher than they truly are. Driving the Santa Cruz doesn't feel imposing, and it's surprisingly easy to navigate and park. Most people don't really need a massive pickup, and the Santa Cruz hits a sweet spot.

Hyundai did a nice job with features in the Santa Cruz, with a big stack of safety convenience systems. In the Limited trim there are heated and ventilated seats too. I prefer physical buttons, and thankfully Hyundai uses them on the steering wheel controls, but the center console uses capacitive touch buttons that I loathe. The console is also crafted with reflective piano black plastic, that is not only a magnet for fingerprints and smudges, but has a horrid reflection in the daylight (as indicated in the photo below, where you can easily recognize my hands around the camera).

Where Hyundai provides a nicer interior to the Santa Cruz than much of its lineup, there are some aspects that got lesser grade components. The instrument cluster is a big 10.25-inch display, offering a few themes (one of which is some comical rotating cubes), but the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. Pixelation is easily visible, and the overall look is a bit cheap. If you want clearly visible needles using contrasting colors over the gauges, you'll want to set the default view to the sport mode.

Cool City Truck Functionality, But For A Select Few

Hyundai added a practical option to a midsized truck market that's quickly getting crowded. Offering reasonable value, good storage flexibility, and great on-road dynamics, the Santa Cruz is a good truck more suited to the suburbanite rather than the rural blue collar type. Its entry price is attractive, but the loaded model gets pretty pricey quickly. Then comes the challenge with who it really pleases in the truck segment.

The Hyundai Santa Cruz doesn't look the truck part, even if it packs the features it needs against its rivals. There's a buyer for nearly any truck on the market these days, and I don't doubt Hyundai will sell plenty of the Santa Cruz. The challenge is that the Honda Ridgeline is a more attractive and more functional pickup, and Ford's new Maverick (which I'll write up soon) provides better value as a small truck that looks great. For my truck money, I'm probably going with one of those.

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Comments (28)

  • Did Hyundai nail it with the Santa Cruz? @tribe

      22 days ago
  • BRAT seats w/space fighter control sticks or GTFO

      19 days ago
  • Being a country boy, I only buy full-size trucks (3/4 ton and 1 ton) and I only buy Ford, Chevy and Dodge-Ram. Little trucks are about as useless to me as a 4-banger city car.

      21 days ago
    • Right, but this isn't something for people who want/need a big truck. It's for people who only need a bit more functionality than something like a crossover.

        21 days ago
  • My family has run Santa Fe’s for years. We have never had one break. One saved my wife’s life in a head on collision. This version is not for me but my parents sure want one to carry scooters in the back. Older people? Trucks are to tall and cars are to low. All elderly people are concerned with the seating entry hight. I forwarded this article to my parents and they love it. I got a buck that says one gets ordered in the next 30 days. 

      21 days ago
  • I think its a great truck for its price range, plus the MPG figures are pretty good!

      22 days ago
    • Agreed. Has a lot to offer, and it's no cookie cutter pickup.

        22 days ago