Auto123 gets in a first drive of the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.
The new Hyundai Santa Cruz is a rare thing in the car world. It is not only a segment-buster, it’s kind of a segment creator. At least, that’s what Hyundai is saying.
Now, a good first look at the Santa Cruz tells you you’re seeing a four-door cab, high-ish ride height, one of the most unique grilles in the business (unless you include its Santa Fe sibling…or the last-gen Toyota Venza), some sparkly 20-inch wheels and, above all else, a pickup bed. So it’s a pickup then, right?
Well, according to the manufacturer, it isn’t. Pickups have a fiercely loyal customer base, and Hyundai isn’t about to bang its head against that wall if it can avoid it. Thing is, it’s not a crossover, either. Call it a Sport Adventure Vehicle, aimed at young couples - you know, adventurous types who like to pack kayaks, tow Sea-Doos and Ski-Doos and load mountain bikes and camping gear. Hyundai made that abundantly clear with all the Santa Cruz-es on hand during our drive event. All were decked out in all manner of outdoor accessories available through the dealers.
Of course, we all know what those adventurous types tend to drive: crossovers and small SUVs. And it is precisely those vehicle segments that Hyundai expects to draw buyers from. So if not a pickup, why not call is a CUV then?
Sport Adventure Vehicle
Well, that’s an option but Hyundai is staying steadfast by “Sport Adventure Vehicle”. And why not a new designation? It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything like it. It’s not a never-before thing – remember the Ford Ranchero? How about the Dodge Rampage? Or Subaru’s BRAT and Baja? – but it’s been a while.
Of course, it’s not like manufacturers haven’t tried to get a pickup bed into the hands of a dyed-in-the-wool CUV driver before. Ford gave it a go with the rebirth of the Ranger and earlier than that, we had the Chevrolet Colorado and more recently, the Jeep Gladiator. All great trucks – this is not to disparage them, by any means – but that’s the thing; they were trucks. Body-on-frame workhorses that, yes, had smaller engines than their big-selling siblings like the Ford F-150 or Chevrolet Silverado, but still drove like trucks.
Not the Santa Cruz, though. This is a vehicle that shares a great many bits with the Tucson and Santa Fe crossovers (in terms of exterior dimensions, it sits roughly between the two), so it’s a unibody platform, with the goal in mind to reduce the vibrations and bouncy ride associated with pickups.
Of course, a bit it doesn’t share is its pickup bed and make no mistake: while at four feet on the floor it isn’t long, it’s far more than just a bucket dropped on where the rear cargo area usually is. It has cleats, it has bed lights, tie downs and even extra underfloor storage as seen in the Honda Ridgeline that can be filled with ice and drained thereafter. There’s a 115V power outlet and extra storage either side of the bed; there are even accessories that allow you to extend the bed and each corner of the rear bumper features cutouts big enough to fit a steel-toed boot. The retractable bed cover is also standard, so you can keep things safe in there.
For sure, it’s not as highly stackable as a CUV’s cargo area would be and you’re always going to have to get out of the Santa Cruz to get at anything back there, but Hyundai has provided everything they can to make the change from CUV to “SAV” as palatable as possible.
Power from the 2.5L turbo engine is rated at 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque and the ability to tow up to 5,000 lb – the Kawasaki Jetski you see here is about 2,000 lb, and the Santa Cruz handled it just fine. Keep it in Normal or Smart drive mode (in which the Santa Cruz senses how you’re driving and adapts its shifting and throttle response to suit) and you’re good to go.
We’ve discussed the exterior; it’s time to step inside this Sports Adventure Vehicle to see what’s what.
In the spec you see here -- $44,799 Ultimate trim, which tops the lineup above Trend ($41,399) and Preferred ($38,499) – it gets the full load: leather seats that are heated and ventilated up front, surround view parking camera, LED headlights, 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster, blind-view monitor that turns your digital gauges into blind-spot cameras and rain-sensing wipers.
That’s in addition to standard all-wheel-drive, heated steering wheel, bed cover, and 2.5L turbo power.
Space-wise, it’s similar to the Tucson up front which means good front legroom, a surprising amount of headroom and a high seating position. The latter element was one of the main goals when designers were putting together the Santa Cruz, as it means a good view out, and that’s important for any CUV driver Hyundai hopes to convert.
The digital gauge cluster is a crisp affair, properly bereft of glare even though there’s no actual gauge hood. That also adds to the view out, but to my eye the display overall looks a bit as if it’s kind of plugged in to its spot just above the steering wheel.
In Ultimate spec, the gauge cluster is matched by a 10.25-inch widescreen that’s touch-activated, as are all the controls on the panel that surrounds it. No dials or hard buttons here. It’s all touch, all the time. Personally, I like more traditional buttons as they’re a little easier to operate, but both the screen and touch panel in the Santa Cruz are responsive enough that I’m not too bothered by it. I just wish the haptic response when your inputs are received was a little more robust. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are of course standard, and there’s wireless charging as well.
It comes as little surprise that the back seat is snugger than what you’ll find in a Tucson, but headroom is fine and the bottom cushions flip up in a 60/40 split to reveal storage bins below. There is no central armrest back there, though, because behind the seat is the cabin’s rear wall and that’s all you’d see once you dropped the armrest. They could have gussied it up with a layer of carpet back there, but Hyundai seems to think it wasn’t a necessity.
That bareness contrasts with what’s going on in the rest of the cabin, as much attention has been paid to sound-deadening in the wheel wells and ahead of the front bulkhead. The result, it turns out, is a nicely quiet affair that stood out as a highlight on the highway.
The ride, meanwhile, stood out on the open road and most everywhere else. Broken concrete, level crossings, speed bumps – absorption, absorption, absorption. The only surface that really got it out of sorts was a run of grooved concrete through a section of roadworks. I would jam it over the roughest, broken concrete I could find just to set it off but to no avail. The Santa Cruz’s off-road bent means a slightly higher ride height and the body roll that comes with that, but this is no deal-breaker, by any means.
And off-road bent, this vehicle definitely has. In addition to that ride height, the H-Trac AWD system is a robust one, shuffling power to the wheels that need it depending on circumstance (and telling you it’s doing so with a handy display within the gauge cluster) to get you out of a slippery situation. During our driver, we were given the chance to literally drive up a ski hill slicked by overnight rain, and the Santa Cruz responded well. Even when starting from stop on the grade, there was little hesitation.
Just select Mud mode (both the AWD modes and the powertrain modes are accessed via the same button and toggle switch), which automatically activates hill-descent control and we were up and gone, no problem at all. What that means in practice, of course, is that while this may not be a boulder basher, it will give you little trouble on the forestry roads on the way to your favourite backcountry hiking spot.
Then, on the way back home you have all that power to keep you company. Mated to a quick-shifting 8-speed automatic, the engine gives you grunt in every gear, from stop, at speed and so on. There’s a less powerful naturally-aspirated engine available in other markets that we don’t get, but I’ll tell you what: I can’t say I miss that with a powertrain this good.
Heck, forget the powertrain: pretty much everything about the Santa Cruz is “this good”. It looks great, it drives really, really well, it’s capable and that pickup bed is the real deal. Hyundai has come with a product that’s original almost to the point of being somewhat out there in left field, and which has achieved the goal of really offering a pickup alternative to CUV buyers. It’s a bullseye.
Functional pickup bed
We like less
Sung back seats with no central armrest
Some interior finish issues