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2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Review: Truck or Car?

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Auto123 reviews the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz pickup.

Hyundai first came to Canada in 1983 with a certain Pony (1984 model-year), a rear-wheel-drive subcompact that had more than a bit in common with the archaic Chevrolet Chevette. If someone had told me back in the day that Hyundai would become one of the world's automotive giants, and that it would even reach the point of going head-to-head with the Big Three by launching a pickup truck, I might have recommended therapy for them.

Yet here we are. Hyundai this year launched, not the sixth or seventh generation of the Pony, but the very first generation of the Hyundai Santa Cruz, a compact pickup for adventure lovers. Should we be surprised by such an innovative product from the Korean automaker? No, not really. For a decade now, Hyundai and Kia have been cranking out ambitious projects (Hyundai Veloster, the entire Genesis division, Kia Soul, Kia Stinger, Hyundai Ioniq 5, etc.) like there’s no tomorrow. Anyways, we’ve known for years this pickup was coming, since the company first showed a prototype back in… 2015.

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2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, profile
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, profile

Already a rival on the horizon
However, such is the dynamic state of the industry that already, this brand-new model has a rival. Ford has also just launched a unibody pickup designed for drivers who want a pickup truck... without all the drawbacks of a “real” pickup! Its Maverick is also likely to be quite successful both here and south of the border.

Take note that, unlike Ford, Hyundai has adopted a two-tiered strategy for its truck, having decided not to offer both engines as is the case in the United States.

Also worth noting? The local Santa Cruz is an expensive vehicle that comes standard with the “big” 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive and a fairly long list of equipment. This is in contrast to the Ford Maverick with its hybrid engine, front two-wheel drive and steel wheels on the entry-level XL model, which, by the way, is almost $13,000 less than the most-affordable Santa Cruz model.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, front
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, front

A Tucson with a bed?
As is the case with the Maverick, which uses the same architecture as the Escape or the Bronco Sport, the Hyundai Santa Cruz is based on a compact SUV platform. More specifically, that would be the Tucson. Furthermore, the Santa Cruz's front end is almost identical to that of the just-revised Tucson. I say “almost” because contrary to the Tucson's shield that includes four rows within its grille, the Santa Cruz has only three.

No matter, the look is very similar; both vehicles, for example, have optical blocks positioned very low in this expressive bumper. The other “lights” tucked behind the intricate mesh are just daytime running lights. Let me also say that the Korean truck's headlights illuminate the road very well; that's one of the advantages of these lower headlights we’ve seen designed in recent years.

The link between the two utility vehicles ends there, though, as the rest of the Santa Cruz's bodywork is exclusive to the pickup. In profile, the production model is not unlike that years-old concept, with the rather clear difference that the 2022 Santa Cruz comes with four real doors, unlike the coupe format of the prototype.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, three-quarters rear
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, three-quarters rear

The new Korean pickup is also a unibody vehicle, as evidenced by the lack of separation between the cabin and the cargo box. The presence of 20-inch wheels enhances the vehicle's presence, although owners who plan on taking rougher roads should consider the 18-inch wheels of the Preferred model.

Then there’s the bed. The very short bed. The model’s designers did think of do-it-yourselfers and included an option to raise the tailgate halfway with the cables, a solution that allows you to load the traditional 4'x8' sheet... with straps of course... and a little red flag! In addition to this little trick - the Ford Maverick offers the same thing by the way - the Santa Cruz stands out with its factory-installed box cover, which unrolls and can even be locked, while a waterproof compartment is also available under the box floor, a solution already seen on the Honda Ridgeline. An LED light in the cabin makes it easy to store items at night.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, interior
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, interior

Four-person cabin
The Santa Cruz's small size doesn't allow it to offer as much room as those full-size trucks and their crew cabs, but for a crew of four (two adults and two young children), it's fine! Like other midsize pickups, the seatback doesn't drop back, which makes for a fairly upright seating position. Fortunately, the seats are comfortable in both rows.

Up front, there's that familiar dashboard design that wraps around each passenger, but also has the advantage of not obstructing the driver's view. Where the Santa Cruz loses a few points is in the central portion, where all the controls are grouped around the 10-inch touchscreen; all of those controls are touch-sensitive, forcing drivers to take their eyes off the road every time they want to change a setting. Fortunately, the responsiveness of these buttons and even that of the screen are excellent. In the centre console, there are drive modes to be played with and even buttons for the heated seats, heated steering wheel... and ventilated seats. Which of course I didn't try during my week driving the model late in the autumn.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, multimedia screen
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, multimedia screen

A sports car drive
There’s surprising potential in this powertrain. At its core is a 2.5Lr turbocharged 4-cylinder engine already seen in other Hyundai Group models, and here it delivers a more-than-appreciable 281 hp and a surprising 311 lb-ft of torque. But that's not the only reason for the Santa Cruz's aplomb, as it's also equipped with an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission, an option that's much more appropriate than a continuously variable transmission, for example. Shifts are smooth and depending on the drive mode chosen - Sport is the sharpest for winding roads - you really feel that the usual "jerks" of an automatic are mitigated as much as possible when downshifting with this unit.

But even beyond all that, what really stands out in this truck is its remarkable handling. Despite the presence of those 20-inch wheels, the Santa Cruz flew over potholes like a comfortable mid-size sedan without sacrificing handling. The steering, while not as surgical as the Veloster N's, delivers just enough information to keep the driver connected to the road. I caught myself cornering on the highway at unsavory speeds during a rainy-day jaunt. The Santa Cruz drives like a car... or a crossover if you prefer. So much so that you forget there's a box behind it. It’s more noticeable even when you compare with the new Nissan Frontier, which we had put to the test a few days later, and which still offers a typical pickup truck-like ride.

The last word
Hyundai will, of course, be watching closely how buyers react to its first, long-awaited pickup. The strategy of sticking to two heavily-equipped versions is not bad, but I can't help but think of the affordable Ford Maverick trims that should draw crowds. Though that truck’s performance will be inferior, reflecting the asking price after all.

For my part, this first test drive proved to be a pleasant surprise. The Santa Cruz is very pleasant to live with on a daily basis, especially in terms of driving, but also for its general comfort. For many motorists, this compact pickup could well be the ideal vehicle.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, bed
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, bed

We like

The unique design
The driving experience of a sports car
The innovations in the box

We like less

Limited space in the second row
Reduced visibility in the back
No affordable version

The competition

Ford Maverick
Honda Ridgeline

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, tailgate
Photo: V.Aubé
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, tailgate