“Are you sure they are all going to fit?” It was a very valid question from my wife as I sought to install our kids' car seats—all three of them—into the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz from our family's Volvo XC90. Honestly, I wasn’t sure. And that became a sort of running theme with my time in the Santa Cruz.
Hyundai bills the Santa Cruz compact crossover truck as a rugged compatriot for families who don’t need a full-size pickup, but still want that level of utility and capability. But it’s on the smaller side of nearly everything, including its Honda Ridgeline-inspired bed trunk, and came to our snowy mountain compound riding all-season tires. And even being the small truck evangelist that I am, proclaiming the aforementioned Ridgeline as "all the truck you’d ever need," I had some concerns here. Would all three car seats fit? Would it make it up and down the icy dirt roads of our rural Utah neighborhood? Could we drive into the ice-packed forest trails near our house? Would we even be able to shove the two-seat stroller into the small bed and close the tonneau cover?
Most of these questions would be foregone conclusions for any other truck on the market, but the Santa Cruz isn’t just any other truck on the market. As with everything coming out of Hyundai as of late, the engineering team did its homework and built something that’s more capable than its specs and all-season tires let on.
The Santa Cruz fills an increasingly popular lineup hole that I like to call the “capable and relatively inexpensive” segment. Nearly
manufacturer has some model available in said segment that can move people and gear on varying degrees of bad pavement without breaking the bank. And while you could argue that the lifted, capable, and panel-cladded vehicles have arisen in response to our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, there’s also the issue of rising inflation and the cost of new car ownership being wildly out of control. As such, more automakers are building vehicles that offer rugged capabilities but do so on existing, affordable platforms.
Moreover, full-size pickups are going for around $60,000, which makes models like the half-sized Santa Cruz, Ford Maverick, and Honda Ridgeline that much more attractive.
What Hyundai absolutely nailed, as has been the case lately, is the exterior design. To my eyes, the Santa Cruz is a looker. The Hyundai corporate face is prominent here, but whereas it sometimes feels forced on other models—I’m looking at you, Elantra N—it feels the most natural of the lineup. The hashed headlights are especially good-looking and give it a futuristic vibe, but the whole design comes together very cohesively. Even the sloped railings on that bleed off the cabin into the bed, reminiscent of the previous generation Ridgeline or the Chevrolet Avalanche, works for the Santa Cruz.
Inside, the cabin is well-appointed. The central gauge cluster is a 10.25-inch digital display, flanked by another 10.25-inch infotainment center. The only physical buttons are those on the steering wheel, unfortunately, as the infotainment and HVAC controls are all controlled through a touchscreen and, at times, can lag behind my chosen inputs. They're not maple syrup on a cold day slow, but they're not as quick as a physical button would allow. I get that every manufacturer, apart from Honda, is going to capacitive touchscreens, but it's a mistake.
Piano black trim outlines everything and that, in addition to the touchscreen, means everything is smudged with fingerprints fairly quickly. There are also two USB outlets up front, two in back, and a wireless charging spot for your passenger’s phone.
The Santa Cruz’s front seats, at least in the Limited model, come as both heated and ventilated; the steering wheel is also heated. Unfortunately, those seats are off the floor by quite some distance and for me, at 6’4”, I feel as if I’m above the truck, not in it, which doesn’t instill confidence in the driving position.
As for the rear seats, I didn’t test them myself, but the split-folding seat accommodated all three car seats. It did so with ease and made it actually easier to install said car seats than in our Volvo. Whoever designed the rear compartment and LATCH setup clearly has kids. That said, the space is tight and my children’s knees were practically in the back of the front seats.
Powering the Santa Cruz is a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumping out 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque, which is plenty of oomph for a diminutive pickup. This is coupled to the brand’s eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and sent to all four wheels via Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. A button on the center console can lock the all-wheel-drive system so that it delivers a perfect 50/50 torque split; when not pressed, it favors sending power just to the front wheels.
On the road, the Santa Cruz feels eerily similar to the rest of Hyundai’s SUV lineup. Similar to the Tucson, Santa Fe, and Palisade, the suspension is compliant and does a great job of smoothing out road imperfections, as well as hugging corners when you more vigorously toss it into a section of switchbacks. The steering is weighted just right for the truck’s personality—not too heavy, not too light—and there’s more than enough horsepower to get you into trouble or out of a sticky situation if need be. What’s lacking in that drive experience is a smooth transmission, as the dual-clutch is not as good as others in the company’s lineup. It also doesn't have the typical truck rear-end floatiness when there's not enough weight in the rear.
When moving along, the dual-clutch is sluggish to engage smoothly. You’ll get to a light or stop sign, come to a stop, and then set off only to find that you feel the shifts more noticeably than you’d anticipated. It’s not as abrupt as power-shifting into third, but it’s noticeable enough that I’d have Hyundai look at the tuning. Something that’s odd is that the abruptness diminishes once you lock the AWD system. It doesn’t go away, but it’s far less than in its normal setting.
There’s also little to no in-cabin wind noise at highway speeds. So whoever did the insulation on this truck, pat yourself on the back.
What did surprise me was the truck’s off-road prowess. Now, we didn’t get into the deep snow we do in our Can-Am, but we did head down the trail that gets us to that deep snow. The path is full of ruts, single tracks, and ice. And again, the Santa Cruz was on all-season tires. With the AWD locked, we headed down and got about two miles in before finally calling it quits. Through it all, the suspension kept us planted, the AWD stayed locked, and the horsepower kept us moving. You can see a short video of our adventure above.
There was a lot to like about the Santa Cruz, chief among them its capability at hauling my kids’ stuff. Near our home is a farm we frequent for outdoor activities and build ice castles during winter. Both required the use of the pickup’s bed, which swallowed our tandem stroller and was used to get our children ready and outfitted for the castle's cold (you’re not supposed to put children into car seats with winter gear, as it makes them less effective in a crash.)
And each time we went down our mountain, with the truck’s sure footing keeping us out of the snowbank, to pick up food, groceries, or packages, the Santa Cruz went up and down without fail or fluster. It blended seamlessly into our lives. While I would’ve liked to have tested its 5,000-pound
The Santa Cruz isn’t without its flaws, though. As mentioned, the transmission tuning needs some work to be more smooth when accelerating, as well as the issue of in-cabin space for those in the rear seats. There’s also the issue of the truck’s Bose stereo system, which is, to my ears, not great. I played my normal audio test playlist and the eight-speaker system sounded muddled during certain songs and echoey in others. Even after I played with the limited tuning options, it wasn’t as good as other Bose systems out there.
Finally, that in-bed trunk is almost useless. Unlike on the Ridgeline, the Santa Cruz’s trunk is much shallower due to the spare tire mounted to the underside of it. And as such, it doesn’t really offer a lot of utility comparatively. You can still fill it with ice and use it as a cooler, just don’t think you’ll be able to fit a full-size Monster in there. That said, the in-bed lights are brilliantly bright even in the dead of night.
The Limited seen here comes with every package available from Hyundai, including the Activity Package, integrated tonneau cover, power sunroof, roof side rails, rear sliding glass and defroster, 115V AC power inverter, dual C-channel utility tracks, LED bed light (which is frankly super damn bright), LED interior lighting, the 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, and wireless charging. It also includes the bigger motor, eight-speed dual-clutch (an eight-speed automatic is available), HTRAC AWD (FWD is standard on lower trims), and standard 20-inch wheels.
As for its competition, there's not a ton out there at the moment. You’ve got the Ford Maverick and the Honda Ridgeline, though the Ridgeline is bigger than the Santa Cruz, as well as more rugged. I personally love the Ridgeline and The Drive gushed all over the Maverick during our first test last year. So the competition is stacked.
For as economical as every new vehicle is becoming, the Hyundai’s gas mileage isn’t all that great. The company states that the 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder nets 19 highway, 27 city, and 22 combined, but going up and down and around town just outside of Park City, I average between 17 and 20 mpg. That’s not good enough for something as small as the Santa Cruz. It should be noted that Hyundai (and its corporate cousin Kia) is, as a brand, making a wildly compelling push into EVs that would've felt unfathomable even a few years ago. But with this truck's more conventional gas-powered engine, I'd really like to see the brand do better.
The Santa Cruz starts at $24,140 for a front-wheel drive, less capable machine. With options, it quickly doubles to the $40,100 example you see here. For the money, it’s a good truck but while you might not be able to get a fully loaded Ridgeline for the same cash, you’d get a better small truck for the same price as this Limited model. A lower-spec version might be the “just right” spot for this “just right” truck.
Though the Santa Cruz’s bed may be small, it’s just right for most people. And while there may be a choir of full-size truck acolytes, whose boisterous proclamations are often as loud as their trucks are large, most don’t need to tow 30,000 pounds, 2,500 pounds of payload capacity, or a GVWR that puts the Space Shuttle to shame.
The Santa Cruz gives you all the weekend warrior capabilities most need and nothing more.
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