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2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz first drive: Finally, something new

Dozens of “new” cars and trucks launch every year, but most are just remixes of old ideas. That’s not the case with the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.

The Santa Cruz is Hyundai’s first pickup truck, and it’s also unlike any pickup on sale today. Hyundai calls it a “sport adventure vehicle,” and designed it to bridge the gap between true pickups and SUVs. Unlike most trucks, the Santa Cruz has car-like unibody construction, and it’s smaller than current midsize pickups like the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger.

The design might raise the eyebrows of traditional pickup buyers, but the Santa Cruz wasn’t meant for them. Pickup trucks are the most popular vehicles in the United States, in part because many buyers choose them as substitutes for ordinary cars or SUVs. Those are the buyers Hyundai is targeting.

Built in Alabama and scheduled to go on sale around the time you read this, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz has a $25,175 base price (including destination). Our test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Limited model, with added features like all-wheel drive, a more powerful engine, and leather seats, with a $40,455 base price.

Interior of the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.

Design and interior

One look at the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, and it’s apparent this is no ordinary pickup. While most trucks are about as sleek as the buildings they’re often used to help construct, the Santa Cruz has a streamlined shape, made more distinctive by the alien-looking grille and headlight styling from the 2022 Hyundai Tucson SUV. Instead of simply ending, the cab is blended into the bed, and the wheels stick out from the sides of the body in muscular bulges.

The only thing more remarkable than the Santa Cruz’s exterior styling is its size. This is the first truly compact pickup sold in the United States in over a decade. Available only in a four-door crew-cab body style, the Santa Cruz is over a foot shorter than a Toyota Tacoma, albeit almost as wide. That makes for less stressful driving in tight spaces, but also a smaller pickup bed. The Santa Cruz’s bed is 52.1 inches long, compared to 60.5 inches for the shorter of the Tacoma’s two available bed lengths, and is too small for even a bicycle. Hyundai does at least provide a standard tonneau cover, plus storage bins in the bed and under the rear seats for smaller items.

One look at the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, and it’s apparent this is no ordinary pickup.

Most pickup trucks use old-school body-on-frame construction, where the body shell and frame are separate pieces, but the Santa Cruz utilizes a unibody platform similar to Hyundai’s cars and SUVs. Unibody construction offers greater structural rigidity, improving handling, ride quality, and safety, which is why passenger cars abandoned body-on-frame construction decades ago. The only other currently truck built like this is the Honda Ridgeline, which is much larger than the Santa Cruz, but the upcoming 2022 Ford Maverick will be a true counterpart to the Hyundai.

The interior design isn’t very truck-like; it’s pretty much the same as what you get in any of Hyundai’s SUVs. That’s not a bad thing, as the Santa Cruz’s cabin is still nice-looking and functional. While our Santa Cruz Limited test vehicle did have leather seats, no one will ever confuse this with a luxury vehicle. We liked that though; it means you won’t feel bad about getting it dirty.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz touchscreen.

Tech, infotainment, and driver assist

The standard infotainment system includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen, with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless phone charging, a 10.25-inch touchscreen, and a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster are available on higher trim levels.

As with other Hyundai models, we liked the infotainment system’s graphics (including a display for radio stations that looks like old-fashioned radio tubes) as well as the ability to see the view from blind-spot cameras in the digital instrument cluster (on models so equipped). On the other hand, we weren’t fans of the touchpoints used to control audio volume, temperature, and toggle between touchscreen menus. Because they offered no physical feedback, they were hard to use while driving.

We weren’t fans of the dashboard touch controls, which were hard to use while driving.

The Santa Cruz is also available with the digital-key system previously seen on other Hyundai models, in which drivers use a smartphone in place of the key fob. However, it only works with Android phones.

Standard driver-assist tech includes forward-collision warning (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), automatic emergency braking, and a driver attention monitor. Optional features including blind-spot collision avoidance assist, blind-spot monitoring, safe exit assist, rear cross-traffic alert, a surround-view camera system, and Highway Driving Assist, which combines adaptive cruise control with automated lane centering.

We previously sampled Highway Driving Assist on the Genesis GV70, from Hyundai’s luxury brand, and thought it was pretty good, as these systems go. In the Santa Cruz, Highway Driving Assist performed about the same, with smooth acceleration and deceleration, but still had difficulty negotiating some highway curves.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz digital instrument cluster.

Driving experience

The Santa Cruz is available with a pair of 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine options. The standard version makes 190 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, while the extra-cost turbocharged version makes 275 hp and 310 lb-ft. The base engine is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, while the turbo engine is all-wheel drive only. The only available transmission is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic.

The biggest advantage the Santa Cruz has over conventional pickup trucks is the way it drives. On the highway, it provided a remarkably comfortable ride, with only a hint of the inevitable bounce you get when driving a pickup unloaded. On twisty roads, the Santa Cruz was downright fun, boasting agility you don’t normally get in a pickup. While we didn’t get a chance to test the base engine, the optional turbocharged engine provided more than enough power, making it easy to exploit gaps in traffic and keep up momentum on steep hills.

The biggest advantage the Santa Cruz has over conventional pickup trucks is the way it drives.

Off-road capability is usually a pickup truck selling point, but don’t expect too much from the Santa Cruz in that area. It uses essentially the same HTRAC all-wheel-drive system as other Hyundai vehicles, which should be able to handle snow or dirt roads, it lacks the low range and locking differentials of dedicated off-roaders like the Jeep Gladiator.

Hyundai quotes a maximum towing capacity of 3,500 pounds for the base four-cylinder engine, and 5,000 pounds for the turbo-four engine, and a 1,906-pound maximum payload capacity. Those numbers won’t impress traditional truck buyers (a Ford Ranger can tow up to 7,500 pounds), but given the Santa Cruz’s smaller size, they’re respectable and should allow for plenty of real-world capability. For example, a 5,000-pound tow rating should be enough for a smaller camper or a pair of jet skis.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz's headlights.

Gas mileage and safety

The base Santa Cruz gets fuel-economy ratings of 23 mpg combined (21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway) with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive adds 1 mpg in the highway category. With the optional turbo engine, the Santa Cruz is rated at 22 mpg combined (19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway).

Those numbers aren’t impressive. A rear-wheel drive Ford Ranger gets identical ratings to the front-wheel-drive Santa Cruz. While the all-wheel-drive version does better than the four-wheel-drive version of the Ranger, the Ford can also tow and haul a lot more than the Hyundai in either configuration. It’s also worth noting the smaller Ford Maverick pickup due this fall will be available exclusively as a hybrid — with a claimed 40 mpg city rating.

Crash-test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) aren’t available yet, as the Santa Cruz is a new model.

Hyundai offers one of the best warranties in the business. Its 10-year, 100,000-mile, powertrain warranty and five-year, 60,000-mile, new-vehicle warranty exceed the terms offered by most other automakers. Hyundai also offers complimentary maintenance, covering things like oil changes and tire rotations, for three years or 36,000 miles.

How DT would configure this car

The top Limited trim level has the most tech features, so that’s what we would go for. It gets the larger 10.25-inch touchscreen Highway Driving Assist, a surround-view camera system, two rear USB ports, and an upgraded Bose audio system. The 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster and wireless phone charging also carry over from the SEL trim level, where they’re part of an options package.

At roughly $40,000 MSRP, the Limited is a big step up from the base Santa Cruz SE trim level, but still at roughly the average price of a new car these days. It’s also fairly well equipped for the price, netting not only the above-mentioned tech features, but also all-wheel drive, the turbo engine, leather seats (with front heating and ventilation), and 20-inch wheels.

Rear three quarter view of the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.

Our take

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a well-executed vehicle that doesn’t fit neatly into any existing category. So while it’s nice to drive, offers a solid array of tech features, and is a decent value, it’s not for everyone.

If you plan to do a lot of towing, or plan to use your vehicle for work, a conventional midsize pickup truck like the Ford Ranger or Toyota Tacoma is a better bet. While the Santa Cruz is nicer to drive than these old-school trucks, its small bed and lower maximum towing capacity will limit your ability to do real truck stuff.

The upcoming 2022 Ford Maverick is also a closer rival to the Santa Cruz in size, price, and design, but with more truck-like features. Ford claims the Maverick will offer better fuel economy, and the pickup will start at around $20,000 when it goes on sale this fall. However, the Santa Cruz offers greater payload and towing capacity, as well as more tech features.

It’s better to think of the Santa Cruz as an SUV with a bed, rather than a real truck. The Santa Cruz is built like an SUV, and its interior and exterior design, as well as its road manners, reflect that. It might make more sense to actually buy an SUV, and not haul around a pickup bed that may not be used, but the legions of new-car buyers who choose pickups over SUVs and sedans don’t seem to care about that.

Should you get one?

Yes. Just don’t expect a conventional truck.

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Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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