Not since the Subaru Baja that ended sales in 2006, or Ford’s former Sport Trac quasi pickup, did a carmaker introduce a compact pickup that was marketed to those who make occasional trips to Home Depot for a few bags of mulch, antique hopping or yard sales. Ford surmised this as well and recently debuted their Maverick pickup that is larger than both of those. In light of the aforementioned purposes, Hyundai saw a market for folks who don’t need a full-size pickup, so they debuted their Santa Cruz compact pickup that is essentially a Hyundai Tucson SUV with a pickup bed that Hyundai likes to call a “Sport Adventure Vehicle.”
Santa Cruz is smaller than Toyota’s Tacoma, Ford’s Ranger or Honda’s Ridgeline, and has a shorter cargo bed. It’s similar to the small and former Baja and Sport Trac, but only in concept. Baja had a 42-inch long cargo bed while the bed in Santa Cruz measures 48 inches. And bed length is my only gripe with the Santa Cruz. Perhaps Hyundai could lengthen the bed by a foot, then it would be a bit more useable, and I’d probably buy one. Hyundai could name it the Santa Cruz XL. Other than that, Santa Cruz is a nifty and cute runabout with decent fuel economy.
Santa Cruz is offered in FWD and AWD and in SE, SEL, Night, SEL Premium and Limited that we were privileged to test.
There are two engine choices with the base engine being a 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder putting out 191-hp and 181 lb/ft of torque. When coupled to an 8-speed automatic transmission, EPA rates it at 21 city, 27-highway mpg with AWD. We tested the higher output 2.5-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder with 281-hp and 311 lb/ft of torque. EPA gave it mileage estimates of 19/27 mpg with an 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters. The combination is tow rated for up to 5,000 pounds with trailer brakes. This engine is only available with AWD that’s needed here in the Snowbelt.
Santa Cruz’s exterior styling with unit-body design gives the pickup a seamless, solid look. Its bold grille has Tucson-type running lights and a skid plate under the front fascia that entertains an acute approach angle of 17.5 degrees while it helps protect the trucks’ undercarriage vitals when off-roading.
The composite bed houses a 7-inch deep almost full width under-bed trunk that has a drain plug so it can be used to stow (and drain) ice to keep drinks cold. If the tailgate is locked, the under-bed bin cannot be opened. The tailgate has to be opened to open the trunk.
The test truck came with a lockable composite tonneau cover along with four tie-down cleats on the bed rails. The hard composite tonneau storage box takes up 12 inches of top space, but items can be stowed beneath it. There are also detents molded into the bedsides for two-tier loading. Lift-over onto the open tailgate (that opens remotely via the keyfob) is a low 31.5 inches.
Upon a 20-inch step-in into the cockpit, Santa Cruz’s interior resembles that what’s found in the Santa Fe and Palisade SUVs. The center stack houses a 10.25-inch touchscreen that serves the audio, navigation, rearview camera, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and, when tired of music, “Sounds of Nature” replicates outdoor sounds like Calm Sea Waves, Warm Fireplace, Rainy Day, Open Air Café and others to soothe you while driving.
Flush HVAC controls are aligned on a touchscreen with selections displayed on the large touchscreen along with other functions and features.
Heated/cooled leatherette front seats are abundantly padded with sensible lumbar support.
A (heated) steering wheel mounted mode switch offers Normal, Smart, Snow and Sport modes. The latter increases engine rpm’s a bit and upshifts are delayed somewhat. All modes are displayed within the 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster. Residing there as well is a steer assist switch that maintains the Santa Cruz between the highway lines provided at least one hand is lightly on the wheel. Otherwise an instrument cluster alert comes on.
On the console is an AWD Lock switch for when the going gets tough, or stuck in snow or mud. Santa Cruz has a ground clearance of 8.6 inches to get it through modest snow depths and over some off-road hazards.
Santa Cruz’s back seat is comfy for two adults but legroom is on the tight side, especially if the fronts are racked well rearward. Headroom is ample and there are assist handles over all four doors. The rear seat bottoms flip up against the bulkhead exposing a hidden full-length 7-inch deep bin for small item storage.
As for ride, it resembles that in Hyundai’s fine SUVs, albeit with a cargo box. It’s smooth with no jiggly feeling and it parks easily thanks to its size and maneuverability. And the 2.5L turbo feels like a V6 under the hood when pressing hard on the accelerator.
The 2023 Santa Cruz came with one extra cost option and that being carpeted floor mats ($195). Otherwise the standard list is exhaustive and includes such most needed safety features like forward collision avoidance assist, lane keeping/following assist, driver attention warning, blind spot collision avoidance assist, rear cross traffic collision avoidance assist, safe exit warning, remote engine start and many more.
For all that plus satellite radio, Bose audio and Blue Link connected services, Santa Fe bottom lined at $41,810 with delivery.
Added to this you get Hyundai’s generous warranty of 5 year/60K new vehicle warranty, 10/100K powertrain, 7/Unlimited perforation, 3/36K complimentary maintenance and 5/Unlimited roadside assistance. Unbeatable coverage.
For those who take jaunts in the great outdoors and do some semi-rugged off-roading, or merely hauling mulch and garden supplies, the Santa Cruz can take you there and tow some toys like a 14-foot aluminum boat or ATV trailer. It’s multifaceted and fun to drive.