Being a newbie in a given field means having to catch up to established leaders, but it can also bring a different perspective. Hyundai has never sold a pickup truck in the United States, and its first effort is unlike anything else on the market.
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is the first truly compact pickup to be sold in the U.S. in over a decade, and unlike conventional body-on-frame pickups, it features car-like unibody construction. This packaging sacrifices some capability, but that’s beside the point. Hyundai didn’t design the Santa Cruz to compete directly with conventional trucks. It doesn’t even call the Santa Cruz a pickup; it prefers the term “sport adventure vehicle.”
While it may win over some truck buyers who want a pickup that’s easier to park, the Santa Cruz will appeal mainly to new-car buyers who want to replace a sedan or crossover SUV with something a bit more rugged.
To figure out where Santa Cruz fits into the current automotive landscape, we spent a day driving it around on roads in and around its namesake California city. Hyundai also offers base SE, SEL Activity Package, and SEL Premium trim levels, but we sampled a range-topping Santa Cruz Limited model for this test drive.
Look and Feel
With a footprint smaller than those of current midsize pickups, the Santa Cruz may seem at first glance like a throwback to the mini trucks of the 1970s to 1990s. But with its unibody construction and unorthodox styling, this Hyundai is more like the second coming of the Subaru Baja or a smaller Honda Ridgeline.
At 195.7 inches long, 75.0 inches wide, and 66.7 inches tall, the Santa Cruz is over a foot shorter than a Toyota Tacoma, but nearly as wide. Its 118.3-inch wheelbase is 9.1 inches shorter than the Toyota’s. However, the Santa Cruz is a bit bigger than the recently-redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson compact crossover SUV, so it’s not exactly tiny.
The Santa Cruz looks more like an SUV with a bed than a traditional small pickup which, along with a toothy grille and blended headlights (similar to the Tucson), means this Hyundai should stand out from pretty much anything else on the road. The only concessions to truck-styling orthodoxy are the “Santa Cruz” name stamped into the tailgate, some plastic body cladding, and a smattering of chrome.
Every Santa Cruz gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). The base, naturally aspirated engine produces 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, while an optional turbocharged engine produces 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. The naturally aspirated version comes with standard front-wheel drive (FWD) or optional all-wheel drive (AWD), while the turbocharged 2.5-liter is AWD only.
There is nothing truck-like about the way Santa Cruz drives. The standard multi-link suspension made the Santa Cruz genuinely fun in the corners, and it includes a self-leveling feature to account for a loaded bed. Even on our test vehicle’s 20-inch wheels, ride quality was impressive, as was the fairly low level of cabin noise. The turbo engine provided more than enough thrust when driving unloaded. However, we didn’t get to tow with the Santa Cruz, nor did we have the opportunity to try the base naturally-aspirated engine.