HOCKLEY VALLEY, ONTARIO – It was inevitable, really. With the relentless rise of the crossover SUV and the transformation of the pickup truck from bench-seat workhorse to leather-lined suburban transportation, it was just a matter of time before the unibody crossover truck caught on. Honestly, this is a good thing and the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is leading the charge.
There’s a distinct cyberpunk swagger to the Santa Cruz’s appearance. Dashes of traditional truck styling like the nameplate stamped into the tailgate are contrasted with bulging fenders, hack-and-slash character lines, arachnid daytime running lamps and dramatic buttresses. It’s a look less F-150 and more Yeezy Boost 700. While very much non-traditional, the Santa Cruz just oozes cool from head to toe.
Because the Santa Cruz is based on the current Tucson, the interior features fantastic design and great material quality. There’s plenty of soft-touch plastic on board and it’s augmented by swaths of tactile fabric across the dashboard and door cards. The steering wheel is upholstered in posh, smooth leather and the dashboard eschews traditional buttons in favour of futuristic capacitive touch controls. Especially cool is the touch-sensitive button marked “diffuse.” Tap it, and the Santa Cruz dials up a broader spread of climate control vents for near-draughtless ventilation.
The available bezel-free digital cluster perched on the dash behind the steering wheel looks so right for 2021 and features a crisp, glossy display with great legibility. The top-spec infotainment system on the Santa Cruz I drove is a 10.25-inch touchscreen with split-screen functionality, responsive native navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and Hyundai’s Sounds of Nature ambience function, an ironic touch considering the Santa Cruz is designed to get out into actual nature.
All this tech does have a few shortcomings though. There’s no physical home button for the infotainment, so it can be slightly annoying flipping through functions. Also annoying is the lack of a volume knob with the 10.25-inch system, especially when you’re blasting down a dirt road and want to crank up your Spotify playlist. Speaking of music, mid-range and above Santa Cruzes come with a surprisingly good Bose stereo that offers crisp sound, decent staging and solid bass. Compared to the stereos in other small pickup trucks, it’s an absolute revelation.
When it comes to actual interior space, the Santa Cruz really hasn’t made any compromises over its Tucson base. Room in the front row is commodious and comfort impressive, while the second row has actual space for three adults. An extra perk of the pickup truck form is concealed storage under the rear seat, enough for a small shopping trip or a road trip emergency kit.
Of course, the whole reason for buying the Santa Cruz over a traditional crossover is the fact that it has a bed. Sometimes in life, you have to carry things that you just wouldn’t want inside of a vehicle and that’s where the rugged form of a truck comes in clutch. While the Santa Cruz only packs a 52-inch bed, Hyundai have been clever in making the most of it. To accommodate large sheets of building material, bed width above the wheel wells clocks in at 53.8 inches and the tailgate straps have additional anchor points so that when halfway down, the tailgate can help support loads. Proof that a few cents of hardware placed intelligently can really make a world of difference.
Speaking of layers, let’s talk about the Santa Cruz’s in-bed storage compartments. There’s a lockable compartment in the bed floor with drain holes so that it can be used as a cooler. While not as deep as the in-bed trunk on the Honda Ridgeline, Santa Cruz owners will likely still find it handy. The bed also features two small bins, one in each side wall of the bed, with the one on the right having a water-resistant three-pin grounded 115V plug socket for powering anything from a table saw to a movie projector. Perhaps that table saw could even be used to build a frame for a movie projection screen to turn your campsite into a drive-in.
In addition, Hyundai have thrown in LED bed lighting and rails for movable tie-downs, two little features that make a world of difference when you’re trying to strap down an old claw-foot bathtub you just bought at night. Regardless of how the bed is used, the whole thing is made of dent-resistant sheet moulded composite, stepping into the bed is made easier with GM-style steps in the rear bumper and topping it all off is a factory-installed hard-shell roll-up tonneau cover.
While Americans will be able to get their Santa Cruzes with a choice of naturally-aspirated or turbocharged four-cylinder engines, Canadian-market trucks are all boosted. Cranking out a solid 281 horsepower and a stout 311 lb-ft of torque, the 2.5-litre turbocharged engine moves Santa Cruz with authority. Hitched to a smooth eight-speed wet-clutch DCT, torque hits like a tidal wave, swiftly propelling the truck to highway speeds even when towing a light duty trailer.
It’s so much torque that you better have the steering wheel pointed reasonably straight when deploying it, otherwise the Santa Cruz will wage war against its inner front tire, even with the all-wheel-drive system sending as much power to the rear axle as possible. Perhaps it’s actually best to ease up on the loud pedal and marvel at the powerplant’s cream cheese smoothness and hushed cruising demeanor.
In fact, smoothness and refinement is an overarching theme when driving the Santa Cruz. Turn the stereo off, close the windows and the loudest thing in the cabin will be the fan for the climate control. That’s not because the fan is particularly loud, but instead because the cabin is so quiet that you could have a phone call over Bluetooth with a reenactment of the War of 1812 going on outside and the person you’re calling will think that you’re at home on the couch. It’s absolutely superb.
Equally superb is ride quality, with expertly-tuned spring rates and self-leveling rear dampers that turn choppy country roads into billiard tables. Those self-leveling dampers also keep things steady even when putting the 5,000 lb. towing capacity to the test.
If there’s one slight downside to the Santa Cruz, it’s price. The entry-level Preferred model stickers for $38,499 and you’ll need to step up to the Trend trim for $41,399 for dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, a sunroof and the digital gauge cluster. The top-spec Ultimate trim trades for $44,799 and adds 20-inch wheels, the 10.25-inch touchscreen, cooled seats and a 360-degree camera system. It’s not bad value given that it’s not much more money than a well-equipped compact crossover and that similarly-equipped Ford Mavericks will sticker for similar money, but it would’ve been nice to see an entry-level model closer to $35,000.
So then, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz looks cool, has a futuristic cabin, feels surprisingly comfortable, is properly capable and packs decent value. Objectively then, it’s a nifty alternative to a standard crossover SUV. Subjectively though, it’s so much more than that. Remember when you were a kid and your imagination seemed endless? The open-bed versatility of the Santa Cruz lets you go back into the vault and unlock some of that childish inspiration. It’s not just a car, it’s a hauler, a workshop, a party hub, a tow rig, a getaway car, a bench to sit on and enjoy the sunset and a back patio under a million stars. It’s an enabler for all the things that make us human. Try one out and open yourself up to a world of possibilities.