Home » The Hyundai Santa Cruz Is Exactly The Great Car-Truck We Asked For

The Hyundai Santa Cruz Is Exactly The Great Car-Truck We Asked For

Santa Cruz Review
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Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana. I was part of a movement of journalists trying to persuade Hyundai into building a production version of its Santa Cruz concept trucklet. That was more than eight years ago. In the interim, Hyundai did decide to build it and, oh, oops, the Maverick also came out and I got distracted. I love the Maverick, I do, but a few days with the Santa Cruz convinced me it was every bit the vehicle I’d pleaded for almost a decade ago.

There’s always a bit of trepidation when you go back and see what a past, probably dumber version of yourself wrote, but I feel better knowing that both my yearning for the Santa Cruz was matched by Jason and others after seeing the concept:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Santa Cruz Concept

Here was Jason’s conclusion way back in 2015 when the concept debuted:

I actually think I’m more excited by this concept than the Ford GT, which is both the most insane and most rational thing I’ve ever thought, simultaneously. I really hope Hyundai can bring this thing to market as close as possible to the concept. I guess we’ll see.

The good news is we did get it, mostly in a form promised by the concept, albeit with an extra set of doors and Hyundai’s new (and improved) corporate face. The bad news is it took a while and, in the interim, Ford showed off the Maverick. While both are unibody, crossover-based platforms molded into trucks, Ford had the genius idea of launching with a hybrid version priced (in theory) under $20k that could return an EPA-rated 42 mpg in the city. The Santa Cruz, with its mediocre fuel economy, suddenly seemed too expensive and less of a value.

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It’s been a couple of years and it’s probably time to reconsider the Hyundai Santa Cruz in light of the data we have. The base Maverick now starts at $22,195 (before delivery), so that price was very short-lived. While production issues seem to be easing, the waitlist for a cheap Maverick Hybrid is still long, so few people likely were able to take advantage of that deal. Having driven both, I think Maverick is still a better deal and probably a better truck, especially in hybrid form, but the Santa Cruz is a better all around vehicle.

What Is It?

Santa Cruz Review 2

Similar to the concept, this is a compact truck that looks like a Hyundai Tucson with the rear chopped off and a bed added. It’s a handsome, rugged, and modern package. The daytime running lights built into the grille are a nice, very Hyundai design element that work well here. There’s no bad angle here, especially with the sharp c-pillar kink and porky fenders. Everything looks intentional.

Inside, the Santa Cruz feels like the high-end, near-premium crossover that Hyundai and Kia have gotten good at building. While the materials aren’t Bentley-nice, all the plastics feel nice and it looks attractive without being gimmicky or over-styled. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a fan of the rectangular-floating-screen-as-gauge-cluster look, but it’s mostly forgettable here and pairs well with the center stack.

Santa Cruz Interior

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Right now, there are three basic flavors of Santa Cruz with a lot of trim variations, but all are four-door trucks based on the Hyundai Tucson crossover platform. The base truck starts at $25,700 (pre delivery), is front-wheel drive, and has the 2.5-liter inline-four shared with a bunch of other Kia and Hyundai products. This motor produces 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque, which exceeds the 162 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque from the base Maverick. For another $1,500 you can add all-wheel drive, which isn’t available with the Maverick Hybrid, though the AWD Santa Cruz’s 21 MPG city/25 MPG highway fuel economy starts are also much less impressive.

The most desirable flavor of the Santa Cruz is the one with the turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine, which has a much improved 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. The turbo motor is only available with Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel drive system for obvious reasons. This compares favorably with the Maverick’s turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which offers just 250 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque.

I finally got my hands on a Santa Cruz last week and they sent me the fully loaded Santa Cruz Limited AWD, which was spec’d up to $41,810, delivered.

Is It Really A Truck?

Santa Cruz Review BedYes. The Santa Cruz is a truck. I don’t think a ladder frame should be the only qualification for being a truck or not. The question worth asking is: Does it have a completely separate bed capable of carrying a sheet of plywood without reaching into the cab? If you can answer that question in the affirmative, it’s a truck (sorry Toyota bB Open Deck).

I specifically requested a Santa Cruz for this past weekend because I knew I’d be doing a camping trip up to the Berkshires with my family and I don’t back lightly. Could a Santa Cruz carry all of the camping gear I own, I wondered? The answer was, yes, easily.

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In fact, the Santa Cruz has a bed that’s ideally laid out for urban and suburban adventurists who want to spend their weekends in nature. While the bed is shorter than what you get on a Maverick (52.1″ compared to 54.5″), it’s a little wider and comes with a lot of neat tricks. For instance, there’s a drainable storage area below the bed that can hold ice and water/beers.

Camping Gear Santa Cruz

There are also built-in cubbies on each side near the tailgate, including one that has a 115-volt AC outlet. I used one of these to store the small propane tank I use to power my grille and stuffed my tent footprint in around it, which nicely prevented it from rolling around while driving.

Santa Cruz Cubbie

Heavy duty tie-downs and adjustable cleats on rails running down the interior of the sidewalls are a nice touch and would have been more useful if we brought kayaks or something similar. Overall, the Santa Cruz can accommodate about 27 cubic feet of your stuff.

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Built In Cover

I’m a huge fan of the built-in rolling tonneau cover, which does take up a small amount of bed space, but makes up for it with its flush fit and ease of use (although, the manual lock below the handle is not obvious). It creates a giant, waterproof trunk and is much less cumbersome than I imagined. The step that’s built into the rear bumper isn’t unique to the Santa Cruz, but it’s another useful and thoughtful feature.

The 5,000-pound towing capacity and pre-wired hookup for a trailer brake controller also means it’s great for towing a camper. In fact, someone else at our campground had a small camper being pulled by a Santa Cruz.

It’s Good At Almost Everything

Santa Cruz Rear Seats

The Hyundai Tucson is already one of the best crossovers in its class, so just take what makes that good and apply it to a vehicle that looks about 30x cooler and you’ve got the Santa Cruz. There are so many useful details here, like the rear seats that fold up for storage and reveal yet another cubby area (about half of which is used for the emergency jack).

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With the 2.5T motor and all-wheel drive, the Santa Cruz also isn’t outrageously heavy, sporting a curb weight of just 4,164 pounds. These days, that’s not bad (the smallest Ranger you can get us 4,200 pounds). Paired with a dual-clutch, 8-speed auto the Santa Cruz can hustle to 60 mph in the low sixes, utilizing its turbo to add a punch of grunt as the RPMs climb.

Santa Cruz Camping

The weather was great when I had the truck so I can’t speak to its all-weather prowess, but I did get a chance to drive it up a curvy, uneven Berkshire mountain road with sections of gravel and it felt secure and planted. On the highway, the Santa Cruz defaults to sending power up front and it doesn’t ever really feel like you’re in a truck if you never look behind you.

If there’s one downside to the bigger motor it’s that the truck’s fuel economy is good for a truck, but trails the smaller displacement motor in the Ecoboost Maverick, with a combined economy of 22 MPG compared to 24 MPG for the Ford.  Over a long road trip with the Santa Cruz I averaged just a hair over 25 MPG.

Hyundai offers the Tucson in both a regular and plug-in hybrid, and I feel like either would be killer here, even if you had to forgo the underseat storage in the rear of the Santa Cruz.

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How I’d Spec One

Santa Cruz Bed

With the Limited AWD there are basically no features to add as the 10.25-inch navigation system, leather-trimmed seats, and various safety features (blind spot warning, lane keep assist) are all present. Thankfully, when Hyundai bumped the price they added a lot of safety features to the lower trims. Right now the cheapest way to get the 2.5T motor is the Night Model, which adds black trim and starts at $36,060 (pre delivery).

I can take-or-leave the black trim, but neither the second row of USB ports, the surround view monitor, or touch capacitive HVAC controls are worth the extra money to me. You may feel differently.

In Conclusion

Santa Cruz Hammock

The automotive journalist corollary to “never meet your heroes” is “never meet the cars you begged automakers to make just so you could borrow one for a weekend.” Writing a few stupid words in a blog trying to argue for an El Camino-ized Audi RS5 are one thing, actually building and marketing a car is actual work.

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Thankfully, the Santa Cruz is good and nicely serves its mission of being a truck-type object that you could live with daily, park in a city, and occasionally use to haul things around while returning fuel economy that doesn’t make you feel bad. If you need a truck truck you should just pay about the same amount of money to get a new Trail Boss Colorado.

Here in the United States we only have two small unibody pickups, so your choices are the Maverick or the Santa Cruz. My advice is to get either the cheapest Hybrid Maverick you can find or, if have more budget, get the higher end trim level of the 2.5T Santa Cruz. That there’s such a large range within these two small platforms is a testament to the creativity of the product planners and the American desire for anything that seems like a truck. And the fact that both vehicles are extremely popular and selling well is proof that automotive journalists aren’t always crazy when they ask for things.

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All photos: Matt Hardigree or Hyundai

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Tsorel
Tsorel
1 year ago

The 2-door, long bed would have been awesome. Not everyone that wants to haul some stuff in the bed of a small truck has three other people to drag along for the ride. Make mine with a manual transmission and I’d be happy with whatever motor it was limited to. Maybe I’ll just buy a VW Caddy or pick up a 88 Toyota pickup for everything I could ever hope for in a small truck.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

I really dug the SC when it debuted, lost interest to some degree as more of Hyundai’s recent issues (quality and otherwise) kept making news, but am now moving back to being into it again. But, also intrigued by Toyota keeping a manual Tacoma around.

One knock on the Night for me is that it doesn’t appear to have LED headlights, still have to step up to the SEL Premium and Limited for that. Okay, two knocks, I also dislike dark-painted wheels. (Accents, like the other SC wheels like the ones here, I’m into.)

I echo the comments about the paint colors, I get they’re trying to be earthy or whatever, but it would look good in some other actual colors too. Also re: the blue, that would be my last choice, I’m getting really tired of the flat blueish hues. Every other Bronco I see seems to be painted Ford’s blue-gray.

As far as larger trucks getting the same fuel economy and such, sure, but they’re more expensive/not comparably equipped for the price.

Along with the Maverick and Ridgeline, one of the suggested comparison vehicles on Hyundai’s website is the Outback, which makes some sense when you think about ‘active lifestyle’ uses.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”
Fixed it for you.
Do you want to get sued?

KC Murphy
KC Murphy
1 year ago

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:

Hyundai should have named this The Elantruck.

I will die on this hill.

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 year ago

Does it have a completely separate bed capable of carrying a sheet of plywood without reaching into the cab?
So it’s not a truck? With a bed length of ~52 it’s not holding a sheet of Plywood.

Robert Benson
Robert Benson
1 year ago
Reply to  Black Peter

It’s hold a 4×8 with the tailgate open. Almost any truck today with a crew cab the tailgate must be down so I don’t see that as being a qualifier.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

the AWD Santa Cruz’s 21 MPG city/25 MPG highway fuel economy

That’s basically what a V6 Ram gets these days. It’s ridiculous for a smaller, less capable vehicle based on a car platform to have this poor mileage.

These things look cool, but that’s about the only reason I could see buying one.

Paul Magno
Paul Magno
1 year ago

I’ll be ready to get one of these once they make a PHEV version (assuming it’s also AWD) and have an exterior that looks more like the new Kona or Sonata.

Njd
Njd
1 year ago

I have a Maverick and a coworker has a Santa Cruz. It’s fun to see them side by side.

Harris K Telemacher
Harris K Telemacher
1 year ago

The one part of this vehicle that I can’t get past is the angel wing configuration of the front lights. I see these trucks on the road and I love them. Absolutely love them. Then I see the front of them and it just completely ruins everything for me. Something about that front light layout is just absolutely hideous to me.

86-GL
86-GL
1 year ago

While I’m sure this still gets somewhat better fuel economy than a mid or full-size truck, the lack of hybrid is a disappointing gaffe.

That said, now that the Maverick hype is beginning to subside, (and people have begun to think more objectively about living with a compact fleet-spec vehicle) the Santa Cruz is starting to seem like a more rounded and enjoyable choice for the yuppie active lifestyle demographic.

The handful of Mavericks I’ve seen in the wild have been driven by seniors, which is starting to make a lot of sense. Ford really nailed the ideal ride for the “Breakfast at IHOP then grab a few bags of mulch” crowd. Compare the simplicity of the Maverick’s infotainment (Radio, Aux, CarPlay ) to almost any else- Ford knew what they were doing.

The Maverick is like a more honest xB, Soul, or Element- (all very popular with seniors) ditch the active-lifestyle pretensions for the workaday F-series styling boomers crave. Game-changer being a cargo area you can *actually* hose out when the mulch bags tear.

Larry
Larry
1 year ago
Reply to  86-GL

Stereotype much?

Dan Bates
Dan Bates
1 year ago

I, too, really wanted Hyundai to make the Santa Cruz when I saw the concept. When they announced they were actually going to build it, my main hope was that I’d be in the market for a vehicle when it finally came out.

The stars aligned, and I bought the first one sold by my local dealer. I got the SEL Premium, one step down from the top of the line, and paid $41k including TTL (essentially MSRP +tax).

I now have close to 26k miles on it, with absolutely zero drivability issues. It’s my daily driver, and I average 20.5 mpg on my commutes (12 miles of 50/50 split of surface streets and freeways). On pure highway road trips I get in the high 20s – my last tank gave me 28.3 mpg over Memorial Day weekend. The best I’ve gotten is 31.3 mpg. There are members of the various Santa Cruz forums/Facebook groups who regularly are getting high 20s/low 30s for mpg. I was coming from commuting on a Piaggio BV350 which I was getting in the low-50s for MPG, and wasn’t concerned about fuel economy.

As for is it a truck – to me it is. It fits my needs. For everyday use it is essentially a SUV. It handles & performs great. When I need the bed, it’s there. I don’t have to plan on renting a truck or trailer to haul large items. I was able to haul eight 60 lb bags of concrete in the bed with no effect on the performance of the truck. My wife started buying vintage mid-century modern furniture, and it loads easily in the bed, with plenty of options for securing the load. Mine came with the Bed Extender, which I have never used, as everything I’ve hauled has easily fit within the confines of the bed. Plus the door sticker says it’s a truck. It has the added benefit of easily fitting in our garage.

Before it came out, I went and sat in a Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, and Honda Ridgeline, which were the three other trucks I was considering. I didn’t drive any of them, I just sat in the driver seat with the door closed. My main concern at that point was front seat hip room. When we bought our 2012 Veloster, we were initially considering a Focus hatchback, until we test drove one. The front seats were so cramped that we were uncomfortable on the short test drive. The Veloster was downright roomy in comparison. When I sat in the Ranger and closed the door, the armrest pressed against my thigh. I figured that since the Maverick was smaller than the Ranger, the chances of it being roomier were practically nil, so I didn’t even bother checking it out prior to purchasing the Santa Cruz.

As for value, if you spec a Maverick to be identical to a Santa Cruz, their prices are very similar (hybrid option notwithstanding).

I also think Hyundai and Ford are marketing the Santa Cruz and Maverick to two different markets. The Maverick is marketed as a small truck to do mainly truck things, and to look like a truck. The Santa Cruz is marketed as a “lifestyle” vehicle that can perform as a car/SUV during the week, and a small truck on the weekends. There’s nothing wrong with either one.

86-GL
86-GL
1 year ago
Reply to  Dan Bates

I have read the Maverick is actually rather spacious for its size- Comparing favourably to the current Tacoma, old Ranger and other high-floor compact trucks. That said it sounds like you made the right choice, I totally agree with your demographic assessment.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
1 year ago
Reply to  Dan Bates

To be fair, eight 60lb bags ain’t much. I’ve done worse in a Honda Accord, and I’ve done way worse in a minivan.

So it fits your needs, but a lot of cars would fit those limited needs.

Schrödinger's Catbox
Schrödinger's Catbox
1 year ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

OP noted carrying furniture. Don’t think a sofa will fit inside a Honda Accord.

Last edited 1 year ago by Schrödinger's Catbox
MDMK
MDMK
1 year ago

After a slow start, I now see more Santa Cruz’s than Mavericks in the middle of Ford Rust Belt country, but it may be more of a consequence of low and severely marked up Maverick supply than SCs’ flying off dealer lots.

Its unfortunate few reviewers have bothered testing the 2.5L trims, because it has a simpler dashboard layout and as typical of non-enthusiast consumers, is the powertrain most have purchased.

Too bad about the terrible color options which besides the standard white and black, consists of muted shades of what you’d typically find on the forest floor.

Drew
Drew
1 year ago
Reply to  MDMK

Having driven one with the base engine, I strongly prefer the turbo. The base engine just feels slow. It’s not that slow, really, but it just feels like it’s lagging.
That said, I do prefer the dash of the lower trims, but the only way to get non-capacitive controls and the turbo is to get the Night, which is sadly not even available in those muted tones (just black or gray). Personally, I’d like the blue because it is most colorful choice. Hoping they come out with a hybrid soon.

Last edited 1 year ago by Drew
FUCK YOU
FUCK YOU
1 year ago

I get more cargo space in the back of my Alltrack, even with the seats up. The roof rack does a better job of carrying long stuff than a 52″ bed could ever hope to, and is low enough to be easy to use. It’s a lot slower, but plenty quick enough to get around, and the stick shift helps a lot with the fun factor. Also, I get 33 mpg in real-world use.

That’s what kills me about the Santa Cruz. 25 mpg in a vehicle of this size? In 2023? What happened?

Pupmeow
Pupmeow
1 year ago
Reply to  FUCK YOU

The mpg is a dealbreaker for me. Really disappointing that there is no hybrid option.

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