In the rapidly-growing small truck market, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz has an edge on the competition. Several edges, in fact. Based on the radically restyled new Hyundai Tucson crossover SUV, it is easily the edgiest looking small truck for sale today. While all the others look like, well, trucks, the Santa Cruz looks like a Baja racer. The sharp lines and multiple creases also help integrate the short four-foot bed into the body. I smiled every time I saw it.
But don't be fooled. The Santa Cruz is a real truck. Although it has a unibody chasis instead of a steel frame, it can tow up to 5,000 pounds and easily handled the moderate off-road course at the 2021 version of the Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition hosted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association, otherwise known as Mudfest. In fact, the Santa Cruz was named best Pickup Truck.
Small trucks used to be an important segment of the pickup market until they were phased out, probably to meet increasing safety standards and profit margins. But now they are thankfully returning, albeit with four-door crew cab configurations, like the Santa Cruz, which is the most practical design for families. The ultra-short bed is a giveaway that it is more intended for fun than hard work, however. The Santa Cruz can haul a couple of mountain bikes or a yard sale chair find better than a load of lumber.
But it is also the most fun of all the small trucks to drive around town — light and nimble, with a well-tuned suspension and optional punchy 281-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter four mated to an eight-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. Acceleration is downright fast in the Sport mode. And the ride is very smooth, thanks to its car-like design.
Although all-wheel-drive equipped versions can handle some moderate trails, they will likely spend much more time providing better traction on slick city streets, such as those found most of the year in the Pacific Northwest. I had no trouble getting around town with my AWD-equipped version during the first snow storm of the winter during the holidays. I didn't even need to engage the Snow mode or locking center differential, but I was glad they were available.
The interior of the Santa Cruz is not as wild styled as the exterior. Like the new Tucson, it is refreshingly clean and modern, with a large digital gauge screen matched by an even larger center dash display. Both are easy to read and use, although the stereo lacks volume and station knobs, relying instead on the touch screen and steering wheel-mounted controls. But at least the transmission is controlled by a traditional console-mounted shift lever instead of buttons or a rotary knob.
Other practical touches include an integrated retractable lockable metal tonneau cover over the bed and a concealed storage space under it. Our tester version was a the same model that won Mudfest, a top-of-the-line Limited that included the more powerful engine, AWD, a full leather interior, sun roof and the complete package of comfort, convenience, entertainment and safety features.
All that pushed the price from around $25,000 for the front-wheel-drive version with a normally-aspirated 2.5-liter four to over $41,000, which is admittedly approaching the prices of heavier-duty trucks. But the Santa Cruz is targeting buyers who value style and handling over payload capacity, and that's their choice.
Other unibody trucks now include the all new compact Ford Maverick and the redesigned midsize Honda Ridgeline. They are welcome additions to the pickup market. Although they can't carry or tow as much as larger, frame-based trucks, they are better suited for how a lot of people actually live — in crowded urban areas where they are needed for light chores and weekend getaways on mostly moderate trails.
If that's the kind of truck you're looking for, check out the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz. It may not look like a conventional truck, but chances are you'll have a lot of fun doing the same things with it. But be prepared to keep explaining it is a real truck. The unique design attracted a lot of attention everywhere I went.
The results of the 2021 version of the Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year competition can be found here.
Base price: $25,215 (LE)
Price as tested: $41,100
Type: Compact truck
Engines: 2.5-liter (191 hp, 181 lbs-ft); turbocharged 2.5-liter (281 hp, 311 lbs-ft - as tested)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic; 8-speed dual clutch automatic with manual shift mode and paddle shifters - as tested.
Drive modes: Comfort, Eco, Sport, and Smart
EPA estimated mileage: 19/27
Towing capacity: 3500-5000 pounds
Overall length: 195.7 inches
Curb weight: 4132 pounds
Final assembly: Montgomery, Alabama
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