Return of the Small Pickup

Hyundai isn’t fooling anyone, and to its credit, it isn’t trying to. The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a compact pickup truck, yes, but it isn’t a truck for people who buy F-150s. It isn’t even a truck for people who buy Tacomas. It’s a truck for people who live in big cities and drive 45 minutes out of town to go hiking, mountain biking, surfing, or whatever on the weekend. How much truck do city people really need, and more importantly, how much truck do they really want to park? Hyundai’s betting about this much.

You’ve seen this show before. Nearly 20 years ago, it was called the Subaru Baja, and Hyundai is betting that trucklet was ahead of its time. The concept is the same: convert a small SUV or wagon into a truck by replacing the cargo area with an open bed. In this case, Hyundai has grafted a bed onto the all-new Tucson SUV. It’s more than just a bed, though, as Hyundai has wisely borrowed handy features from other brands. And it’s not just Hyundai that thinks this is a good idea—the Ford Maverick compact pickup will follow it to the market by several months and Dodge is still toying with using the Dakota name in this space.

But let’s start with the basic question: Does it truck? The bed is 4 feet long with the tailgate closed and just shy of 6 feet long with the tailgate down. That’s a foot shorter in both measurements than the average four-door midsize pickup. Four feet isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to load in mountain bikes with the front tires hanging over the tailgate. It should be just long enough to strap down a dirt bike with the rear wheel on the tailgate (which can hold 500 pounds). Shortening the bed, though, makes the Santa Cruz more than 14 inches shorter in length than a Honda Ridgeline and that much easier to park in the city.

The bed is also 4 feet wide, designed specifically to be wide enough to carry home sheets of plywood from the big box store. That plywood rests on molded-in ledges above the wheelwells, and the tailgate can be adjusted to a half-open position level with the ledges to support the end of the plywood hanging out the back. There are also two molded-in pockets designed to lay two-by-six boards across the bed and cover them with a 4-foot square piece of plywood to make a two-level bed. The tailgate can be adjusted or removed without tools, is lockable, has a soft open and soft close feature, and can be opened with the key fob.

The bed does have its limit, though. Maximum payload capacity is “just over 1,700 pounds” according to Hyundai spokespeople and “just over 600 pounds in the bed.” Payload is the amount of weight a vehicle can carry, determined by subtracting the curb weight from the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, and includes both people and cargo.

That means your trailer tongue weight will have to be pretty light, as well, if you plan to tow anything. The good news is the tow rating ranges from 3,500 pounds up to 5,000 pounds, so you should be able to pull a utility trailer, an open toy hauler, or a small camper with no problem. Hyundai doesn’t offer an integrated trailer brake controller, though, so you may want to spring for an aftermarket solution if you’re going to do a lot of max. towing.

While the Santa Cruz can’t haul huge loads or tow massive trailers, its bed is still useful in other ways. Hyundai borrowed a number of clever features from other trucks, including the Ridgeline’s lockable in-bed trunk under the load floor—it even has a drain plug so it can be hosed out or drained after being used as a cooler. There are also enclosed cubbies in the sides of the bed, an old Nissan idea. Accessed from inside the bed, one of them has a 115-volt outlet for charging your drones and things. Bumper corner steps, as seen on GM pickups, were also cribbed to make it easier to climb in the bed, and they hold 440 pounds each. The height of the bed floor and sides, and the depth of the bed, are all slightly shorter than those of the average midsize truck, as well, which should make it a little easier to reach things without climbing in. LED lighting in the bed is standard and mounted so it can shine into the trunk when it’s open.

The bed is made of composite sheeting (as in the Ridgeline) rather than metal, and it gets the usual array of tie-downs. Four D-rings and two cleats can hold 440 pounds each, and an optional rail system adds moveable cleats that can hold 250 pounds each.

One feature Hyundai is beating the competition to market with is a factory optional roll-up metal tonneau cover. Mounted under the rear window in a rectangular canister and only about 8.0 inches square when stored, it can be deployed and locked to protect anything you put in the bed. It’s also strong enough for the average person to stand on, with a capacity of 220 pounds.

The Santa Cruz doesn’t incorporate every trick in the book, though. Unlike the Baja and the Chevrolet Avalanche, there’s no mid-gate to increase the bed length, nor does the rear window roll down. You can stick longer items through the optional sliding rear window as on larger pickups, but it’s a manual slider, not powered.

That’s not to say there aren’t more storage options, though. The rear cushions lift up as in larger pickups to reveal a cargo bin. Remove six screws, and the bin comes out, leaving you with the entire rear-seat area as cargo space with only a small hump bisecting the floor.

The hump is for the optional all-wheel-drive system’s driveshaft. The base Santa Cruz is a front-wheel-drive truck, the only one on the market now that Honda dropped that option on the Ridgeline. Upgrade to Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel-drive system, av
ailable on any model, and the rear wheels can receive up to 50 percent of the drive power via a lockable clutched center differential.

Power comes from a standard 2.5-liter I-4 engine good for 191 hp and 181 lb-ft. The upgrade is a turbocharged 2.5-liter I-4 engine with 281 hp and 311 lb-ft. The base engine is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, and the turbocharged engine gets an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters.

Putting that power to the ground are Michelin Primacy all-season street tires on 18- or 20-inch wheels, not knobby off-road tires. Hyundai reps wouldn’t rule out future off-road packages, but for the moment, if you want to put the 8.6 inches of ground clearance to work, you need to pick your trail carefully or upgrade your tires.

Controlling the movement of the wheels is a strut suspension in front and a multilink design in the rear, giving the truck a fully independent suspension like the Ridgeline. The rear suspension is equipped with standard self-leveling shock absorbers to keep the truck level even when there’s weight in the bed or a trailer on the hitch.

The cockpit is nearly identical to that of the 2022 Tucson. Up front, it’s exactly the same, with a distinct band running along the tops of the doors and dashboard hiding the air vents and bisected by the infotainment system. The standard screen is 8.0 inches and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, but buyers can upgrade to a 10.25-inch display. Similarly, the standard gauges are analog dials, but a 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster is available. Also standard are the usual array of USB ports and even a wireless phone charger. Higher trim levels get niceties like heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, and a Bose stereo.

We say “nearly identical” to the Tucson’s interior because the back seat is substantially different. Not just with the seats folding up as mentioned, but it’s smaller, as well. To make space for the bed, Hyundai had to move the rear seat forward, chopping 4.8 inches of rear-seat legroom. The good news is, an average 5-foot-9 adult can still sit in the back with a couple of inches between their knees and the front seat if someone of the same height is driving.

Being based on the Tucson has other advantages, as well. A whole roster of active and passive safety systems are standard, including lane keeping assistance with lane centering capability, forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, and automatic high-beams. Optional safety features include blind-spot cameras, blind-spot collision avoidance, a 360-degree camera system, adaptive cruise control, the ability to use your phone as your key, and more.

Hyundai is also working on a slate of dealer-installed accessories to enhance buyers’ active lifestyles. These likely will include a rooftop cargo basket, accessory off-road lights, and beefier fender flares to cover bigger tires. Right out of the gate, there’s an optional GoPro mounting point on each front fender molded into the fender flares directly above the wheels.

The Santa Cruz makes a pretty good case for itself on paper, but how well it actually trucks remains to be seen when we drive it. That’ll happen closer to its on-sale date this summer, around the same time we get pricing and fuel economy information. Both of those sets of numbers will need to be as good or better than the Tacomas, Rangers, and Ridgelines of the world in order for the Santa Cruz to be a success, and Hyundai knows it. Now, we just need to see if it can deliver.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Specifications
BASE PRICE $26,000 (MT est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
ENGINES 2.5L/191-hp/181-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.5L/281-hp/311-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 8-speed automatic; 8-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT 4200 lbs (MT est)
WHEELBASE 118.3 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 195.7 x 75.0 x 66.7 in
0-60 MPH 7.0-8.5 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 22/28/24 mpg (MT est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 153/120 kWh/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.80 lb/mile (MT est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Summer 2021