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2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz: A darn nice pickup, car, SUV thing [First Drive]

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I’m not sure what I was expecting with the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, but it wasn’t this: It’s actually fun to drive in a way that the 2022 Tucson is not.

The new Santa Cruz is built on the same platform as the Tucson, and it has one of the same powertrains. But the ride and handling couldn’t be more different.

During a recent press preview for the Santa Cruz, we were given Limited trim vehicles with the up-level 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, and all I have to say is: OMG.

Under the hood

The base engine is a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder that delivers 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. Yes, this is the same gasoline engine that Tucson gets, but here it has a skosh more power. The already-mentioned up-level engine is a turbo that has the same displacement and delivers 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque.

It is a thing of beauty.

In addition to being perfectly powered for off-the-line starts, it does quite well in highway passing maneuvers when you are already at speed. It almost made me giggle. So, of course, I had to slow down, merge with slower traffic, then punch it to pass. Over and over and over. (Tee-hee-hee!)

In the Tucson, I noted high revs that held too long – both in Sport and Normal modes – but this is completely gone with the turbocharged engine. Even better: There’s no turbo lag.

I played around with Sport mode, and while I found it useful in the Tucson, it’s largely unnecessary in the 2022 Santa Cruz because the engine itself is just that good.

We had some nice twisty bits on the route, and I was impressed with how well it held the corners and pushed through some more aggressive driving.

While Santa Cruz may not be race-track ready, it’s certainly equipped to handle quick-and-spirited on-road maneuvers – which is impressive for a pickup truck.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Myth: But it’s not really pickup truck

When I called the Santa Cruz a pickup truck on TikTok, my account blew up with comments along the lines of “Honey, (baby, sweatpea, lady, dear) that ain’t no pickup truck.”

My gut reaction to that comment is: Suck it. Not only for the sweatpea endearment but also the fact all the good-ole-boys can’t get beyond anything other than a Chevy, Ram or Ford being called a truck.

No, it’s not an F-150 or Ram 1500. Nor does it have a body-on-frame architecture. It has a bed – albeit a small one at 52.1 inches – but a bed nonetheless. So. Pickup truck.

It is literally the definition of a pickup truck, which states: “a small truck with an enclosed cab and open back.”

Hyundai has made absolutely no bones about the fact it’s not targeting a “typical” pickup truck owner and actually calls Santa Cruz a “sport adventure vehicle.” So, if you’re towing a horse trailer or work in construction, this isn’t for you. But if you live in an urban environment, make trips to IKEA, take your bike to a forest preserve for a long ride, like to surf or need to tow a pontoon boat, the 2022 Santa Cruz should be on your must-test list.

The bed itself is filled with functionality from tie-downs in every corner to an under-bed storage complete with drain plug for liquid-loving tailgate options. Oh, and did we mention the standard LED lights and available 115-volt plug in the truck bed?

Lest you worry that the in-bed storage takes the place of a spare tire, note the spare tire is mounted under the truck bed, and we saw the jack stored in the under-seat storage inside the cabin.

Payload for this compact pickup is between 1,609 pounds (top trim Limited with AWD) and 1,753 (base SE with AWD or FWD). So, as you add more content, the payload drops. What does that mean, if you have four averaged sized dudes (about 200 pounds each) inside the Santa Cruz, you have between about 800 and 950 pounds of stuff you can bring with you in the bed.

Max towing capability for the AWD model with the turbo engine is 5,000 pounds, which is 1,000 pounds more than the upcoming Ford Maverick, by the way. Plus, I’ll point out that’s the exact same max towing capacity as the 1999 Ford F-150. So, if this isn’t a pickup truck, that wasn’t either. Just saying.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Other cool features

Outside of the truck bed functionality, there are a lot of other interesting features and technologies.

Let’s start outside. Hyundai introduced the grille-integrated daytime running lights with the Tucson, but it gets refined on the Santa Cruz, and I appreciated the turn indicator light in the front that moves down around the headlight. Similarly in the back, the rear indicator light moves off the bumper and into the rear taillight, which is a much better and more visible implementation.

Because Santa Cruz is kind of a cute vehicle (let’s face it, “cute” is the right word here), I loved all the little Santa Cruz emblems you can find in the cladding on the vehicle – above the wheel wells on the bumper, etc.

Speaking of the back bumper, I really like the tri-level in-bumper steps that will give you easy access to the truck bed without opening the tailgate.

Moving inside, I appreciated the configurable gauge cluster, blind-view monitoring, 360-camera display, 10.25-inch screen, standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, heated-and-cooled front seats, under seat storage in the backseat and a cute (yep, using that word again) little window on the rear glass.

Pricing & trims on the 2022 Santa Cruz

Now obviously, not everything on the Limited trim trickles down in the base models, so here’s a quick breakdown of pricing (including destination fees) and trim features:

SE ($25,175): includes 8-inch touch screen display, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, Hyundai SmartSense safety features, sheet molded composite bed, 18-inch alloy wheels.

SEL ($28,375): adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, BlueLink, proximity key with push-button start, power driver’s seat, heated front seats.

SEL Activity Package ($31,645): adds integrated tonneau cover, dual c-channel utility rail system in the bed, rear sliding glass with integrated defroster.

SEL Premium ($36,865): adds the up-level 2.5-liter turbo engine, AWD-only drivetrain, steering wheel paddle shifters, LED headlights, Hyundai’s digital key, dual automatic climate control.

Limited ($40,905): adds the 10.25-inch infotainment screen, blind-view monitoring, leather seats, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, heated-and-cooled front seats.

Note, the SE, SEL and SEL Activity Package are available as front-wheel-drive models, with AWD as an option at a cost of $1,500.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Picking a couple nits

I’m stunned at how much I liked the 2022 Santa Cruz. It’s surprisingly agile and is packed with cool features. I’m particularly intrigued by the various factory accessories — including the tailgate cover, which would allow you to hang a front tire of a bike over the tailgate to transport it.

But there are two things I don’t like on the Santa Cruz, and I noted the same items on the Tucson. First, while wireless CarPlay and Auto are standard with the 8-inch screen, as soon as you level up to the 10.25-inch screen, you have to wire in. Hyundai recognizes this is a pain point, and it is working to make it available in the future.

The other thing I’m not a fan of: the lack of buttons and dials for HVAC and audio controls with the 10.25-inch screen interface. The screen is surrounded by black lacquer, and rather than pop-out buttons, you have flat touch-points. All this looks good, while it’s clean, but ends up being a bit distracting if you try to adjust anything while driving. There are redundant volume controls on the steering wheel, but if you want to change the radio station to something not in your presets, it’ll be a tap-tap-tap-tap-tap until you get there.

The bottom line on the 2022 Santa Cruz

Neither of the two items are dealbreakers for me. I’m sure I’d get used to them or find work arounds because overall this is a well-designed, well-planned and well-executed compact pickup truck. I know my use of that term will grate on the nerves of truck purists, like my boss, but unless you want to bring the Australian term “Ute” into the U.S. lexicon, I’m not sure how else you would classify the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.

And for the record, Ford is calling the new Maverick, which is similarly sized and less capable, a truck.

And if the dictionary (and Ford) classifies it as a pickup truck, I’m going with it.

Outside of what we call it, the Santa Cruz is an interesting new entry into the market. For my money, I’d go with the up-level engine and AWD, so I’d probably opt for the SEL Premium trim. That way, I still get wireless CarPlay/Auto as well. While I want the blind-view monitor and adaptive cruise control that comes with the Limited, I don’t need them.

I liked the new Tucson; I like the Santa Cruz better. So, if you’re in the market for a new vehicle and don’t need the enclosed cargo space, this little sport adventure vehicle might just be the right vehicle for you.

Editor’s note: Driving impressions in this “First Drive” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Hyundai covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is a syndicated automotive writer. Jill also manages the “Drive, She Said” blog for ChicagoNow and posts reviews to DriveChicago. She is the president emeritus of the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. She also serves as a judge for the Automotive Heritage Foundation Journalism Awards. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Chicago Sun-Times News Group and Pioneer Press Newspapers.

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