It’s easy to write about – and decide whether to buy – a vehicle that’s in a class by itself. That hasn’t got half a dozen or even any direct competitors.
That model being a brand-new one, from Hyundai . . .
The 2022 Santa Cruz
What It Is
The Santa Cruz is neither car, nor crossover, nor SUV. It has design elements of all of them – plus one more.
That being the truck-like 4.5-foot-long bed out back.
But the Santa Cruz differs from the typical truck in that it’s based on a car; well, a crossover (the Hyundai Tuscson) that’s based on a car (the Hyundai Elantra sedan). And unlike a truck, it’s not based on a rear-drive layout with 4WD (and low range gearing) available but front-wheel-drive, with AWD available.
It’s just the thing for people who don’t need (or want) something that looks like a truck – or which is as big and unwieldy as a truck can be – but really like the idea of having a bed for carrying stuff that won’t fit in a crossover.
A bed that you can easily load and unload without needing a step ladder. One that comes attached to a smaller, car-sized vehicle that’s just as good for snow-day driving as any crossover . . . without being just another crossover.
Prices start at $24,140 for the base SE trim with front-wheel-drive; adding the available AWD system bumps the price up to $25,460. After that come SEL, SEL Premium and top-of-the-line Limited trims, the latter two coming standard with AWD and a more powerful (turbocharged) version of the 2.5 liter engine that’s standard in the SE and SEL trims.
A top-of-the-line Limited packs the kitchen sink with features, including leather seats, a larger 10.25 inch LCD touchscreen, digital dashboard, adaptive cruise control and a Bose premium audio system. This one stickers for $39,870.
All trims have four full size doors and – of course – the 4.5 foot bed out back.
The next-closest thing on the market is the also-new Ford Maverick, which is meant to look like a small truck – though it’s also based on a compact crossover (the Escape).
It’s less expensive – $19,995 to start – and offers more towing capacity as well as a standard hybrid drivetrain, which the Hyundai doesn’t offer yet but may, in time.
Both of these rigs fill the gap left by the complete absence – in the United States – of a compact-sized truck. These having been supplanted by “mid-size” trucks such as the Nissan Frontier Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado/Canyon that are very close to being as big as full-size pick-ups used to be.
Current full-size trucks being super-sized trucks.
The truck for the person who doesn’t want one.
The car for the person who sometimes needs a truck.
The crossover for the person who doesn’t want to own just another crossover.
Uses almost as much gas as a truck (22-23 MPG, average).
Optional turbo engine is only available in much more expensive SEL Premium and Limited trims.
The Ford Maverick gets much better gas mileage and you can buy one with a similarly powerful (optional) engine for much less money.
Under The Hood
SE and SEL trims come standard with a 2.5 liter four cylinder engine that produces 191 horsepower – paired with an eight speed automatic transmission and either front-wheel-drive or (optionally) all-wheel-drive.
One of the upsides of this Hyundai’s 2.5 liter engine is that it’s a fairly large engine, as four cylinders go – and for that reason doesn’t need a turbo to make almost 200 horsepower. Some will remember when that was good number for a V8 engine.
The absence of a turbo means you’ll never have to worry about replacing one – or any of the peripheral parts that usually come with turbocharged engines, such as an intercooler and special exhaust plumbing. Also, a non-turbocharged engine is under less pressure – literally – and that ought to mean greater longevity.
On the downside, this engine is thirsty for what it is – averaging just 23 MPG (21 city, 26 highway). For reference, a full-size Chevy Silverado 1500 pickup with a 5.3 liter V8 engine averages 19 MPG (17 city, 23 highway).
But the Santa Cruz isn’t so much about saving gas as it is about saving size. A full-size pick up like the Silverado is . . . full size.
The Santa Cruz is about half that size – and has almost as much bed as some latter-day full-size trucks (more on that below). It also costs much less than a Silverado – which stickers for just shy of $30k to start.
Which is way to save on gas by not spending on the vehicle.
SEL Premium and Limited trims also come standard with a 2.5 liter engine – but this time, it is turbocharged. On account of that, it produces 281 horsepower and 311 ft.-lbs. of torque (not-too-far-off the torque produced by small V8s).
This version of the 2.5 engine is also paired with an eight speed automatic and this time, AWD is standard equipment.
Interestingly, this much more powerful engine doesn’t use much more gas than the standard 2.5 liter engine – even with standard AWD. It averages 22 MPG (19 city, 27 highway) so there’s no fuel efficiency cost associated with opting for the stronger engine.
However, there is another cost.
This engine is only available in the SEL Premium and Limited trims, which means you’d have to spend at least $35,830 to get it – which is a startling $11,690 more than Hyundai asks for the base SE trim with the not-turbocharged version of the 2.5 liter engine, which (again) stickers for a much more accessible $24,140. You may not be spending more on gas, but you’ll be spending a lot on horsepower.
Which brings up the Ford Maverick – the Santa Cruz’s most serious, if indirect, rival. This one stickers for just $19,995 to start – which is about $4k less than the base price of the Santa Cruz – and it comes standard with a very fuel-efficient hybrid drivetrain that averages 37 MPG (42 city, 33 highway).
That saves you money on gas – and the vehicle.
You can also get the Ford with its optionally available 2.0 liter turbocharged engine in the base $19k trim, as a $1,085 option. With AWD added, the cost for the upgrade rises to $3,305. Even so, the price of the Ford with the stronger (250 hp) 2.0 engine and AWD is still only $23,300 – about a thousand bucks less than the base SE Santa Cruz with FWD and just 191 hp.
But the Maverick’s still a truck – at least, in terms of its looks. Even though it isn’t, actually.
Like the Hyundai, the Ford is based on a layout that’s similar to that of FWD/AWD cars that have been turned into crossovers. Neither are heavy-duty rigs but the Ford does offer a higher 4,000 pound maximum tow rating than the Hyundai, which pulls up to 3,500 pounds – but only when equipped with its optional and much-more-pricey turbocharged engine.
It’s nice to own a truck that doesn’t drive like one.
This isn’t a reference to ride quality; modern trucks ride better than Cadillacs used to – and also handle a lot better. They are far from being the crude (in comparison to cars) rigs they once were.
But they’re huge.
Even the “compact” models like the current Nissan Frontier, Ford Ranger and Chevy Colorado/GM Canyon – all of which are dimensionally very close to being the same size as full-size trucks were as recently as the 1990s.
It’s not just that they’re long, either. They are also very high – which some people like, once you climb up into their cabs because you can see over all of the cars on the road. But you do have to climb into them.
And not everyone likes having to do that.
The Santa Cruz doesn’t require rock-climbing gear to get in. It’s about the same height as most crossovers, which means you just get in. Once in, you feel as you would behind the wheel of a crossover – without having to drive another crossover. And when it comes time to stop driving – and park – it’s as easy to do as would be the case if you were driving a same-sized crossover (or car). It also leaves space in your driveway or garage to park other things, too.
With the standard engine, there’s pick-up enough to get to 60 in about 7 seconds, which is significantly – as in noticeably – quicker than the hybrid Maverick. With its optional turbocharged engine, the Santa Cruz is very quick, getting to 60 in six seconds flat. Either way, there’s plenty of power for merging and passing without straining.
It’s also got clearance enough – and grip enough – to play off road, if you like. Just don’t go too far (or deep) because like other FWD/AWD crossovers the SC doesn’t have a two speed transfer case and low range gearing.
But you can “lock” the AWD system’s front-rear power split for maximum traction in snow, dirt and mud.
The chief deficit here is its thirst – with either engine. The optional turbo engine has the compensatory virtue of being very strong but the base engine lacks that, which detracts from the otherwise high appeal of this very practical – and very fun – little kinda-sorta truck that isn’t really.
Even with a full tank – and this little “truck” has a fairly large almost 18 gallon capacity tank – its range in city driving is only 371 miles. For perspective, the hybrid Maverick has a city range of 579 miles on just shy of 14 gallons. With a gallon of gas currently averaging more than $4 as of mid-March (Let’s Go Brandon!) that’s a very noticeable difference – and not just in terms of distance.
Hyundai could have closed the distance by offering this little big rig with a diesel engine and – wishes used to come true – a manual transmission. When VW was able to offer that combo in a roughly similar (in terms of size/weight) vehicle like its TDI-powered Golf Sportwagen (RIP) the result was 50 MPG and a 600-plus miles range.
It’s tragic that neither VW – nor Hyundai – nor anyone else – can offer such fuel-efficient and cost-effective drivetrains in new vehicles on account of “emissions” regulations that are no longer based on reasonable considerations about air quality but rather on political considerations, such as the push to force electric cars down everyone’s throats.
Diesel-powered runabouts that average 50 MPG and go 600-plus miles that cost low-mid $20ks make 200 mile range EVs that cost $40,000 look ridiculous.
Which, of course, they are.
And that’s why we’re not allowed to buy diesels, anymore.
At The Curb
It’s the 4.5 foot bed that comprises the other third that makes this anything but another crossover. The bed is in some ways more useful than a truck’s bed – even though it is shorter than a truck’s bed – in part because it is more usefully wider. Which it is because it hasn’t got the usual pair of huge wheel humps protruding into the bed that you find in most truck beds, that restrict what you can slide into them.
The reason for that being the Santa Cruz isn’t a truck – and so doesn’t have a massive (usually, cast iron) rear axle, as most trucks have out back. Room has to be made for that and the bed is where that happens.
But not here – because room doesn’t have to be carved out for what’s not there.
There is also room under the bed – for another bed. This one is an insulated tub, with a drain, that is just the ticket for hauling several bags of ice and your favorite beverage or putting fish and such on ice. I’s also a good place to hide things you’d prefer others not see.
Hyundai also offers a rollback plastic cover that keeps whatever’s in the bed out of the weather. It’s much handier than a fabric tonneau cover that you have to secure in place before you can drive off.
But perhaps the most appealing thing about this Hyundai’s bed is that you can get to whatever’s in it without needing a step ladder, as almost all current trucks come standard with, because their beds (and bed walls) are so high that even a man well over six feet tall cannot touch the floor of the bed without standing on a milk crate.
Using the Hyundai’s bed is much easier, which makes it much more useful.
It is also proportionate – to the rest of the vehicle. There is visual as well as functional absurdity to be seen when one sees a half-ton truck that’s twice as long as this Hyundai but which has a bed that’s barely longer and which doesn’t hold much more, either.
Hyundai equips the base SE and next-up SEL trims abundantly; highlights include a very good six speaker stereo and 8-inch touchscreen (SE) as well as heated seats and outside mirrors, plus the lockable/hidden storage bin under the bed out back (SEL).
On the downside, many desirable features – such as the even-better Bose premium audio system, navigation and rear seat USB charge ports – are restricted to the much more expensive SEL Premium and Limited trims.
Along with the stronger turbocharged version of the 2.5 liter engine.
This is deliberate – meant to “upsell” buyers who want those features into an SEL Premium or a Limited. But it might cost Hyundai some sales – to Ford – which will sell a Maverick for a lot less and let you buy many desirable options without buying the more expensive trim to get them.
The Bottom Line
It’s nice that small trucks are making a comeback – even if they aren’t, really.
. . .
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