Meet the Hyundai Santa Cruz – the Swiss army knife of cars.
The Santa Cruz, an SUV-like vehicle with the open bed of a small truck, looks to be among the most versatile autos on the road.
It drives like a small crossover, has comfortable room for four adults, but can carry outdoor gear, landscape materials and even plywood like a truck.
It harkens back to the old car-based Chevrolet El Camino or Ford Ranchero, but a modern take with far more seating and convenience.
But in the current car market, the Santa Cruz is in a class of its own. Automakers sell no other vehicles like it in the U.S. Ford is about to launch the Maverick, a small pickup truck based on the Ford Escape platform. Both the Santa Cruz and the Maverick will compete for many of the same customers, but the Hyundai model will likely have an edge because of its clever design and sheer convenience.
One question is pricing. The starting price of Ford’s Maverick will be less. Depending on how it is configured and equipped, the Santa Cruz can reach the low $40,000 range. The starting price for the base SE Santa Cruz model is $23,990 plus a $1,185 destination fee.
A 120-mile drive of the Santa Cruz in the Santa Cruz, Calif., mountains—where else?—demonstrated how smartly Hyundai engineers have designed the vehicle.
It easily navigated the curvy, narrow lanes on Highway 17 between San Jose and Santa Cruz and then twisty smaller roads of the local mountains. Engineers have done an excellent job of removing lean and body roll. The steering is firm and responsive, making it easy to keep the Santa Cruz between the lane lines on sharp turns, even at speed. The vehicle is pleasantly stiff and doesn’t display the softness of many unibody construction SUVs and crossovers.
The test vehicle had the more expensive four-cylinder 2.5-liter turbocharged engine. The 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque are more than adequate for steep grades and highway driving. While not a speed demon, the Santa Cruz has nicely responsive acceleration.
The base model Santa Cruz comes equipped with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. That’s probably enough power for most consumers.
Hyundai’s engineers also have done an excellent job with the vehicle’s ride quality. Tacking a bed onto the back of a crossover and making sure that it can haul and tow is a design challenge. Part of this is taking some of the beefier construction of the larger Santa Fe for the rear end of the Santa Cruz. But self-leveling, rear multi-link suspension and standard 18-inch wheels also are a significant contributor. With 8.6 inches of ground clearance, the all-wheel-drive model can easily handle some dirt roads and sandy trails.
But what makes the Santa Cruz really interesting is how it can be used. Its overall length is about 15 inches shorter than the typical midsize pickup truck. So the Santa Cruz is more maneuverable and easier to park than a pickup.
The bed is about 52 inches with the tailgate closed. That allows for three mountain bikes, a load of camping gear or several sets of snowboards and boots. But the tailgate flips out to become an extension of the truck bed. That allows the vehicle to carry standard sheets of plywood, long sprinkler and plumbing pipes and other building materials.
Molded pockets in the truck bed can create a two-tiered shelf that accommodates large and various sized items together. The bed has LED lighting so that people can load and unload items in the dark. There are plenty of anchor points and tie-downs. The bed also takes a page from the Honda Ridgeline by offering sealed, lockable underfloor storage. That allows drivers to carry luggage below and gear on top. The storage has a drain to be easily cleaned after use for tailgating or carrying dirty equipment. The rear bumper has integrated steps.
Finally, there’s an available factory-installed lockable retracting tonneau cover to keep tools, sporting equipment and other items safe and out of sight.
The vehicle has the standard tech buyers expect in new cars, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The standard safety features include forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and high beams that adjust to oncoming traffic. Because the Santa Cruz is a proper utility vehicle carrying loads, Hyundai should have included blind-spot alert as standard equipment. But it and other more advanced features are options.
Buyers of models equipped with the larger engine can tow a small trailer and certainly a teardrop or some jet skis. But those looking for serious towing capability should consider a true midsize pickup or larger.
Still, Santa Cruz makes a compelling argument for a small, more advanced utility vehicle, one that can haul people to daily commutes in larger cities during the work week but then escape for outdoor adventures on the weekend.
It is filling a white space and testing a market. If it is a success, expect more automakers to follow.