A versatile offering crosses genres
2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Crossover hits have become more of the mainstream in modern music, with artists releasing popular songs in genres that are not traditionally their forte. Taylor Swift is one of the most prominent examples, having number 1 songs in both country and pop charts in her earlier career. "Old Town Road" is another, being both country and rap. Successes here are attritbuted to having appealed to different sets of audiences. Like crossover music hits, pickup trucks traditionally are the transportation choice of a rather certain variety of consumer, but Hyundai's new Santa Cruz is probably the most crossover of crossovers in recent memory; Take a small SUV, add a truck bed, and now you have a Santa Cruz. Is it worth considering and who is it for?
Approach the Santa Cruz like a regular car and it impresses in daily use. The cabin is modern, well-appointed, and finished with all the latest technology and safety systems (even if Apple CarPlay requries a wired connection still, grr). It's comfortable and reasonably quiet at all speeds, too, exactly you want from your daily driver. There's a potent four-cylinder turbocharged engine driving all four wheels here, enough to motivate the Santa Cruz to 60 MPH in about six seconds flat even, paired well to an eight-speed dual clutch transmission that shifts cleanly and quickly. Where economy is concerned (and one of the main disadvantages of most trucks), I averaged 24 MPG overall, but on a long trek to Ben Lomond and back, I averaged a fantastic 28 MPG overall on that highway journey.
When you're behind the wheel, or really in any seat for that matter, you would never know or think this is a vehicle with a pickup bed behind you. It's not even high up like a full-size truck, being closer to the ground and with the vehicle feeling positively small all the way around you and easy to place on the road. Aim the nose for some corners and you won't be distatefully greeted by plowing understeer, but rather prodigious grip that can easily make casual passengers uneasy. The handling balance itself is among the most neutral a truck can possibly be, owing to the platforms modern indepedent suspension and unibody construction. In practical terms, it drives like a car, not a truck.
You won't win any off-road contests in a Santa Cruz, especially with these road-oriented tires wrapped around 20" wheels, but it has enough ground clearance for minor excursions if you have reasonable expectations. Then again, this is clearly not aimed at the rock crawler crowd, but I'm sure (if it already isn't avaialble) owners will soon be installing lift kits and all-terrain tires on their own examples for increased versatility and ability.
For real truck stats, the most an AWD Santa Cruz can tow is 5,000 pounds while opting for FWD means that number falls to 3,500. However, both of those numbers are dependent on one having installed an optional trailer brake system. Skip that and the Hyundai literature says max towing is just 1,650. In other words, you should have a trailer brake installed. 5,000 pounds of maximum towing may be only half of what a top Ford F-150 can tug, but 5,000 is still plenty usable in the real world for small boats or jet skis. It's also several thousand pounds more than what most compact SUVs can muster. A 2023 Toyota Tacoma might be rated for 6,800 pounds tops, but also you wouldn't want to tow anything close to that with one anyways considering they have such lackluster power. Their redesigned 2024 model that's coming ought to hopefully change that, though.
A more limiting aspect of its truck credentials is the four-foot bed length, which will limit usability. If you leave the tailgate dropped, you'll nearly double the length, but hauling couches, tables, or other furniture can become seriously limited using the bed of a Santa Cruz. I won't hide the fact that the first time I looked back there I was disappointed by how small the bed is, but for some it could work just fine. For smaller things, like heading to Green Acres for some new plants, it can be a piece of cake, and there's a handy sliding tonneu cover (which is pretty stiff to operate admittedly) to protect whatever you place back there. It's far away from the standard 5.5' bed length of full-size trucks, and a Ford Maverick has an extra six inches on the Santa Cruz, but it's dependant (and limiting) based more on use case. It does kind of suck that you can't really even fit the entirety of a bicycle in the bed with the tailgate up.
So who is the Santa Cruz for then? Not so shockingly, the Santa Cruz is not a bona fide replacement for a full-size pickup truck. However, where the Santa Cruz makes sense is for those who typically would consider a compact SUV. Think about it this way: you could have something like a RAV4 or a Hyundai Santa Cruz. You're not sacrificing any civility, but gaining extra towing potential and the use of a (small) truck bed. For some, this example makes no sense, but there are others who might have always wanted that ease of outboard storage and stowage but didn't want a masssive and thirsty truck. It's even good value compared to non-truck rivals, as this Limited model costs $41,810 and has leather, heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, and all the modern safety tech plus a punchy turbocharged engine with AWD and a snappy transmission. To get all of that in a compact SUV, you'll pay usually the same or even more.
This has the potential to be a crossover hit, scoring and winning over converts from the sedan or compact SUV crowd, but also those who want truck potential and aren't looking to tow multiple horses or anything crazy. It's an interesting niche that won't be for everyone, but can be perfect for many out there. Maybe less of a crossover chart-topper and more of a niche market, but it's a compelling niche for those there. Will it replace a Ford F-150? No, never. But it can replace a Toyota RAV4 for those wanting to try something different.
2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD
As-tested Price: $41,810
Pros: Civil and modern; Practicality
Cons: Small truck bed; Needs trailer brakes installed