The segment-busting 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz pickup is the first of its kind — a unibody-based, head-turning Swiss Army knife with many tools for many chores. Did I say pickup? Hyundai prefers the term Sport Adventure Vehicle because Santa Cruz is truly a different animal.
"I think this segment is the new hot hatch," Chahe Apelian, manager of Hyundai's test and development program, said of a compact SUV segment that will soon include the Ford Maverick and maybe entrants from Ram and VW.
That's music to my ears. I was an early buyer of the segment-busting 1984 VW Golf GTI, the original hot hatch, an enthusiast's compact. Since then, hot hatches have become the most versatile vehicle in autodom, with utility and performance at an affordable price. Though hardly volume sellers compared with their peers, they attract passionate buyers who turn brand missionaries.
As Americans have pivoted to utes and trucks, the Santa Cruz offers similar benefit to adventure-minded SUV buyers. Think lifestyle enthusiasts like Subaru Outback or Jeep Compass customers.
Let's start with Santa Cruz's centerpiece: the bed. Unlike traditional pickups which option multi-length beds, the Cruz tub is fully integrated into the chassis design. Ladder-frame truck beds are clearly tacked onto the cabin so they can be swapped out for a bigger unit during assembly. Cruz's bed is a natural extension of the vehicle's lines. It makes for a leaner, more sinewy profile that is pleasing to the eye.
Then the bed gets down to basics: soft-drop tailgate, sub-bed storage, drainage plug, sidewall storage, LED lights, utility rails. All are standard in a vehicle starting at $24,000 — well under a midsize pickup class where you'll be hard-pressed to find standard goodies.
Size mattersThe 4-foot bed does come with compromises. You won't be hauling ATVs back there. But for more typical uses — carrying mulch, cinder block, furniture, etc. — it has a payload of 1,900 pounds.
Speaking of size, it's also a factor for the back seat. My 6-foot-5-inch frame's legs were jammed into the back of the front seat, but normal-size folks should be more comfortable. And there's sub-seat storage space to boot.
On the other hand, the compact size makes it easy to drive — and easy to park — in the city.
Hyundai has bold styling ambitions, and Santa Cruz's triangle-themed design is unique.
As for the state-of-the-art interior, I love its simplicity with two all-digital screens running the show and twin lines wrapping the cabin. The latter is made possible by ditching the instrument display screen's hood (credit a bright LCD display).
Hyundai jumps the shark by continuing that simplicity to a touch screen that has no volume dials, which occupants will miss. At least the driver can control volume with a steering-wheel button. Still, it's hard to be too critical when Santa Cruz comes standard with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Granted, the high-riding (8.6-inch) Cruz is no hot hatch on road, but it can cut some rug. With a healthy turbocharged 281 horses under the hood, we danced through highway twists and turns and had a ball.
Just don't try that with the groceries in back. Same goes for hot hatches.