It’s not a sedan or crossover, and it’s not a full-blown pickup truck. However, it offers most good qualities from each of those categories.
The 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz lives in a very specific niche. It’s not as trucky as its biggest rival, the Ford Maverick midsize pickup truck, but it offers endless cargo capabilities compared to a traditional crossover. In a nutshell, it’s a cool toy for adventure-loving families. And frankly, it looks awesome.
The Santa Cruz marries the cabin of a sedan or subcompact crossover with the bed of a compact pickup truck. The end result looks like a slightly raised wagon with a truck bed of sorts. The styling of the Santa Cruz is what sets it apart from its competitors, doing away with the typical boxy persona of normal pickups that cater more to commercial/work buyers. Hyundai’s latest creation targets adventurers, whether that means surfing, camping, mountain biking, or anything that requires transporting muddy, wet, dirty toys.
I had the opportunity to drive the Santa Cruz for a week recently, and I walked away impressed by its livability. For starters, it looks incredible in person. The modern front grille with hidden lighting elements and low-sitting headlamps looks very cool. The profile and rear of the truck complement the car’s rugged attitude, letting everyone know that the Santa Cruz likes to play and it doesn’t mind getting dirty.
My “Limited AWD” tester was powered by a 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, which produces a hefty 281 horsepower. The base-model Santa Cruz offers a non-turbo engine that produces 191 hp. The engine is paired to an eight-speed automatic dual-clutch transmission, which sends power to all four wheels via an HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. And because most Santa Cruz owners likely own some lifestyle toys, it can tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped (which is actually more than the rival Maverick).
Driving the Santa Cruz with the higher-output engine is a lot of fun. Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how punchy the engine is and how quick its reflexes are. Steering is quick and responsive, though the suspension is certainly on the plush side and tuned more for off-pavement excursions.
Around town, the Santa Cruz feels comfortable, and it offers enough space for five passengers. However, chances are four fit better and more comfortably instead. Personally, I felt odd not carrying any cool outdoor gear while driving around. To me, it’s the equivalent of wearing hiking boots to Costco. Feels a bit odd. Over the course of my test, I was able to shed this feeling, but the knobby tires, plastic molding, and cool California Sand paint color really made me long for some kayaks.
The star of the show here is definitely the truck bed. It’s 48 inches long and 54 inches wide. My tester also came equipped with a lockable hard cover that was affixed via the side rails. It was very practical and came in super handy in keeping things safe. However, it is not waterproof. Ask me how I know. After making a trip to Menard’s one evening, I decided to leave some items in the bed, only to find them soaked the next morning due to overnight rain.
The bed offers endless opportunities for customization. Cycling aficionados can add fork mounts to mount bikes, campers can add different utility hooks or shelves, kayakers can install different mounts, and the same goes for just about every sport out there. One of the Santa Cruz’s biggest advantages is that it can offer this level of versatility in a small package (compared to most pickups), and while still delivering an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined.
Overall, the 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a rugged, practical, and very cool vehicle that caters to a select group of folks. Chances are that whoever is set on buying one won’t consider anything else because, well, there’s nothing else like it out there. In today’s crowded automotive segment where a lot of vehicles look alike, Hyundai’s originality is a breath of fresh air.
The Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD starts at $40,320, while the unit I tested came in at $41,825 including optional equipment and destination.