Nice Drives: The Hyundai Santa Cruz makes small cool again

2024 Hyundai Santa Cruz XRT AWD

By Isaac Bouchard

Hyundai and Ford identified that there was a market for small pickups about the same time, and two years ago both came to market. Both offer buyers many of the same attributes: a small footprint for easy parking and maneuverability in the city, multiple powertrain options, and a broad price range from basic models to those that are loaded. The Ford hews to classic pickup proportions, whereas Santa Cruz is much more high-style. Its black chrome grill has hidden LED lighting elements that create a dramatically different visage when on, and its flared fender forms and sweeping C-pillar, that sweep into the bed sides, make it very dramatic looking.

The Santa Cruz XRT model sits just below the top, Limited model, with a more offroad-oriented vibe and almost all the tech Hyundai offers. The textured black fender accents are larger; there are 18-inch wheels with taller sidewall tires (a good thing for light duty trail work) and rails atop the short bed sides. Unfortunately, there are also model-specific running boards that make it harder to get in and out. You cannot step directly down to the pavement; instead you have to throw your legs out at an odd angle to clear them. The only other option for people of average height is to swing your legs over them, which inevitably means dragging your pants over any dirt or mud they’ve accumulated. It would be nice to see a trail-rated tire on the XRT, as its standard AWD allows it to competently handle trail heads and fire roads.

The Hyundai rides smoothly over most surfaces, with little road or wind noise. The Santa Cruz can also carve corners with more ease than midsize trucks like the Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma thanks to excellent body control and accurate steering. All XRTs come with a 2.5L, turbocharged 281hp engine and 8-speed, twin-clutch transmission. Boasting 311lb-ft of torque, the Hyundai can tow up to 5,000 pounds easily and is really quick, hitting 60 in only 6 seconds flat. It can also achieve 30mpg on highway runs. The Maverick, when equipped with its more powerful engine, is as quick, though it can only tow 4,000 pounds.

Inside, the Hyundai really pulls ahead of the Ford, with higher quality materials a more upscale design aesthetic. Front seating is comfortable, and the back bench is more comfortable than some midsize pickups. One frustration is that the climate controls are incorporated into the shiny plastic surrounding the center 10.3in touchscreen. Since they are haptic feedback only, and don’t move, it can be hard to change settings. Hyundai plans to switch back to real knobs and buttons on the Tucson crossover (which shares a basic platform and many interior parts with the Santa Cruz), hopefully this will be applied to the pickup as well.

The Santa Cruz’s bed is one the smallest in the segment, being only four feet long. However, it has a built-in, accordion-style sliding cargo cover and a built-in trunk below the bed, making it more useful than its size might suggest. The Hyundai’s warranty is also the best of any pickup and the company performs exceptionally well in independent surveys referencing reliability and ease-of-use. Combined with the overall driving experience, it makes a intriguing alternative to a crossover or a larger pickup.

EPA Ratings: 19/27/22mpg

0-60mph: 6.0sec

Price as tested: $41,635

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Here is what Hyundai has to say.


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Isaac Bouchard, Automotive Editor, owns Denver-based Bespoke Autos and can be reached at [email protected]; 303-475-1462