Whenever I praise any truck smaller than an F-450, the comments roll in. “The GMC Canyon would never work for me because I own a company that drags stuck bulldozers out of tar pits,” one of them might say. Or “Honda engineers really whiffed with the Ridgeline because I have a team of Clydesdales that I trailer to my ranch at the top of Mount McKinley and it is unsuited to that use case.” Or even “I need my truck to do sky wheelies in front of an arena audience to maximize my Monster Jam freestyle score, so therefore the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a big no.” That’s all fine. If your business is “Uber, but for bricks” or you regularly move lighthouses that are about to fall into the ocean or the Rubicon Trail is your driveway, then the Santa Cruz is not for you. But if you occasionally haul some pickup-truck things and maybe like to tow a medium-size boat, then it could work quite well. As long as you can sublimate your ego and admit that you don’t really do anything that requires a Denis Leary voice-over.
If I told you Santa Cruz specs alone, you’d probably envision a traditional mid-size pickup truck. The one I tested makes 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, has a 5000-pound tow rating, and can carry 1609 pounds of payload in its bed. Its EPA combined fuel economy: 22 mpg. Its tires are about 30 inches tall, and you can lock the center differential. To me, this reads as “Toyota Tacoma with somewhat better fuel economy.” But that’s not at all what the Alabama-built Santa Cruz looks like. It’s a unibody, about as wide as a Tacoma but more than a foot shorter in length, with a roofline four inches lower. The Santa Cruz isn’t trying to be tough or imposing. That alone is unusual. Even the Ridgeline has an HPD off-road version now.
But it turns out that towering braggadocio is not a prerequisite for usefulness. When I needed to fetch a vintage Tetris arcade game (I should not be allowed to look at Craigslist), I considered whether to take the Hyundai or my short-bed Ram. According to the measurements the seller provided, the game would fit in the Ram’s bed with the tailgate open, without hanging over. In the Santa Cruz, it would hang off the tailgate to some degree, depending on how much the roll-up tonneau cover interfered (the housing eats up valuable bed space back by the cab even when the cover is retracted). I decided to go with the Santa Cruz, on the theory that its low tailgate would make loading the 300-pound game somewhat easier, and its independent rear suspension would provide a cushier ride for the 1980s electronics. As for the overhang, I fashioned a custom bed extender out of 2x4s to support the cabinet beyond the tailgate.
It turned out I didn’t need it. The Tetris dimensions, pulled from the internet, were way wrong and the cabinet wasn’t nearly as gigantic as I expected. So we didn’t need the bed extender, but I was glad for the 31.6-inch tailgate height when it came time to play some real-life Tetris and lift the heavy game into the Santa Cruz bed. Were it not for the tonneau cover, the cabinet would have rested entirely on the tailgate. It hung over by perhaps six inches, nothing a few ratchet straps couldn’t address.
On the way home, I took satisfaction in comparing the Santa Cruz’s cargo-hauling status with that of the full-size trucks on the road, most of which aren’t hauling anything at all. One jacked-up diesel Silverado 2500 was towing a pair of personal watercraft. The Santa Cruz could do that and then some. A 5000-pound boat and trailer would look gigantic behind the Santa Cruz, but it’s up for the challenge. Considering that the Limited AWD has a gross vehicle weight rating (the max weight of the truck plus passengers and cargo) of 5732 pounds, that means that a loaded-up Santa Cruz with a trailer could top 10,000 pounds. And I don’t care what it looks like—if you’re chooglin’ down the highway in a rig that weighs 10,000 pounds, that’s a truck.
Besides successfully retrieving the Tetris, I went on to use the Santa Cruz for other truck stuff. I went to the dump. I took one of my dogs—the one who won’t jump out of trucks—for a ride. I used the tailgate as a workbench. At Lowe’s, I bought a throw rug. Why do they call it that? [Ed note: Impending Dad joke alert.] Because you throw it in the back of your Santa Cruz.
And among all that hauling, the Santa Cruz drove like what it is: an agile compact crossover. That Hyundai 2.5-liter turbo four is a powerhouse, and it’s mated to an eight-speed wet dual-clutch transmission that cracks off firm upshifts in Sport mode and perfect rev-matched downshifts. The Santa Cruz isn’t going to hang with a Chevy Colorado ZR2 off-road, but it’ll destroy it on a twisty paved one. If you can have some pickup functionality without resigning yourself to a solid rear axle with leaf springs and body-on-frame construction (still the prevailing formula in the pickup world), then why not? Whatever the limitations of the Santa Cruz cargo bed, it’s a 100 percent improvement over no cargo bed at all.
We’re used to the idea that some trucks are specialists. A Ford Raptor is for going fast off-road. A Ram Tradesman is for doing work. A Ram TRX is for jumping over stuff for your YouTube channel. The Chevy Silverado Realtree Edition is for having part of your truck look like trees. The Santa Cruz, too, has an angle—you can forget it’s a truck until you need it to be one. And then it might be just enough to haul home your Tetris.
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