Unique vehicles like the 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz have to fight hard to impress critics. Not only do we want it to be good; we’re looking for how it justifies its genre-defying weirdness, right? After a week of test driving, I don’t think this car/pickup truck mashup is the ultimate vehicle in any familiar category, but it is a cool tool that would be fun to own.
The Santa Cruz can apparently pull 5,000 pounds of trailer and even fit a small dirt bike in its bed. It also eats up the contents of a hefty hardware store run and perhaps more surprisingly—it’s actually pretty fun to drive.
This car did give me a few issues that were particularly disappointing at the list price of this trim level. But it still did enough well enough that I’m comfortable recommending anyone who’s even vaguely interested in the idea of the Santa Cruz to take a closer look.
2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz Specs
- Base price (Limited as tested) $27,435 ($42,305)
- Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder | 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 281 @ 5,800 rpm
- Torque: 311 @ 1,700-4,000 rpm
- Seating capacity: 5
- Curb weight: 4,164 pounds
- Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
- Payload capacity: 1,609 pounds
- Cargo volume: 27 cubic feet (bed)
- Ground clearance: 8.6 inches
- EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city | 27 highway | 22 combined
- Quick take: Neat execution of a novel idea and surprisingly fun to drive, but our test car let us down in some unfortunate ways
- Score: 7/10
The idea behind the Santa Cruz is novel but pretty simple: It’s a crossover SUV with an open cargo bed instead of an enclosed seating area. Hyundai first trotted out a concept of it in 2015—I distinctly remember asking a company rep about it at that year’s Chicago Auto Show and not believing his assurance that it was indeed headed for production.
Well, I’m happy to say my skepticism was proven incorrect. It took a few years but the 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz is now a very real and, dare I say, a very cool-looking crossover pickup. The mecha-spider style integrated grille and headlights, a look shared with the Tuscon crossover, sweep back into chunky lines and pieces of cladding to give this vehicle a very Marvel Comics aesthetic.
I found the interior surprisingly artful, too. The main control setup and seating are fairly simple and plain, but there’s a nice sweeping piece of trim spanning the dashboard doing a lot of heavy lifting to make the cockpit feel altogether more interesting.
You can order it with a four-banger claiming 191 horsepower or opt for the turbo that moves that figure up to 281. Basic models are front-drive, higher trims get all-wheel drive and satisfying paddle shifters.
Driving the Hyundai Santa Cruz
The range-topping Limited trim Santa Cruz I drove had the 2.5-liter turbo engine and HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. It really did not give me anything to complain about in normal driving—no annoying drones, power felt sufficient, the transmission shifted beautifully (more on this momentarily), and visibility is fine despite its big rear buttresses.
In spite of the steering wheel’s somewhat unconventional spoke situation, I must say I liked being able to rest a palm on the bottom. It and the seats were plenty comfortable for $40,000. Cargo-stashing slots near the driver are thoughtfully placed, and, believe it or not, this is the only car I’ve ever driven (ever) with a wireless charging pad that my iPhone didn’t slide off of in any kind of driving.
I hadn’t planned on trying to carve up mountain roads with this vehicle. But the responsiveness of the engine in sport mode and the remarkably satisfying action of the paddle shifters ended up enticing me to push it around a bit. And I’m surprised to report that the Santa Cruz is kind of fun to drive hard.
The transmission is what pulled me in first—clicking down to pass somebody was a snappier experience than I expected. That set my synapses firing and made me lean on the gas pedal a little harder, surging the trucklet ahead. I was able to feel an appreciable sensation of speed without getting reckless and stayed confident at a brisk road-carving pace through linked turns. The all-wheel-drive Santa Cruz felt consistent and comfortable at a spirited but socially acceptable clip, leading me to think this car could actually be worth modding.
If I bought one of these, you wouldn’t catch me lifting it; I’d be looking for a set of light wheels and sticky tires to pair with an aggressive engine tune and have one hell of an adventure machine. Such a car would be particularly well-suited to the Northeast where real off-road driving to anywhere isn’t really a thing anyway.
The Highs and Lows
Clicking through the gears and riding a wave of turbo boost is definitely a high point here, as is the design and general concept of the Santa Cruz. As for its truckish side, the cargo bed was big enough to take more than half a dozen 40-pound bags of the wood pellets I use to heat my office so I’m reasonably satisfied with the DIY-enabling factor. I also like how there are not one or two, but three closeable storage pockets within the bed (one in the floor, like a sub-bed, and two little ones on the side) plus there’s lighting and plenty of tie-down shackles back there. Finally, the rear bumper has a step in it which really makes access to the back easier.
The Santa Cruz is fun to use and fun to drive, but I did also have a few fairly significant issues with my tester that need to be discussed.
Most frustratingly, a few drops of water on the rear seat tipped me off to a leak in the rear window area. I thought I’d simply left it open a crack, but no, closer inspection revealed that that part of the headliner was soaked through, indicating a clogged sunroof drain (unlikely at 2,000 miles) or an imperfect seal on the glass.
I reported this to Hyundai’s people who said this hadn’t been observed at any scale and it had to be an anomaly. Digging around on my end, I wasn’t able to easily find reports of this issue from owners. It is indeed possible that a drop of sealant somehow got missed while this particular Santa Cruz was being put together, but a leak like that is a big enough deal that I can’t let it slide without a mention.
Furthermore, the tonneau cover slid open and closed just fine in 40-degree ambient temps, but below freezing, the thing got stuck about halfway open making a late-night Lowe’s run extremely annoying.
Finally, after slushy and icy weather, a message on the dashboard informed me that the car’s radar systems may not function. Now, you can’t exactly blame a car for bad weather, and sometimes ice buildup over sensors is simply unavoidable. But I’ve tested quite a few vehicles at different price points in tough weather this winter, and Santa Cruz was the only one to report such an issue.
Hyundai Santa Cruz Features, Options, and Competition
A base-base Santa Cruz lists for $27,435 with freight charges. In that configuration, you’re limited to front-wheel drive and less than 200 hp, which really is a bummer considering how much I enjoyed the turbo engine. But, if you’re not super into driving, the Santa Cruz’s looks and cargo bed make the zero-options model still worth considering.
At the other end of the range, the $42,305 as-tested Limited model I drove has basically the perfect options list: Enjoyable engine and transmission, heated steering wheel, good seats, solid stereo, surround-view camera, and upgraded lighting.
The Santa Cruz doesn’t have any exact equivalents, but the Ford Maverick is a slightly smaller and less spendy alternative while the Honda Ridgeline is about one click bigger and more expensive. Having spent a little time climbing around both of those, I think the relative pricing of all three makes sense.
A Maverick is much less sporty and quite a bit less elegant inside, while the Ridgeline is appreciably bigger and benefits from Honda’s stout reliability reputation. But I must say, the Santa Cruz is way more fun to drive than the larger Honda, and I also think it looks cooler.
Even with all-wheel drive, the Santa Cruz’s higher-hp turbo engine actually gets slightly better EPA-rated highway fuel economy than the non-turbo. An EPA rating of 22 mpg in combined conditions driving isn’t terrible, I guess, but not particularly impressive. The smaller Maverick is once again the bargain option while the Ridgeline is slightly worse on fuel.
Given the Santa Cruz’s nature and aerodynamics, I would bet that your efficiency will vary a lot with driving style. Glide around carefully, go easy on the boost, and I bet you could get closer to 30 mpg at a gentle highway pace. But if you’re looking to let all the horses sing and make the most of the turbocharger, the Santa Cruz will likely become very thirsty.
Value and Verdict
In the context of current car prices, the range and value proposition on the Santa Cruz seems decent. I know a lot of people will be thinking “I could buy a ‘real’ pickup for $30,000-$40,000” and indeed, if you really want to tow, or carry large things regularly, I guess you would be better off with a Chevy Colorado or something. But the Santa Cruz drives so differently from anything like that that it barely makes sense to compare them.
It’s not so much that the Santa Cruz is a tiny truck, it’s more like a tall car with a versatile cargo box.
I like the Santa Cruz a lot—it’s not often that a mainstream automaker drops such a cool-looking car with a big novel feature and it ends up being this much fun to drive. But man, that water leak, anomalous or not, and the tonneau cover getting stuck in the cold were just such unfortunate whiffs for the car to have on an evaluation drive.
Ultimately, I choose to have faith that the automaker would make it right for a customer who had those issues so early on in the vehicle’s life. Even after the issues mentioned, I enjoyed this car to the point where it’d be on my personal shortlist if I were to go car shopping in the next few years. It’s not the sort of truck that begs for knobby tires, though—I’d put some super sticky rubber on it, make some graphics that complement the bodywork, and see what kind of power a good tuner could squeeze out of Hyundai’s turbo engine. Shoot, I got closer to talking myself into buying one just typing out this paragraph.
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