One week (well, five days) with a Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited

By J.G. Pasterjak
Dec 1, 2023 | Hyundai, Truck, Santa Cruz, Ridgeline, Maverick, Truckette

Photography by J.G. Pasterjak unless otherwise credited

Vehicles like the Hyundai Santa Cruz are frustrating. Not because the manufacturer did anything wrong, but more because the vehicle doesn’t meet some unrealistic metric that was never within their design parameters and will never be within their use case.

Mention any of the modern unibody truckettes to folks and you might get instant criticism that they can’t tow as much as a diesel F-250 or carry an 8-foot sheet of plywood with the tailgate closed.

But that’s 100% not the intent of these types of vehicles, and the criticism is frustrating because after spending a few days with a particularly good example, I’ll say it’s a fabulous Swiss army knife that does a lot of things well and has a metric ton of general practicality.

Sharing a platform with the Hyundai Tucson mid-size SUV, the Santa Cruz packs two rows of seating and a four-foot bed with an integrated, sliding, lockable storage cover into just over 16 feet of total vehicle length. It can do truck things without the truck penalty of being unwieldy and cumbersome–and still deliver high 20s for fuel economy.

The towing capacity for an all-wheel-drive Limited model equipped with the tow package like our test vehicle is 5000 pounds—the same as a Honda Ridgeline. No, it won’t be the ideal support vehicle for a 24-hour enduro, but getting your Miata to the track on an open trailer seems entirely within the realm of realism.

But the other reality is that most people who drive anything with a tow package don’t do any towing. For the great majority of consumers, this particular form factor seems to make a lot of sense from a utility and practicality standpoint. Need to load up some mulch? No problem. Need to take some friends to dinner? No problem. Do those friends need you to help them get a dryer home after dinner? Again, no problems are detected.

The Santa Cruz feels very much like the rest of Hyundai’s current lineup, which is to say it excels at having a great feel and presence that gives the impression of punching above its class and delivering a lot of value. Among its direct peers, it feels closer in size to a Maverick, but closer in quality and comfort to a Ridgeline.

Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Hyundai’s current suite of in-car electronics has shed a button or two from the most recent generation in favor of touchscreen functionality for infotainment, but the HVAC controls are still separate and have good feedback.

Overall, the interior is tidy and feels more like a sedan than an SUV. Materials and finish are pleasing, but not opulent. There’s not a feeling of luxury—which, honestly, would feel out of character with the rest of the car—but there is a huge vibe of quality and value.

Our 2023 Santa Cruz Limited AWD tester didn’t come with a window sticker, but a similar vehicle built via Hyundai's web configurator is listed for just under $42,000.

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
12/1/23 11:36 a.m.

I feel like the Santa Cruz kinda lives in the Maverick's shadow, but I don't think it deserves it–I think it's pretty neat and, like J.G. said, would be a perfect Swiss Army Knife for my family.

I've been seeing them slowly popping up around me, and my father-in-law's sister (is there a word for that?) just got one. She seems pretty happy with it.

nocones GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
12/1/23 12:20 p.m.

How can Hyundai allow the paint color on the bumper of that stock press photo (unless florida looks way different now in which case how can they allow the paint on the bumper of the press car) to be so poorly matched?  

I looked on line to make sure it wasn't like a "thing" and it looks like it's suppose to be matching body color.  There are some OTHER stock photos showing similar disparity, but all of the images that are clearly rendered show it as the same as the body and it looks like most colors it is the same.   

Otherwise I am intrigured how your experience goes.  Especially interested in comparisons to the Maverick that is in the GRM family.  I like these I just think the splashy MPG numbers of the maverick Hybrid took some of the Thunder from the Cruz.  Would be interested in what you get real world.  I would expect it will be similar to the ~22.5 average we get with a Santa Fe. 

Apexcarver MegaDork
12/1/23 12:34 p.m.

I cross shopped and looked at a Santa Cruz, but wound up ordering my Maverick. 

The Santa Cruz seems to have a bit more luxury and the Maverick seems to be a bit more purposeful. The Maverick is also less expensive. That said, the Santa Cruz has a few things that the Maverick leaves to the aftermarket. Bed topper and tailgate brake come to mind. Alternatively, the Maverick, if optioned with 4k tow comes with an integrated trailer brake controller. 


Plus, my wife hates the Hyundai's styling...  She likes my Maverick enough that she has mentioned possibly getting another one for her when she replaces her Mazda5.   I have to hide my keys to keep her from taking my truck, lol. 

Jesse Ransom
Jesse Ransom GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
12/1/23 12:49 p.m.

What's the scoop with the bed cover and tailgate? Apart from not being HVACed, is it pretty secure and out of the weather? Could you regard it as a big, flat trunk for a road, trip and not worry that clothes would get soaked etc?

No Time
No Time UltraDork
12/1/23 1:18 p.m.

I think it would be on my short list when I go to buy my next vehicle if they kept the extendable bed from the concept. Oh yeah, and a 6 speed manual would be a plus. 

DirtyBird222 PowerDork
12/1/23 2:08 p.m.
Jesse Ransom said:

What's the scoop with the bed cover and tailgate? Apart from not being HVACed, is it pretty secure and out of the weather? Could you regard it as a big, flat trunk for a road, trip and not worry that clothes would get soaked etc?

It's fairly weather proof from the Facebook owners page I was on for a while when considering one of these. 

I really considered one of these after my Raptor Lemon issue. It would accomplish 90% of what I need a truck for. The interior is nice, the gauge cluster is the same as the Kona N, Hyundai's infotainment is one of the best out there IMO, and from the front doors back it looks cool. The DCT makes it fun to drive with the 2.5T. It's like a modern day Subaru Brat/Baja. 

Every time I went to buy one in the trim and color I wanted it would disappear before I could secure a deposit on it. They seem to be highly sought after in Florida. On that aforementioned FB owners page I also saw a lot of people having issues with road debris penetrating their radiators and causing leaks which was interesting as I couldn't find a similar issue with Tuscons that share the same front end. They aren't as unobtanium as the Maverick and overall the styling is way cooler than the Maverick too. The Ridgeline would probably be the most solid option in this class for long term survivability, despite its dated design and interior. 

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
12/1/23 2:12 p.m.
Jesse Ransom said:

What's the scoop with the bed cover and tailgate? Apart from not being HVACed, is it pretty secure and out of the weather? Could you regard it as a big, flat trunk for a road, trip and not worry that clothes would get soaked etc?

The cover is a hard plastic segmented deal like a garage door. It rides in a fairly deep channel. The most likely spot I'd see for moisture intrusion would be at the seal between the slider and the tailgate. But I still wouldn't think it would be an issue in all but the absolute most extreme conditions. We didn't have any issues with a couple evenings of rain. 

Kreb (Forum Supporter)
Kreb (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
12/1/23 3:33 p.m.

The articles observations are generally spot on. Hyundai has made the same mistake that Honda did with the Ridgeline. They made the logical assumption that since most people use their light trucks like station wagons/SUVs with an open trunk, that people would want their vehicles styled in that manner as well. But most people want their trucks to look like trucks. They are wrapped up in the concept that trucks need to look purposeful and macho and traditional to give them the proper image and cred. Kind of stupid, as any number of UTE owners down under will illustrate. 

Coniglio Rampante
Coniglio Rampante Reader
12/1/23 3:34 p.m.

This vehicle and the Elantra N and Kona N would capture my attention if I was in the market for a new vehicle.

I know some people express issues with Korean manufacturers, but to me it seems like Hyundai has been hitting it out of the park over the last four or five years.

This trucklet would suit my needs very well.

Kreb (Forum Supporter)
Kreb (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
12/1/23 3:36 p.m.

It's unfortunate that this class of vehicles is available only in 4-door configuration. As an empty nester, I'd gladly give up the back seat for a bigger bed and just enough space behind the seats for my dogs. But unibody construction lacks the modularity of body on frame, so I'm not holding my breath.

Edit: The fact that the dealer closest to me has 4 for sale, from $43,000 to $45,000 can't help sales. I checked in my major metropolitan area and the cheapest one I could find anywhere was $40,000. For that, I'll take another Ridgeline, please.

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