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Payne: Hyundai's segment-busting pickup aims for SUV buyers

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
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Tucson, Arizona — The pickup wars have a new warrior: Hyundai unveiled its long-awaited pickup truck here Thursday, further expanding the red-hot midsize truck segment.

But the Made-in-America, 2022 Santa Cruz thinks outside the usual boxy pickup. It's aimed at SUV buyers rather than the traditional, rugged, ladder-frame Detroit Three pickup customer.

Call it an SUV with a bed.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a cross between SUV and pickup. It rides on a unibody - not ladder-frame - and sports a more raked windshield and c-pillar.

The strikingly-designed Hyundai, first seen as a concept at the Detroit Auto Show way back in 2015, is the second unibody-based pickup after the Honda Ridgeline. But where the Ridgeline's long-bed proportions match up with the Detroit Three pickups, the Santa Cruz embraces its ute-ness. Out front, the full-fascia grille echoes the Tucson SUV with which the pickup shares a platform. Out back is a compact bed no longer than a typical SUV hatch.

The bed is shorter by 8 inches than competitors Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma. Since the box only comes in one size (not short and long options), it is more integrated into the vehicle's angular body design than the traditional, boxy truck.

It's most striking feature is a optional, sliding tonneau cover that brings to mind the radical Tesla Cybertruck pickup bed. The lockable cover allows owners to throw dirty, smelly items (think hockey gear) into the bed separate from the cabin — but without the risk of having them stolen.

Hyundai calls Santa Cruz a segment-buster — referring to it as a “sport adventure vehicle” that allows SUV buyers the utility of a pickup but without the interior and parking constraints of its bigger segment brothers. The idea appears to be in vogue as Ford is also reportedly coming to market with a unibody pickup called Maverick. VW, Ram and GM are also looking at the nascent segment.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz has a small bed aimed at mulchers and outdoors-folks more than wood-toting home builders.

"The Santa Cruz shatters convention," said design director Brad Arnold. "This is neither truck not SUV. It's an entirely new category of vehicle."

The small Santa Cruz bed is designed more with fertilizer-toting gardeners in mind than home-builders with long wood planks. A hidden, sub-bed compartment can store additional gear or be used as a tailgate cooler (there is also sub-rear seat storage). The Hyundai also takes a page from Chevrolet with corner bumper steps for easier rear access.

The interior is more mid-size SUV than the plasticky, simple interiors found in competitors (Ridgeline aside). The familiar 2.5-liter four-banger engine comes standard, as does Hyundai’s industry-leading 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

“Open-bed flexibility coupled with closed-cabin security meets the changing everyday needs of its adventure-oriented buyers, while superb maneuverability ensure it is a pleasure to drive in urban or off-road environments,” said Hyundai Motor North America chief Jose Munoz.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz options a digital instrument cluster.

The Santa Cruz will be built in Montgomery, Alabama, (adding some 1,200 jobs) and hit dealer lots this summer. Expect it to start at $25,000. Further making its case as a red-white-and-blue pickup, the taillights are embossed with “Designed in California” to honor Hyundai’s West Coast-based design team.

Those who want to take the Santa Cruz off the grid will be encouraged by a front skid plate and available all-wheel-drive system (front-wheel-drive is standard). True to its dual personality, the Sant Cruz’s AWD can be optimized for on-road or off-road grip.

The interior is thoroughly modern — anchored by modern digital displays. Familiar Hyundai tech abounds: wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, phone charger and smartphone app connectivity for, say, remote starting and cabin warm-up. Standard safety features include lane-keep assist and forward collision alert with adaptive cruise control optional.

To motivate the little beast, Hyundai options two 4-cylinder engines with added oomph for off-roading or towing. A standard 2.5-liter four-banger makes 190-plus horsepower while a 275-horse turbo-4 (the same power output as Hyundai’s ferocious Veloster N hot hatch) is optional. The latter boasts 5,000 pounds of towing capability — on par with the Honda Ridgeline but shy of segment, ladder-frame leaders that boast 7,500-pound capability.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz has a smaller bed than competitor pickups. Signature T-taillights light up the rear.

With its shorter bed and lower profile, the Santa Cruz comes in over a foot shorter than class competitors to assist in parking garage flexibility. Its unibody construction may also aid smoother daily ride than typical pickups.

Pre-COVID, sales of midsize pickup trucks in the U.S. jumped 22% in 2019 to 13-year highs. With SUV sales at 70% of the non-pickup market, Hyundai expects more buyers to be headed its way with the Santa Cruz.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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