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Payne: Hyundai Santa Cruz pickup ... where SUVs leave off

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Santa Cruz, California — And now for something completely different.

The segment-busting 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz pickup is the first of its kind — a unibody-based, head-turning Swiss Army knife with many tools for many chores. Did I say pickup? Hyundai prefers the term Sport Adventure Vehicle because Santa Cruz is truly a different animal.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz offers pickup utility on top of a nimble SUV that can cut some rug on country roads.

“I think this segment is the new hot hatch,” said Hyundai Test and Development manager Chahe Apelian of a compact SUV segment that will soon include the Ford Maverick and maybe entrants from Ram and VW.

That’s music to my ears as I was an early buyer of the segment-busting 1984 VW Golf GTI, the original hot hatch. An enthusiast’s compact. Since then, hot hatches have become the most versatile vehicle in autodom with utility and performance at an affordable price. Though hardly volume sellers compared to their peers, they attract passionate lifestyle buyers who turn brand missionaries.

In addition to the GTI, today’s hot hatch segment includes all-stars like the Golf R, Mazda 3 Turbo and Hyundai Veloster N (soon to be replaced by the Kona N).

As Americans have pivoted to utes and trucks, the Santa Cruz offers similar benefit to adventure-minded SUV buyers. Think lifestyle enthusiasts like Subaru Outback or Jeep Compass customers.

Start with Santa Cruz’s centerpiece:

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz comes with sub-bed storage.

The bed. As hatch is to Golf GTI utility, the bed is to Santa Cruz.

Unlike traditional pickups which option multi-length beds, the Cruz tub is fully integrated into the chassis design. Ladder-frame truck beds are clearly tacked onto the cabin so they can be swapped out for a bigger unit during assembly. Cruz’s bed is a natural extension of the vehicle’s lines. Hey, it’s not a Mercedes, but it makes for a leaner, more sinewy profile that is pleasing to the eye.

Then the bed gets down to basics: soft-drop tailgate, sub-bed storage, drainage plug, side-wall storage, LED lights, utility rails. All standard. In a vehicle starting at $24,000 — well under a mid-size pickup class where you’ll be hard-pressed to find standard goodies. Built in ’Bama, Cruz was designed on Cali’s surfer coast with Yanks in mind. It even copies Chevy Silverado’s corner steps to help you lay your surfboard in the bed.

The bed of the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is perfect for surfboards and other quick trips around town.

Like hot hatches, pickups are generally boy toys, but I’m betting these features will make Santa Cruz a chick magnet, too. Wee Mrs. Payne is terrified of free-falling tailgates, but soft-drop reassures. And on a trip to the grocer (or the park to barbecue), it’s a no-brainer to throw your meats ‘n’ drinks into the sub-bed locker with a bag of ice. When you arrive at your destination, pull the plug to drain the water.

The icing on the cake is the tonneau cover. Lockable, water-resistant and easy to slide, it’s the answer to every pickup buyer’s prayers — a retractable cover that instantly turns the bed into a trunk to protect your stuff from the elements.

Not standard, but worth the $3,270 upgrade that includes 115-volt plug in rear, sunroof, sliding rear window, and more.

The sub-bed is also perfect for muddy kids cleats and jerseys — indeed, the whole idea of a bed on the back of an SUV is to keep smells and dirt separated from the cabin.

The 4-foot bed does come with compromises. You won’t be hauling ATVs back there. Indeed, the bed can’t even swallow a bicycle whole, necessitating that you throw the front tire over the tailgate to fit it in. That, naturally, means you have to buy a Hyundai accessory to protect the tailgate (or just throw a thick rug over it).

You can stash bikes on the bed of the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz - just make sure you have something to protect the tailgate from the front tire hanging over the back.

For those who want to drag their ATV to the Outback, you’ll need to buy a trailer. With that in mind, Hyundai ambitiously, obsessively benchmarked to the Honda Ridgeline (a segment bigger and the only other SUV-based unibody pickup) with 5,000-pound towing capability. Nice.

For more typical use cases of loading mulch, cinderblock, furniture ... Santa Cruz also has a Ridgeline-like payload of 1,900 pounds.

It’s a compact SUV. Just as GTI shares a skeleton with the VW Golf, so is the Santa Cruz a Tucson with a bed. Tucson, also new this year, has immediately gone to the top of the SUV class in my book with its Lambo looks, clever interior and tight handling.

Male and female alike will find this pleasing for metro errands where even midsize pickups can feel big.

Around the crowded San Francisco Bay Area, Cruz was as easy to park as, well, a Tucson. That compact size shows in back, and my 6-foot-5-inch frame's legs were jammed into the back of the front seat when I tried to sit behind myself. Normal-size folks will be more comfortable — and there’s sub-seat storage space to boot.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz offers clever, sub-rear seat storage.

It’s a looker. The GTI and Mazda 3 Turbo hatches are eye-catching. Cruz, too. When I say the Cruz is a Tucson with a bed, I mean outside and inside. Teased waaaay back at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show as a prototype, Santa Cruz was a long time coming as Hyundai developed an architecture that could meet the pickup’s needs.

Hyundai has bold styling ambitions, and Tucson/Santa Cruz’s triangle-themed design is unique.

The state-of-the-art interior boasts the same pluses and minuses as Tucson. I love its simplicity with two all-digital screens running the show and twin lines wrapping the cabin. The latter is made possible by ditching the instrument display screen’s hood (credit a bright LCD display). Dude, it’s cool.

Like the Tucson SUV with which it shares a platform, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz comes with all the latest electronics like adaptive cruise control and smartphone app connect.

Hyundai jumps the shark by continuing that simplicity to a touchscreen without volume dials which occupants will miss. At least the driver can control volume with a steering-wheel button. It’s hard to be mad when Santa Cruz comes standard with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Fun to drive. OK, the high-riding (8.6-inch) Cruz is no hot hatch on road, but it can cut some rug. The 2022 Nissan Frontier is the best-handling ladder-frame truck I’ve driven thanks to clever suspension and cabin mounts — but it can’t hold a candle to the Santa Cruz. With a healthy turbocharged 281 horses under the hood (a 191-horse 4-cylinder is also capable), we danced together through the twists and turns of the Bay Area’s challenging Route 9 and had a ball.

Just, um, don’t try that with the groceries in back. Same goes for hot hatches.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup 

Price: $25,175, including $1,185 destination fee ($40,905 Limited model as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder; 2.5-liter turbo-4

Power: 191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque (2.5L); 281 horsepower, 311 pound-feet of torque (2.5L turbo)

Transmissions: 8-speed automatic (2.5L); 8-speed dual-clutch automatic (2.5L turbo)

Performance: 0-60 mph (7.5 seconds, Car and Driver, 2.5L turbo-4); payload, 1,900 pounds; tow, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 2,835 pounds (manual Limited as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 19 mpg city/26 highway/22 combined (2.5L turbo-4 as tested)

Report card

Highs: Segment-busting pickup for metro drivers; versatile bed

Lows: Won’t fit your bike without taking wheel off; touchscreen needs buttons, please

Overall: 4 stars 

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