The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle

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The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider
  • Part pickup and part SUV, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is unlike anything else on the market.
  • It starts at $24,000 and sports a small but surprisingly versatile truck bed.
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In just one afternoon with Hyundai's new pickup truck, the 2022 Santa Cruz, three separate people came up to me and asked the same question: "What the heck is that thing?"

I suspect that number would have been higher if we weren't living in a time when many people's social skills have shriveled away into nothing, much like their early-pandemic sourdough starters or their will to clothe themselves below the Zoom line.

Sure, the Santa Cruz only hit the scene this summer, so most people haven't seen one up close before. But there's another reason Hyundai's petite pickup attracts questions and puzzled stares wherever it goes: It's weird as hell.

The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

Occupying the bizarre territory between pickup and SUV, the Santa Cruz is unlike anything else you can buy today. Hyundai essentially took an SUV, scooped out a big chunk of the roof, and stuck on a modest truck bed where the trunk should be.

It sounds grotesque, but the result is a vehicle that perfectly marries the utility of a pickup with the familiar form and feel of an SUV. In a league all on its own, the Santa Cruz is a gloriously funky answer to the bulky trucks and faceless crossovers that dominate US roads.

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The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

Weird isn't always bad

Hyundai's first pickup for the US market, the Santa Cruz is brand-new to the Korean automaker's lineup this year. Much like the Ford Maverick that's practically its only direct competition, the Santa Cruz carries an enticingly low starting price: $23,990 before fees.

That's for the base SE trim, which comes with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine making 191 horsepower. There are four trims in total, with the upper two — SEL Premium and Limited — providing both all-wheel drive and a more powerful turbocharged engine as standard equipment. The fully-loaded Limited model Hyundai loaned me for a few days last month came out to just over $41,000, including a destination fee.

A surprisingly useful bed in a city-friendly package

I came in with serious doubts about how much stuff the Santa Cruz's little bed would be able to handle. After all, at four feet long, it's a solid 12 inches shorter than the cargo areas you'd find in popular midsize trucks like the Toyota Tacoma. But the Santa Cruz blew me away with its versatility.

The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

When I set out for a day of mountain biking, I was able to plop my bulky bike in the back of the Santa Cruz without much fuss. Placed on a diagonal with the front wheel removed, it fit like a glove.

And the bed offers a whole lot more utility than just an outdoor box to chuck stuff. Small storage cubbies on either side of the bed were great for the excess bungees and straps I'd brought along, and a spacious under-floor cargo area gobbled up my shoes, backpack, and helmet. A lockable tonneau cover means you can use the bed like a regular trunk if you want.

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The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that the Santa Cruz could comfortably take me, my bike, and all my gear to the trails; that's precisely the sort of thing it was put on Earth to do. The pickup isn't geared toward people who need to haul sheets of plywood or dimensional lumber on the daily — those people buy Ford F-150s and Chevy Silverados. It's intended to be used more casually: for sandy beach chairs, cumbersome camping gear, and maybe the occasional DIY project around the house.

In fact, one of the Santa Cruz's biggest selling points is just how not-truck-like it is. Since it's basically an SUV, darting through city traffic and slipping into parking spots is no problem. The Santa Cruz doesn't feel big or unwieldy like more conventional pickups tend to, and it'd be worlds easier to own in a dense city than bulkier rivals.

The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

Without a jacked-up ride height, tall boxy hood, or long bed, you can actually see out of the thing pretty well. And when visibility is lacking, the Santa Cruz can step in using nifty blind-spot cameras and a 360-degree overhead view, both of which are included on the Limited model.

Inside, the Santa Cruz feels comfortable and high quality. The top-trim model I tested had upgrades like leather-trimmed seats, a display in place of normal gauges, a bigger touchscreen, a heated steering wheel, and ventilated seats. But even the base Santa Cruz comes with comforts like Apple CarPlay and gobs of advanced safety tech.

The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

The Santa Cruz has a lot going for it, but as 2004's "Ocean's Twelve" showed us, even the best things can't be great all the time. Whereas the critically-panned second installment of the "Ocean's" franchise lacks a cohesive and logical plot, the Santa Cruz comes up short on legroom — particularly in the back seat. While it's roomy enough back there for children and small adults, it seems a bit too cramped to transport large humans any considerable distance.

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The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

Our impressions: brings a little quirkiness to bland US roads

The Santa Cruz is an oddball — there's no getting around it. But I'm totally charmed by all of its quirkiness and everything it's trying to accomplish. I think others will be too.

The $24,000 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a truck that feels like an SUV — making it the perfect adventure vehicle
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz.Tim Levin/Insider

This car-truck-thing isn't going to steal buyers away from F-150s and Tundras, clearly. But it very well may capture the hearts of, say, sporty Subaru owners who want a bit more utility out of their vehicle. The Santa Cruz's relatively compact size makes it a great option for outdoorsy people living in cities where parking is a hassle.

And in a car market that's become increasingly homogenous — one where most buyers choose from a sea of similar-looking SUVs and pickups — the Santa Cruz is a refreshing break from the norm.

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