Hyundai Santa Cruz

The Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited comes with a turbocharged engine with 275 horsepower and leather seats.

An anecdote about the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz: As my wife and I were driving onto the Santa Cruz Wharf, a young guy in a car driving toward the exit hit the brakes, grabbed his smartphone, hung out the window of his car and started taking pictures.

His was the most physical reaction, but everywhere we went over our six days in the Hyundai Santa Cruz – from the city of Santa Cruz itself to the Point Reyes National Seashore and San Francisco in between – the vehicle drew admiring glances and inquiries about what it was, what it could do and how much it costs.

Naming cars is tricky. It’s why some companies have made up words (Camry) or gone alphanumeric. Hyundai is big on names of places for its SUVs (Kona, Tucson, Santa Fe) and now its first pickup truck.

Not to overthink it (insert eye-rolls from literally everyone who knows me personally here), but the name “Santa Cruz” is a great fit for this vehicle. Santa Cruz is a small beach city with lots of fun things to do, a relaxed attitude and a youthful vibe. It’s also very much its own thing. Santa Cruz isn’t “just like (name of any other beach town).”

Under the hood, the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD has a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 275 horsepower and 310 pounds per foot of torque (lower-spec models get a non-turbo 2.5 with 190 horsepower and 180 pounds per foot of torque).

Mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters, it’s quick, with 0-60 mph runs in approximately 6.3 seconds. The Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimate is 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway.

Superb handling

It didn’t matter whether it was city streets, freeways or the fabulous backroads of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco or Marin counties, the Santa Cruz’s road manners were impeccable and its handling superb. There may be a pickup bed back there, but at the wheel, it feels for all the world like a capable sport sedan.

About that bed. It’s a 4-footer with a sliding cover over the top. To open it, you have to lower the tailgate, and when you lock the doors, you lock the tailgate, too. So, unlike a lot of pickup beds, the Santa Cruz’s has the security of a car trunk. The cover can be left in place and cargo loaded through the tailgate alone. Or it can be rolled back to load from above and to carry things that are taller than the cover would allow.

The base price of the Limited AWD is $39,720. Among the standard equipment highlights at that price are a complete suite of active safety features, 20-inch alloy wheels, power sunroof, leather-trimmed seats, dual automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, Bose premium audio system and navigation.

The only extra-cost options on our tester were the Sage Gray paint ($400) and carpeted floor mats ($195), so with $1,225 freight, the as-tested price is $41,450.

Hyundai says the Santa Cruz is targeted at the weekend adventurer – people often living in urban areas who want “versatile transportation that is equally flexible for urban, adventure, occupational or even home improvement gear.” Looks to me like they have hit that target dead center.

The small pickup truck battle is just beginning. I haven’t driven Ford’s Maverick yet, but by all appearances, it’s a different, more traditional take on a small pickup. In 1970s terms, the Maverick is the new Ford Courier, while the Santa Cruz is the new Subaru BRAT, perfected to a degree unimaginable back in the day.

It’s probably the native Californian in me, but fun wins every time – especially in those rare cases where it doesn’t hurt function. The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a winner.

Mike Hagerty, vice president of membership for Western Automotive Journalists (waj.org), has been writing about cars since 1997. Read more of his reviews at MikeHagertyCars.com.