Hyundai’s Santa Cruz Could Become the Go-to Soft-Overlanding Rig

Car-based pickups are nothing new. Australians popularized the car-based ‘Ute’ in the 1950s. Not long after, the odd coupe-pickup blend made its way to the U.S. in the form of the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero. Although those two lasted a couple decades, neither really took off.

After the El Camino died out in the 1980s, the car-pickup market languished for a long time — marked by a few fits and starts, including the Subaru Brat, which, too, didn’t really catch on.

Bravely, Subaru tried its hand at the car-based pickup again in the early 2000s, with the extremely short-lived Baja. But it was yanked from American shores in 2006 after just three model years.

It seems the car-based pickup was officially a nonstarter in the States.


But a strange thing has happened. In the intervening 15 years, trucks, crossover, and anything with a modicum of utility has become incredibly popular with American new-car buyers.

Daring to re-blaze the compact pickup trail that long since grew over, Hyundai debuted the first-ever Santa Cruz last week. It’s small, plucky, handsome, and incredibly capable. More than that, though, it might just become the hottest new soft-overlanding rig.

I think the standout spec that the Santa Cruz boasts is its tow rating. In turbocharged guise, it can tow 5,000 pounds, which is 1,500 more pounds than some Toyota Tacoma trims can handle.


Where the Santa Cruz falls down a bit is in its bed payload capacity — 660 pounds. That’s around 390 fewer than the least-capable Tacoma. But what the Santa Cruz lacks in absolute capacity, it makes up for in handy features. For example, it includes a sliding locking tonneau cover from the factory as well as an in-bed trunk that features a drain plug (à la Honda Ridgeline).


Power comes from either a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter direct-injected inline four-cylinder or a turbocharged four-banger with the same displacement. The turbocharged engine puts out an estimated 275 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It is bolted to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). This DCT includes steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual shifting.

For those keeping track, that’s more horsepower and torque than the Tacoma puts out. Plus the Santa Cruz has two more gears.

All-wheel drive is offered with both turbo- and non-turbo engines. And the AWD includes a center-locking differential, which can be activated with a button in the center console. Hyundai hasn’t indicated ground clearance. From where I sit, it looks fine, but not extraordinary.


The standard 18-inch wheels should be fine for soft-overland travel. You can step up to 20-inchers, but I don’t recommend it.

The Santa Cruz is based upon the Hyundai Tucson. But the team that transformed the Tucson into the Santa Cruz is located in California. So, it’s a home-country effort. Clearly, the American Hyundai team built something that will be compelling for adventurous Americans who don’t want or need a high-riding truck-based expedition vehicle.

Now, I know some of you may balk at this concept. But I have plenty of friends here in the Pacific Northwest who roll Subaru Outback and Toyota RAV4 overland rigs. If they go slow and are careful with their wheel placement, they can get most places my Gladiator can. Can they bomb down rough roads at 40 miles per hour like I can? No, certainly not. But that’s OK.


Given what I have seen here, I think there’s a strong argument that the Santa Cruz should be near the top the list for anyone seeking a comfortable, stylish daily driver that can also sometimes play the role of overland trail rig.

Add a suspension lift and hook up an off-road trailer and get out there.

Image credit: Hyundai

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