The Hyundai Santa Cruz might be the raddest car of 2023

This tiny truck may look a bit unconventional, but it’s just as fun to drive on the interstate as it is on off-road adventures

Photo: Scott Murdock

Have you ever walked up to the wrong car in a parking lot? It can be an easy thing to do considering so many cars today follow the same design trends. If you’ve seen one egg-shaped SUV, chances are you’ve seen them all. But every once in a while, something like the 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz comes along and breaks every rule in the book.

For the longest time, outdoor enthusiasts have really only had two choices when it comes to vehicle selection—an SUV or a pickup truck. The Santa Cruz breaks that mold. It’s sized like a sedan, rides like a unibody SUV, and stores dirty gear outside like a truck; no roof rack required.

There’s a lot of understandable buzz around the Santa Cruz (including that pesky recall) but the only way to really get to know this abstract vehicle is to drive one—so that’s exactly what I did. For one week, I commuted, kayaked, and explored the surrounding countryside with the Hyundai Santa Cruz AWD Limited and found out exactly what it’s all about and who should buy it. 

a tan suv/truck hybrid parked in a parking lot in front of a row of colorful kayaks and behind a black kayak
Photo: Scott Murdock

Yes, they do make them like they used to

I’ll admit my personal proclivities up front—I have an unending love for the Subaru BRAT. It’s so weird and funky that I can’t help but admire whoever greenlit the design. The BRAT (which stands for bi-drive recreational all-terrain transporter) didn’t just redefine what a truck could look like, it came with zany features like a spare tire bolted to the engine and a pair of rear-facing seats in the bed with plastic handles instead of seatbelts.

We’ll never see seats like that get through safety standards again, but the Santa Cruz definitely channels the BRAT. It seems to be the result of product planners seeking to create a mechanized adventure pal rather than a car. It’s fun, fresh, and scratches an itch you probably didn’t even know you had.

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Hyundai loaned me a Santa Cruz at the same time Oru sent me a Beach LT Sport origami kayak. The two are a match made in heaven. Oru folding kayaks are perfect for people who don’t have space for a conventional kayak, and the Santa Cruz’s small bed keeps wet kayaks, paddles, and life vests outside where they can drip dry as you drive.

For spontaneous adventure, it doesn’t get much better than this. Slip through city traffic, save money on gas, and charge fearlessly down roads and two-track trails with Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel drive. A lot of automotive manufacturers talk about catering to an active lifestyle, but this playful combination walks the walk.    

Hyundai Santa Cruz features we love

The Hyundai Santa Cruz is not a competitor to compact pickups like the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger—and that’s a good thing. While those vehicles feel like scaled-down trucks, the Santa Cruz drives like a car with a lift kit. It’s no more intimidating than a hatchback or compact SUV and remains composed in the face of potholes, speed bumps, and dirt roads. Its cabin is unencumbered by a desire to seem rugged and tough; it’s just a nice place to be, regardless of whether you’re driving on the interstate or through a field.

Hyundai has a way of slipping in clever features like the “diffuse” climate control setting. Instead of funneling air through the vents, this mode lets it waft gently through the entire width of the dash. This approach heats or cools the cabin quickly without sending a blast of hot or cold air into your face. It’s a small detail that makes driving the Santa Cruz more pleasant, especially during longer road trips. 

The Santa Cruz is not a large vehicle, but Hyundai found a bunch of nooks and crannies to turn into storage compartments. There are plastic cubbies under the rear seats, small boxes on each side of the bed, and a large tray built into the floor of the bed in addition to the truck bed itself. All of these are made from hard plastic, making them great for grubby gear you don’t want inside of your vehicle.

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Both the SEL Premium and Limited vehicles come standard with a locking metal tonneau cover that turns the bed into a secure storage area protected from the elements. It’s also an optional feature on SEL vehicles but it’s unavailable with the base SE trim. Yes, the tiny truck bed is unconventional but it’s just as functional as the back of an SUV and far more useful than a trunk.

What about that recall?

The Santa Cruz has been making lots of headlines, but not always in a positive light. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bulletin dated March 27, 2023 identifies a flawed tow hitch wiring assembly. The worst-case scenario is a fire caused by a short circuit in a fuse damaged by water. Hyundai has contacted more than 560,000 customers to alert them to the potential risk and the company is addressing the issue at no cost to the owners. Vehicles produced after March 13, 2023 are not affected. 

Recalls happen, and this one is an extremely easy fix that your Hyundai dealership should be able to sort out in a few minutes. Owners of affected vehicles should take advantage of the free repair. However, this recall is certainly no reason to rule out the Santa Cruz.

Should you buy a Hyundai Santa Cruz?

Passengers 5
Towing capacity 5,000 pounds
Chassis Unibody
Ground clearance 8.6 inches
Full-size spare Not included (135/80D18)
Fuel range 22 miles per gallon (EPA-estimated combined fuel economy)
MSRP $41,825 (as tested)

Aside from the less-expensive, more truck-like Ford Maverick, the Hyundai Santa Cruz doesn’t have direct competition. Both are great vehicles but they feel very different. If you test-drive (or merely sit in) both, it will be very clear which one you prefer. 

The question remains, though: Is Hyundai’s sort-of pickup as good as advertised?

After a week with the 2023 Hyundai Santa Cruz, I’ve come to view it not as a car, but as a fun little creature who wants to go on adventures with me. That’s high praise because the cars we ascribe personality to are the ones that end up leaving a mark on our lives.

Yes, it’s unconventional, and people will compare it to the BRAT, Baja, and El Camino. But the Santa Cruz opens the door to all kinds of outdoor fun, and in a sea of sameness, there are worse fates than being a little quirky.

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