Trucks used to be smaller, you know. Music was better, too. Everyone worked harder and ice cream tasted better and no one complained that every walk went uphill. This, I’ve been told, is the absolute truth, completely detached from nostalgia and selective memory.
I’ve always largely considered these lines of thinking to be baloney. There are about 11 things that were better in the Sixties and thirty thousand that were way, way, worse, even if you were a member of the narrow slice of the population that enjoyed full rights and dignity under the social order. Mini trucks, I assumed, were one of these nostalgia-bait nonsense categories proven useless by time and common sense. But in the grand tradition of the species, my assumption that everyone else was wrong and I was right was, of course, wrong. Always is.
The Hyundai Santa Cruz easily proved this in person. On paper it’s less convincing. After all, there’s not much to the formula except lopping off the flank steak from a Tuscon. There are worse starting points, but it’s still a mainstream entry in a segment defined by ubiquitous and uninteresting appliances that drive like, well, who can remember? That it’s offered with either an underpowered or turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four and available in front or front-biased all-wheel drive does not particularly allay any concerns about boredom.
Such an impression doesn’t survive the first meeting. For all its pedestrian underpinnings and its practical stats, the Santa Cruz looks exciting. Its peak accomplishment is avoiding the Ridgeline’s cardinal sin of playing dress-up. One glance confirms that this is no F-150 simulacrum, no feeble attempt at a Tacoma competitor. It’s a compact, sleek, modern machine that offers adventure as one easy option, but never an obligation.
That informs how you use it. Deep down, truck owners know the biggest reason to love a truck is for its possibilities. Of course you won’t actually tow 30,000 pounds up the Davis Dam in a blinding snowstorm, but y’could. So whatever you actually do is so firmly inside the truck’s envelope that it’s obviously nothing to worry about. A minitruck offers a bite-sized version of that dream. Taking it in, I recognize that in most situations it will be no more capable or useful than a Tuscon. But the situations where it would prove its use involve phrases like “ski trip,” “home improvement,” “camping gear,” or “dirt bikes.” It offers a chance to play your part in grand American play-acting at taming this land, to explore it with prepared and largely simulated recklessness.
All of those things touch on what I want to do with a Santa Cruz. What I actually did was putter around Brooklyn and drive to Philadelphia on the interstate. And as a matter of fact it’s pretty lovely in that context, too. As anodyne and forgettable as most crossovers are these days, they’re stunningly agreeable. Hyundai’s got the game down here, with a nicer interior and more user-friendly technology than you’ll get from most of the segment champions. And while I’ve had no time with the Ford Maverick, based on the rest of their lineups I can say with near certainty that no Ford has a better cabin than its Hyundai equivalent.
That’s more of a requirement for success than a win, though, as the Santa Cruz is spendier than the utilitarian little Ford. A top-trim Santa Cruz Limited AWD goes for $40,945, about three grand clear of the priciest Maverick. Having not driven the other option here, I can’t tell you if the Santa Cruz is the best choice in its segment. What I can tell you is I’d own this truck in a heartbeat.
From the comfortable and quiet interior to the 5000-lb towing capacity to the wide selection of accessories, the Santa Cruz seems to me like a friendly jumping-off point from which to explore the world of vehicular adventure. Better tools for any one specific job exist; a Tuscon works better for simply moving people, a “real truck” for towing, a Jeep for off-roading, a 4Runner for adventuring. Yet whatever you want to do, the Santa Cruz can do enough of it to make it worth trying. You may not want to tow with a short-wheelbase truck every day, but if you want to rent a pop-up camper for a week and try that then the option is open.
It is in these borderlands where vehicles feel the most alive. Not comfortably within their limits, but straining against their own sheetmetal. Constraints force creativity; they raise the stakes. To overland in a custom-built off-road van is to achieve a predetermined result. Doing it with three buddies in a Santa Cruz is an accomplishment. If you can do that, if you can sling your stuff on the roof and remember your recovery gear and ration your food and live in discomfort, you may open up a lifetime passion that will lead you to a more appropriate, less compromised vehicle. If you hate it, you drive home, spend the week commuting in comfort, and try mountain biking instead. Because a lot of things are overhyped about the old days. But getting outside, trying new things, and pushing the limits of the machine? Those things hold up.
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