Better up front than out back. You’d be forgiven for viewing Hyundai’s Alabama-built Santa Cruz as an Australian ute rather than an American pickup truck. This is no heavy-duty load lugger, with a cargo bay that can accommodate 8x4 plywood but nothing bigger. Then again, you’ll get a quartet of mountain bikes on the back if you add a tailgate protector, and how many people need to carry more than that on a daily basis?

That limited bed capacity seems odd when you consider the Santa Cruz is 196 inches long, but it’s explained by the car’s design. The passenger compartment slopes backward, eating into load space to give a more handsome side profile. For us, the payoff is worth the payload restrictions – this is a striking-looking vehicle. It borrows its Tucson sibling’s three-tier headlight structure, with chiseled doors and flared fenders. Those massive wheel arches suit the larger 20-inch rims found on higher models; only the outsized rear lights seem out of proportion, and surprisingly dated.

Room for all the family. Unlike many pick-ups, Santa Cruz does a good job of providing comfortable accommodation for five occupants. We’d skip base models, which have limited adjustment on their cloth seats, and move up to mid-range SEL. Here, powered front seats make the most of a cabin offering almost 37 inches of rear legroom and good all-round visibility. Interior quality is decent, with a sense of durability complemented by a five-year warranty; we just wish Hyundai (and other manufacturers) wouldn’t rely so heavily on black plastic. It’s impossible to keep clean, especially in a rough-tough vehicle like a pick-up.

Spending $1,500 on the all-wheel drive seems like a good bet, especially if you’re planning on towing anything routinely. However, the base engine offers just 1,500 lb of towing capacity, and payload capacity can be as low as 1,600 lb on certain models.

Adequate power, but not exceptional. If you want to shift serious amounts of weight, we’d skip the 191 hp 2.5-liter gas engine offered as standard. A 281-hp turbocharged engine feels far better suited to Santa Cruz’s temperament, and it can tow 5,000 lb. Both engines are hampered by a dim-witted eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission which is particularly unsophisticated at low speeds. Passengers are advised not to take a sip of anything as Santa Cruz accelerates away from a standstill.

There’s further evidence of the Santa Cruz walking a tightrope between SUV sophistication and pick-up ruggedness on the move. It’s got decent ground clearance, at 8.6 inches, but the lack of low range on the (optional) AWD hinders serious off-road progress. The ride is decent on smaller wheels, but those 20-inches kick up a fair amount of noise and can feel lumpy on rough surfaces. Then again, it’s no Ford Ranger, and load-leveling rear suspension smooths progress further.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Interior

Choose your trim carefully. There’s a sweet spot in the Santa Cruz range, and it’s the SEL trim. Benefits of upgrading from the $25,000 SE include keyless start, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alerts. It also retains the eight-inch touchscreen with wireless smartphone mirroring, which – unforgivably – is unavailable on the 10.3-inch screens fitted in higher models. SEL Premium and Limited models are best avoided, especially since the latter costs over $41,000. That seems like a lot for a pick-up with limited carrying capacity.

Another benefit of SEL is the option of a tonneau cover, combining tie-downs and adjustable cleats with an under-bed storage box for keeping items cold. Costing $3,300, it’s part of an Activity Package that also includes a sunroof and a digital instrument cluster. Other interesting options include a surround-view camera system and a dedicated blind-spot camera that displays in the instrument cluster. Standard safety extends to active lane control and pedestrian detection for the automatic braking.

Final thoughts. If you’re considering the Santa Cruz as your next vehicle, you really need to focus on SEL trim to the exclusion of all else. It’s the only model that makes sense, costing $28,000 but offering a superior infotainment system compared with siblings costing half as much again. We’d also strongly recommend combining the turbo engine with all-wheel drive; this combo can tow more than the Ford Maverick without feeling anywhere near as agricultural as the Blue Oval’s Ranger.

If you choose the right model, there’s a lot to admire about the first Hyundai designed specifically for American audiences. The load bay might be smaller than rivals provide, but you’ve still got 93 million miles of vertical space. This is a handsome, comfortable, well-assembled and (in SEL guise) good-value vehicle, which will provide many years of faithful service without shaking your fillings loose or rattling across uneven roads like a tin can in a tumble dryer.

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