Mountain Wheels: Korean cousins offer a new truck option and traditional crossover utility
We take a quick visit today with two interrelated Korean vehicles, one of which has fast become one of the most in-demand new autos on the market.
There is not much like the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz out there, which has contributed to its fast success. Hyundai has essentially taken its Tucson crossover platform and crossed over into far more unusual territory, creating what is now a small, utility-styled crew-cab pickup — or something like that.
The Tucson, which is nearly identical in size and platform to the Kia Sportage we will also examine, provides the basis for a very exciting, versatile and remarkably speedy short-bed truck sort of thing, with a stretched-out 118-inch wheelbase.
It’s such a revolutionary idea that there aren’t many recent precedents to the Alabama-assembled Santa Cruz — think maybe the Subaru Baja or the older Honda Ridgeline, before it decided it didn’t want to be seen as an SUV crossover anymore and added a new truck-styled face.
In Australia, where everything’s a ute, it’s not such an uncommon idea. But here, it offers a unique and definitely one-of-a-kind solution to buyers who would still like a commodious five-passenger crossover but would also like genuine truck-styled utility.
The bed, topped with texturized rails and a less truck-like connection between the cab and the hardened plastic bed itself, is 48.4 inches long at the top and 52.1 inches at the bottom. There’s a built-in, rolling, hard Tonneau cover that can enclose the entire bed area with plenty of tie-down points and built-in cargo rails on the sides in the limited edition I drove. There’s also a substantial storage tub underneath the locking bed floor.
It’s not quite enough room for, say, a snowmobile or a hot tub, but it will work for both bikes and a reasonable amount of cargo that couldn’t ordinarily fit inside a small SUV. Total body length is 10 to 15 inches shorter overall than competitors like Frontier, Tacoma and the new Ridgeline, so you’ll have to decide if that in-between mix of bed space and smaller overall length makes it attractive.
Up front, it has adopted Hyundai’s new checkerboard pattern of LED running lights, creating an equally distinctive profile. The body lines are not at all truck-like, with the windows in the back doors curving up enough to be noticed in your peripheral vision when you shoulder check.
With literally nothing to compare it to, Santa Cruz is exciting new territory and competitively priced, especially compared with other small pickups. Four trim levels with a smaller non-turbo 2.5-liter engine are priced between $23,990 and $28,690. My limited all-wheel drive model was priced at $39,720.
I was a very big fan of that turbocharged 2.5 liter option, which ups the output to about 275 horsepower and the 310 pound-feet of torque that allowed it to absolutely fly up Interstate 70. I still got an overall 26 mpg, higher than the 22 combined mpg EPA figure. The optional HTRAC all-wheel drive system provides more stability and agility, favoring the front wheels on dry pavement but lockable for snow or off-road duty.
Inside, it’s got a pleasantly understated mix of crossover details and ample seating. There’s a full digital instrument cluster and a large gloss-black center stack with haptic controls. Once you figure them out, they’re easy to use.
By comparison, the Kia Sportage feels much more traditional, though it’s still an attractive, tech-heavy and relatively affordable machine, riding on a shorter wheelbase. Prices start at just over $24,000 and hit $37,290 for the top-of-the-line, all-wheel drive SX that I drove, complete with a 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo engine and mileage ranging from 21 to 24 mpg.
The Sportage name has been around for a long, long time, but the current iteration of the model, unchanged for 2022, is indeed comfortable and sophisticated. Mine got the whole laundry list, including chrome wheels, high-rise roof crossbars and the maybe-just-a-bit-too-cute gloss-black frog-face grille/logo and genuine amphibian-inspired headlamps.
I did briefly bounce it up a rocky trail, and it handled that just fine. Its size doesn’t quite provide the ride stability of larger contemporaries, but it provided enough passenger and cargo space to seem valuable.
I was troubled by turbo lag that appeared on every slight incline, with even the least imposing of hills requiring way more pedal pressure than I’d imagined. Inside, it’s the absolute opposite of the Santa Cruz’s austerity, with a wall of AC and audiovisual controls on the center stack that totaled 24 buttons.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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