Shopping for a new vehicle with your head instead of your heart means buying what you actually need and not what you think you do – or what you’ll put to proper use approximately three times a year.
That creates something of a conundrum for those with hobbies that require a lot of gear, like, say, camping. Having a half-ton truck might seem like the way to go after loading up for another long weekend spent getting reacquainted with Mother Nature, but the trouble is the rest of the time when those trucks are oversized, inefficient, and not particularly practical for everyday life.
That’s where the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz comes in. It’s more like a sport utility that happens to have a bed around back than a full-fledged pickup, and that means all the stuff that matters most when camping.
All the Room
To prove it, I borrowed a range-topping example for a late spring camping trip with friends – an annual occurrence that takes us to a remote piece of Crown land that’s our very own version of paradise. The trouble is getting there, which doesn’t explicitly require a vehicle with enhanced capability, but having one certainly comes in handy.
A rocky hill-climb and undulating access trails make the 20 minutes or so it takes to reach the riverside clearing a challenge, particularly when all the equipment that’s required is factored in. Coolers, tent, totes, cooking gear – it all adds up.
With a four-foot bed around back, I managed to stash everything I needed under the retractable (and lockable) tonneau cover and out of the elements for the rainy drive northeast of Toronto. The only exceptions were the stuff I wanted to be sure stayed dry, like my pillow, sleeping bag, and clothes, although that precaution was probably an unnecessary one given how well protected the rest of my stuff was after more than 300 km of driving.
Into the Woods
Arriving at the trailhead, a quick scan of The Big Hill, as we call it, found nothing out of the ordinary – just an obstacle-covered ascent where large boulders would test the Santa Cruz’s 218 mm (8.6 in) of ground clearance. With the Ultimate trim’s forward-facing camera playing the role of virtual spotter, the truck scampered up without breaking a sweat.
Now, you might be thinking that nothing to this point has proven this pickup to be a better fit for this adventure than a midsize or half-ton, and rightfully so. But where the smaller Santa Cruz is all but perfect is the rest of the way, with the narrow trail network causing trouble for bigger trucks (ask me how I know). With its combination of capability and trail-friendly dimensions, this pint-sized pickup managed to snake its way along free of the anxiety that accompanies anything larger.
While the all-wheel drive system spent the vast majority of the drive with the rear wheels decoupled for improved efficiency, engaging any of the terrain modes – sand, snow, and mud – effectively locked the system while adjusting throttle response, traction control, and a few other electronically-controlled goodies for this off-pavement adventure. While not explicitly necessary, doing so provided a surefootedness on the loose surfaces that make up different sections of the trail.
With 311 lb-ft of torque generated by the 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood, nothing was more than a gentle stab of the throttle away from overcoming. The truck’s hill descent control system, which works as a low-speed cruise control by managing throttle and braking, worked just as effortlessly down some of the descending sections of trail, keeping it moving at an appropriate speed so I could focus on steering clear of obstacles.
Setting Up Camp
Having finally arrived, we set up camp quickly. Working from the tailgate, and with corner bumper steps for easy access to the bed, the Santa Cruz proved once again to be an all but ideal companion. Rather than unloading everything all at once like you might have to do with a packed SUV, I was able to pluck gear from the bed as it was needed, while the tonneau cover once again acted as a safe haven against the elements.
Coming Up Short
Of course, no vehicle is perfect, and there are a few ways in which the Santa Cruz comes up short. For starters, I didn’t travel with anyone else, which meant the space that I used almost all of was filled with nothing but my stuff. And while the bulk of it was the kind of gear that would suffice for a couple – or even a family of three or four – the extra chairs, food, clothes, and sleep essentials would undoubtedly challenge this truck even further.
There’s also the issue of the retractable tonneau cover that proved so invaluable during camping, but was a nuisance when it was time to load my bike in the back. Since the rolling cover needs a place to go when not in use, an aluminum cradle near the front of the bed – plus the last section of the cover itself with its handle – means there’s no way to stand a bike up in the back with a tailgate pad. I learned this the hard way when heading out to meet a friend for a ride, with my only option involving removing my front wheel and resting my handlebars over the tailgate, with a jacket acting as an impromptu protector.
Naturally, hitch- or roof-mounted accessories will solve at least some of those issues, but one that the aftermarket can’t offer a solution for is the limited 115-volt power outlet in the bed. While it works for charging small electronics – or an air pump for inflated rafts and mattresses – the limited capacity means it won’t work for the kinds of small appliances that might make their way into a camping kit.
The Road Home
After two glorious days, I packed the truck for the journey home with the usual sort of reluctance that accompanies the memories made. The trail ride out always manages to feel shorter than the one to get in – no doubt a by-product of the excitement and anticipation that’s part of each arrival. After something like 16 years of heading to this same spot with the same group of friends, the unadulterated joy of these trips is still palpable.
I made it home with fond memories of the trip, of course, and the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz that got me there and back. Spacious, comfortable, practical, and efficient, it’s all the truck I would need – and probably you, too.
I’m not naive to the appeal of full-size trucks; I used to own one myself. But driving one every day is a bit like pushing your lawnmower around everywhere you go even if you only cut the grass once every week or two. In that way, the Santa Cruz has the truck thing down to a science, with its right-sized dimensions carrying all the sensibility you’ll ever need.