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Santa Cruz Sport Adventure VehicleCourtesy of manufacturer

In a business dominated by hyperbole, Hyundai’s announcement of its new compact pickup truck surely wins some kind of prize.

“Highly-anticipated Santa Cruz Sport Adventure Vehicle Shatters Both SUV and Truck Segments, Creating an Entirely New Vehicle Category,” shouted last week’s breathless press release. It went on to try to explain why the unibody trucklet is “unlike anything else in the North American market.”

It is good-looking, I’ll give them that. A 2.5-litre turbocharged engine kicks out 275 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, sending the power to all four wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It can tow up to 5,000 lbs., which is impressive, and it will be available this summer, though prices have not been announced. In the United States, Americans can get a non-turbo engine and front-wheel drive, but Canadians only have the more powerful, more capable version.

Sound familiar? It’s the powertrain from the Santa Fe SUV that will drive on an extended platform from the new Tucson. Hyundai is smart; it may be segment-shattering, but there’s no need here to reinvent a perfectly good wheel.

Hyundai is insistent that the Santa Cruz is neither a truck nor an SUV but a “Sport Adventure Vehicle,” or SAV. Basically, it’s an SUV with the roof lopped off at the back to create an open bed, so it’s better at hauling larger stuff and not so good for carrying dogs.

Does this also sound familiar? For the last decade or so, BMW has promoted its X4 and X6 SUVs as SAVs, or “Sport Activity Vehicles,” to help them stand out. Those vehicles have the backs chopped down and sloped for a sportier appearance, so they’re better at hauling egos, and also not so good for carrying dogs.

(It’s funny how important the wording is to marketers, presumably hard-learned through success and failure in the showroom. We’ll happily buy fastbacks, but not if they’re called hatchbacks, and we’ll take a crossover over a station wagon any day. And don’t get me going on four-door coupes.)

The Santa Cruz is different because it’s a unibody compact truck, which means it drives like a car instead of like a pickup truck that has its body bolted to a rugged frame. The only other unibody truck on the Canadian market is the Honda Ridgeline, which is a mid-size pickup that’s a fair bit larger.

I wrote to Hyundai to ask how the Santa Cruz differs from the Ridgeline and earns its “category-bending” title, and was told, “This is indeed an entirely new approach to a truck in that it is much smaller than anything else on the market.” It may be wider than the Tucson, but it’s smaller in length, width, height and wheelbase than the Toyota Tacoma, Honda Ridgeline, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado. It’s slightly wider than the Nissan Frontier but otherwise a little smaller in all dimensions. The bed length is at least 20 cm shorter than any of them.

As a unibody compact truck, the Santa Cruz drives like a car instead of like a pickup truck that has its body bolted to a rugged frame.Courtesy of manufacturer

Is that segment-shattering? Maybe not. And yet, it looks like it succeeds in what it’s trying to do. It’s urban-friendly and easy to park, with a tight turning circle. It drives like a small SUV, not a truck. It has grooves in the insides of its bed walls to allow standard sheets of plywood to be carried above the wheel arches without actually touching the bed. It has a lockable storage container beneath the bed, similar to the Ridgeline but smaller, and it has a locking metal tonneau cover that’s strong enough to support a 100 kg (220 lb) person, which comes standard in Canada.

So it’s a Hyundai Tucson with a cleverly-designed open bed at the back, and that makes it an “adventure” vehicle. In the promotional launch video for the Santa Cruz, which you can see here, the drivers are beautiful young hipsters who leave their San Francisco loft apartment for some mountain biking and rock climbing in the California forest. Buy a Santa Cruz, and you can be like them.

Of course, Honda tried this aspirational association years ago with the practical Element, intended for groovy surfers and cyclists everywhere. It ended up selling well to older dog owners. Nissan tried it with the boxy Cube, which was popular in Japan and died a quick and merciful death everywhere else. Go back further, and both Chevrolet and Ford tried it with the unibody El Camino and Ranchero, lamented by nobody ever.

Now Ford is preparing to reveal the Maverick, a compact unibody truck built on the Escape and Bronco Sport platform. It will compete directly against the Santa Cruz and the Ridgeline, because Ford believes there’s a market there. I’m sure there is, but whether it’s a market of adventurers or just people who want a smaller truck, only time will tell.

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