The Santa Cruz, which will start production at the company’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant in June, is a shorter, squatter version of midsize trucks like the Ford Ranger or Toyota Tacoma, meant to squeeze into tight parking spots while still offering an open pickup bed and all-wheel-drive.
Pickups have become a hot segment as they’ve moved beyond the hard-hat crowd to appeal to adventure seekers hauling gear and people. But as trucks became more plush, with luxurious interiors and elaborate four-wheel-drive systems, prices have skyrocketed.
Hyundai is betting that consumers may go for something smaller and more affordable than a brawny work truck, though pricing hasn’t been released.
“The traditional truck has left the young buyer: The price for a pickup is now US$30,000 plus,” Gilbert Castillo, who leads advanced vehicle strategy at Hyundai Motor of America, said in an interview Thursday.
The Santa Cruz offers an “opportunity for a new lifestyle vehicle that could take the place of a segment where, essentially, the pickup market kind of left.”
Similar to Honda Motor Co.’s Ridgeline pickup, the Santa Cruz is built on a so-called unibody chassis, which gives it a smoother, car-like ride but less ruggedness than a traditional body-on-frame truck such as Ford Motor Co.’s full-size F-150 or Toyota Motor Corp.’s midsize Tacoma.
The Santa Cruz shares its platform with Hyundai’s top-selling Tucson SUV, which has a modular structure that can accommodate, gas, fuel, or electric propulsion.
A compact-truck segment doesn’t really exist in the US, at least not since the days of the funky Subaru Baja in the mid-2000s, so demand for such a vehicle is unproven.
Hyundai debuted a prototype of the Santa Cruz in 2015 after more than two years of development. But it didn’t commit to producing the truck until 2019 as part of plans to expand the company’s Alabama factory.
Ford is readying its own compact pickup, the Maverick, and is likely to offer it in the low US$20,000s, slotting in below the US$24,820 base price of the Ford Ranger. The automaker began producing a small pickup in Mexico that could be coming to the US, it disclosed to investors last month.
Hyundai was slow to transform its lineup to meet Americans’ penchant for SUVs but now is capitalising on a rebound in showroom traffic following pandemic-related US shutdowns. The Korean automaker’s US sales rose 28% in the first quarter, led by its redesigned Tucson SUV.
Hyundai successfully entered the three-row SUV segment last year with the Palisade, which fits eight passengers and comes loaded with standard tech and safety features. The company now is trying to repeat that success by dipping its toe into the truck segment.
“Hyundai’s known as a value brand, they pack a lot of stuff into their vehicles and offer an attractive price,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive, which conducts market research for auto dealers. “They’ve also gained a reputation for quality.”
The brand gained market share in 2020 even as sales plunged amid the pandemic, according to Cox. Hyundai’s market share stood at 4.3% in the first quarter.
Hyundai’s assembly plant in Alabama already makes the Sonata and Elantra sedans and the Santa Fe SUV. The automaker invested $400 million to expand the facility to build the Santa Cruz.
At full capacity, Hyundai can make close to 400,000 units annually, though that may need to grow in the future, Jose Munoz, Hyundai’s North American head, said in an interview last year.