Hyundai Santa Cruz concept is part compact crossover, part pickup truck, 100% unexpected

With an efficient diesel engine and an extendable bed, the Santa Cruz aims to be a compact pickup for millennials who don't want or need a truck.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET
The last thing I expected Hyundai to reveal in Detroit was a compact pickup truck. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

DETROIT -- Hyundai has built a pickup truck. That's crazy, right? The Korean brand isn't the first marque that most think about when looking for a truck, but the Santa Cruz concept is proof that the automaker is at least thinking about diving into this space.

The automaker states that the concept is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo diesel engine that is good for 190 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is estimated to be in the "high 30 mpg range." The Santa Cruz also offers Hyundai's HTRAC all-wheel drive system, a useful addition for the sort of muddy, dirty or snowy conditions that pickup trucks often find themselves in.

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Oddly, Hyundai states that the Santa Cruz concept isn't a true alternative to a truck, but an extension to the utility of a crossover. Towing, payload and ground clearance were not Hyundai's primary goals, so the Santa Cruz hunkers close to the ground for easier access to the cabin. From nose to tail, the Santa Cruz looks about as long as Hyundai's Tucson and features double doors on either side that butterfly open to reveal seating for four souls.

That sort of compactness in a four-seat pickup makes the Santa Cruz more approachable than a tall pickup truck, but it doesn't leave a whole lot of space for the cargo bed. Hyundai has given the Santa Cruz a gimmick. For times when the concept would need to accommodate longer items -- such as mountain or motorbikes -- the rear tailgate is able to slide out and rearward -- not unlike a drawer. Fully extended, the bed's length is said to be similar to that of a midsize pickup.

Even today's small trucks are pretty big machines, and I have to admit that the idea of an mighty morphing compact pickup sounds appealing. It could offer big space for the 10 percent of the time you'd need it to be while shrinking to compact and parkable proportions for the other 90 percent. On the other hand, a pickup truck -- even an extremely compact one -- should be reliable above all other things, and I'd be a bit concerned about the longevity of those extra moving parts.

The Santa Cruz sends a lot of mixed messages, but it could fill a niche left vacant since the days of the Subaru Baja. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

It's a pint-size pickup for millennials who don't necessarily want or need a truck. The Santa Cruz is a vehicle that sends a lot of mixed messages, but it's a very attractive concept that could slot in nicely into a niche that's been left empty since the days of the Subaru Baja.

Hyundai hasn't announced plans to build a production model based on the Santa Cruz concept and I don't expect that it ever will. Then again, this is a rapidly growing brand that has defied our expectation many times before, pushing into the premium and luxury sedan markets and building a quite good sports coupe and a weird little sport compact. Perhaps a Hyundai truck over the horizon isn't so far-fetched.

Be sure to check out the rest of CNET's coverage of the 2015 Detroit auto show.

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