Here's Why Hyundai's New Santa Cruz Looks More Like a Truck

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Here's Why Hyundai's New Santa Cruz Looks TruckierANGELA WEISS - Getty Images

The Hyundai Santa Cruz has been sport adventuring for over three years. That means it's time for a refresh, and Hyundai's update for the ute comes with a new direction. The updated not-quite-a-truck is less Ridgeline and more Maverick, with a vertical face and an even more aggressive take on the XRT off-roading package. As Hyundai Senior Design Manager Brad Arnold tells Road & Track, this was the core concept behind the refresh that was unveiled at the New York Auto Show earlier this week.

"When [Hyundai's design team] developed the first Santa Cruz," Arnold says, "we were starting this compact truck segment and we weren't really sure what else would show up in that segment. We heard rumors of a Maverick and other competitors, but we hadn't seen any of that stuff. Hindsight's always 2020, and I think while that design was the best fit for our sport adventure vehicle at the time, we wanted something that was more impactful at the front and more indicative of the vehicle's actual capabilities."

Arnold compares the first draft of the production Santa Cruz to this one by comparing soccer and football, saying that both are athletic designs, but "this we wanted to be just charging down the field in a straight line, a bit more like football." That means a more vertical fascia with more square-stacked daytime running lights. Arnold calls that the "narrative" of how the group designed the car's new front end: "More vertical, more robust, and an overall tougher image."

2025 hyundai santa cruz xrt

That toughness is seen more directly in the refreshed XRT model, part of Hyundai's relatively new sub-brand of off-road-ready crossovers, notably highlighted by an XRT variant of the blocky new Santa Fe. For the facelifted Santa Cruz, the XRT trim brings some off-road technology features along with heavily revised bodywork meant to increase approach angle, protect the parts of the not-quite-a-truck most susceptible to the wear and tear of a trail, and even allow recovery from tow hooks exposed in the front bumper. As Arnold tells R&T, these major changes from the first Santa Cruz XRT showed last year come from lessons learned by buyers, journalists, R&D teams, and Rebelle Rally participants who took the first Santa Cruz off-road:

"You'll see a lot more protected surfaces, a lot of matte black areas. We've talked about the front but the rear as well on the XRT version, we've lifted the plastic protection up around the corner more to provide more protection there. More protective fender claddings and door claddings, just overall trying to make the thing more durable."

Just as the company's N and Ioniq sub-brands are to performance and electric cars respectively, XRT is building into Hyundai's off-road badge. That means more XRT models are coming, and Arnold expects that to have an impact on how people perceive other Hyundais, too.

"We've seen the impact that N-Line and N have had on overall brand perception and the enthusiasm around the brand, and we're hoping to do the same with XRT at the other end at the vehicle spectrum."

2025 hyundai santa cruz xrt

The exact future of Hyundai's XRT badge will be revealed as more models under the umbrella are revealed, but for now, Arnold says to expect no signature color like the N sub-brand's shades of blue and orange. Crossovers and trucks under the XRT brand will instead each get their own signature color, like the shade Hyundai calls Canyon red shown on the new Santa Cruz XRT. Arnold adds that a Ford Raptor-style collaboration between the N and XRT brands has not yet been discussed, but other unique integrations of the XRT trim level could be seen soon.

Until then, the Santa Cruz XRT will serve as one of Hyundai's most capable vehicles. Whether or not that makes it a truck yet is a question for a marketing team, but the crossover-based "sport adventure vehicle" certainly seems more prepared for the job of adventuring than the pre-facelift model it replaces.

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