2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz vs. 2022 Subaru Outback: Compare Utility Vehicles

The Hyundai Santa Cruz small pickup truck and Subaru Outback wagon-like SUV are utility vehicles serving as a complement for owners’ recreational activities and outdoorsy image. 

Sharing a platform with the Tucson compact crossover, the Santa Cruz might seem like a direct competitor to pickup trucks such as the Ford Maverick (based on the Ford Escape) or the larger Honda Ridgeline (based on the Pilot SUV). Those trucks take a softer-riding, more efficient, and more urbane approach to the pickup truck experience.

Until recently, the Outback filled the need for shoppers who don’t need a pickup but don’t want a crossover. The Santa Cruz is a modern take on the Outback-based Subaru Baja, a utility vehicle with a bed that had a short run from 2003-2006 but left an indelible mark. The Baja, as well as the Chevy El Camino and Ford Explorer Sport Trac, served as a bridge between car and pickup truck. 

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

The crossover segment has taken over that bridge and expanded it in recent years with a proliferation of off-road-adjacent trim lines—Subaru Wilderness, Ford Timberline, Honda Trailsport, GMC AT4, Toyota TRD to name a few. Hyundai, who teased the trucklet concept back in 2015, might be capitalizing on the most important ingredient to success: timing. 

Aside from the small but useful truck bed on the Santa Cruz, the two are more alike than different. Our TCC Rating of 6.8 out 10 favors the 2022 Subaru Outback, but the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz’s incomplete score of 6.7 out of 10 will likely increase once the NHTSA finalizes its crash testing. 

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

For 2022, Subaru launched the new Wilderness trim on both the Outback and Forester. It puts the “add” in black cladding, by expanding Subaru’s plastic protectors upward on the bumpers to the LED headlights and taillights, and halfway above the wheel arches on the fenders. The hiking boot on wheels almost makes the Hyundai Kona look shy in how much it ripped off the cladding of the Subaru Crosstrek. It’s a bit much, and the yellow accents draw even more attention to it. 

The Santa Cruz embraces the Tucson’s origami allure with a stepped grille with integrated daytime running lights cutting a distinct edge day or night. Modest cladding rounds over wheel arches housing available 20-inch alloy wheels, which might be too big for a vehicle this size. In back, shark-fin taillights flank a giant “Santa Cruz” stamped tailgate, and corner bed steps ensure easy access to the bed and its low walls.

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Obviously, the bed differentiates it from the Outback and other crossovers, but it also helps the Santa Cruz stand out from more traditional pickup trucks. The bed is smaller than the Maverick, at 48.4 inches long up top and just under 54 inches across; Hyundai assures you it can haul 4x8 sheets of plywood resting on the wheel wells and hanging over the open, adjustable gate. With the right accessories, four bikes could be stowed in the back with the front forks hanging over the gate. An integrated trunk in the floor has a drain plug so it can double as a cooler. The neatest trick is the available factory-installed lockable tonneau cover that secures things like the cargo hold of a crossover. 

The Santa Cruz is 4.4 inches longer and slightly wider, but the Outback’s interior is roomier, especially for rear seat passengers. The Outback’s 39.5 inches of rear leg room is 3.0 inches more than the Santa Cruz. The rear seats in the Santa Cruz don’t suffer the vertical stiffness of traditional trucks, but the seat bottoms lack the same thigh support as the Outback. Storage below the 60/40-split flip-up rear seat helps the Santa Cruz hold more things.

When it comes to comfort, the Outback and Santa Cruz are pretty evenly matched. The smooth and quiet ride quality in the Santa Cruz is impressive, and the only sense of its rear pickup bed is looking in the rear view mirror at the sliding rear window that charms even the happiest Outback doggies. The Outback’s independent suspension muffles road riding, and its wagon-like profile neutralizes the 8.7 inches of ground clearance so it doesn’t lean into turns like other taller SUVs. In fact, the ground clearance (8.6 inches on Santa Cruz) and height (66/66.7 inches) of both vehicles are nearly identical, as are the approach and departure angles, further suggesting that Hyundai benchmarked the Outback and not other pickup trucks in designing the Santa Cruz. 

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

The Outback Wilderness gets the off-road advantage thanks to its revised bumper angles, suspension upgrades, and tires. It clears 9.5 inches over rock and log, but its all-terrain tires cause more road noise on pavement. The same could be said for the 20-inch wheels on the top Santa Cruz. All Outbacks come equipped with all-wheel drive, whereas only the uprated engine on the Santa Cruz gets AWD as standard. The Santa Cruz uses a lockable center differential for a balanced power split when off-roading uphill or through the muck. 

On road, the Santa Cruz is more fun to drive than the Outback. A Sport mode delay shift points on the 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, and the steering is more responsive than in the Outback. We’ve only tested the larger 2.5-liter turbo-4 available at launch, and the output of 281 hp and 311 lb-ft outperforms the Outback’s 260-hp, 2.4-liter turbo-4.

The Santa Cruz feels lighter on its feet, and with max torque coming on at just 1,700 rpm, power always feels available thanks in part to the paddle shifters. Subaru uses gear stepping on its CVT, and it feels more willing to match the driver’s intentions than other variable transmissions. The CVT’s advantage comes at the pump, with the Outback’s turbo-4 getting 26 mpg combined compared to the Santa Cruz turbo-4 with AWD netting only 22 mpg combined, according to the EPA. 

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz

Both models come with good standard safety features and top crash-test ratings from the NHTSA and IIHS. The Outback outdoes the Santa Cruz with standard adaptive cruise control, however. 

In the cabin, the Santa Cruz features a sleeker layout though the available 10.3-inch touchscreen sits in a sea of smudgeful gloss-black panels that include haptic climate controls. It’s better than the Outback’s cluttered, cramped 11.6-inch touchscreen that didn’t get any more familiar after a week of testing. 

The Santa Cruz and Outback are more similar than different, despite the bed. The top Santa Cruz Touring trim and Outback Wilderness trim referenced in this article cost about $41,000 and $38,000, respectively. The difference between the two is less about which is better, and more about how you feel about driving something different. 

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