by Frank A. Aukofer

Dedicated automotive publications often do comparison tests of vehicles that compete in the same category. But two of the newest midsize pickup trucks are so individual in themselves there’s no comparison between the 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz and the 2022 Nissan Frontier.

The Santa Cruz is Hyundai’s first foray into this distinctively American vehicle innovation, though the company doesn’t even call it a pickup, preferring the term “adventure vehicle.” But hardly anybody will think or speak of it that way. It’s a pickup.

Meanwhile, there’s no mistaking the athletic Frontier for anything else. It also is all-new, after the previous generation continued primarily unchanged since the 2006 model. It’s a traditional design, with the body mounted on a frame, where the Santa Cruz is built more like a modern crossover, with a unit body like a car.

Both pickups are innovative enough to be nominated for Truck of the Year by the North American Car of the Year organization, an independent jury of 50 automotive journalists in the United States and Canada, including this reviewer. Three rounds of voting are scheduled before the winner is announced next January. 

The success of these new trucks will depend on customers’ mindset—whether they prefer a traditional-looking, hard-working pickup like the Frontier or a more stylish and entertaining driving machine like the Santa Cruz. 

A look at the specifications accompanying this review demonstrates the differences. Next to the Santa Cruz, the hunky Frontier is more powerful, weighs more, can tow heavier loads, is longer and taller, and has a larger cargo box. But the Santa Cruz has more space inside for passengers, delivers better fuel economy, and its rated payload is just one pound less than the Frontier’s. 

The Frontier’s open cargo box has a capacity of 40 cubic feet and plenty of lights and tie-downs for whatever anyone might want to haul. 

Though the Santa Cruz’s cargo box is smaller at 27 cubic feet, it has a built-in cover that works like a tracked window shade to lock away contents and protect them from the weather. There’s also a drainable storage tub under the floor that can hold ice and beverages.

The tested Frontier was a pre-production SV model with high and low range four-wheel drive and a base price of $36,290, including the destination charge. Options packages brought the bottom-line cost to $42,205. Pre-production vehicles have slight differences in equipment, fit, finish, and assembly from the final production version.

The Hyundai Santa Cruz was a production top-line Limited model with all-wheel drive. Fully equipped, its only option was $195 for carpeted floor mats, which brought its delivered price up to $41,100.

Differences between the two pickups emerge in driving. The Frontier is a work truck with heavy, slow steering and a choppy ride when empty. Power comes from its 3.8-liter V6 engine, which delivers 310 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque through a nine-speed automatic transmission the driver can shift manually.

Highway cruising is mostly serene, with some engine and tire noise intrusion, depending on the road surface. Seats, with Nissan’s zero-gravity design, are comfortable and supportive. The driver’s seat has power adjustments, but the passenger gets manual controls. Outboard back seats are spacious, though a bit shy on knee room.

Infotainment is controlled by large center screen, and there are big rotary knobs for radio and climate controls. Equipment includes Apple Car Play and Android Auto, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, rear automatic emergency braking, a trailer hitch, a spray-in cargo bed liner and heated front seats.

Drive the Santa Cruz and the experience mimics being cosseted in a luxurious, high-tech cabin. The jarring note is there are no knobs; only touch buttons. It can be distracting to, say, change the radio volume while underway.

The 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. It’s enough to nail 60 miles an hour in the seven second range.

Like its garage mate and sibling, the 2022 Hyundai Tucson, the Santa Cruz has a sporting feel with responsive steering and tight cornering in the twisties, along with a supple and quiet ride that easily eats up the miles.

You pays your money and takes your choice.      

Santa Cruz Specifications

  • Model: 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Limited AWD four-door, five-passenger crossover pickup truck.
  • Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged: 281 hp, 311 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 16 feet 4 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 7 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 104/27 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,123 pounds.
  • Payload: 1,609 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 5,000 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/27/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $40,905.
  • Price as tested: $41,100.

Frontier Specifications

  • Model: 2022 Nissan Frontier SV Crew Cab four-door, five-passenger pickup truck.
  • Engine: 3.8-liter V6; 310 hp, 281 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Nine-speed automatic with manual shift mode and four-wheel drive with low and high ranges.
  • Overall length: 17 feet 6 inches.
  • Height: Six feet.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 99/40 cubic feet
  • Weight: 4,664 pounds.
  • Payload: 1,610 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 6,330 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 17/22/19 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $36,290.
  • Price as tested: $42,205.

Disclaimer: The manufacturers provided the vehicles used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Hyundai, Nissan