Hyundai Santa Cruz vs Honda Ridgeline Comparison: Generational Shift

“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” – Marty McFly.

In the mid 2000s, alternative pickup trucks were all the rage. Chevrolet had the Avalanche, Ford had the Explorer Sport Trac and even Hummer got in on the action with the H2 SUT. If you’re noticing a common thread with these vehicles, it’s that none of them are still being produced. It turns out, consumers at the time didn’t see the point in trucks that were more like body-on-frame SUVs.

Now though, there’s a new breed of alternative truck in town. Sleek and efficient featuring unibody construction, the refreshed 2022 Honda Ridgeline and all-new 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz are leading the charge and creating quite the buzz. They both promise to be lifestyle vehicles for a generation raised by an SUV status quo, but which one should you spend your actual money on? Let’s find out.

Interior and Cargo Space

Santa Cruz: It’s a common pickup truck trope for interior controls to be sized for use with gloves. For instance, the fan speed knob on a Chevrolet Colorado is roughly the diameter of an egg. Hyundai must’ve never received the memo because the Santa Cruz seems to draw interior inspiration from the Aston Martin Lagonda. The massive center stack capacitive touch panel in my Limited-trim test car (Ultimate in Canada) feels so futuristic and high-tech, I feel like Jimmy Neutron sliding into the driver’s seat. It looks great, until you realize that Hyundai has eschewed the convention of a volume knob for capacitive touch pads, a rather annoying design choice. Elsewhere, high-quality materials abound from soft-touch plastics to silkscreened textile dashboard trim.

Comfort up front is good, with reasonably-bolstered seats that feel supportive on long drives and plenty of steering column adjustment. In back, 36.5 inches (927 mm) of rear seat legroom is on-par with the Ridgeline. However, the Santa Cruz gives up 3.1 inches (79 mm) of rear hip room, making three-across seating a bit of a squeeze. The Santa Cruz also doesn’t feature nearly as much storage under the rear seat as the Ridgeline. It’s a much shallower compartment, half of which is consumed by the scissor jack and tire tools.

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While the bed of the Santa Cruz is technically 51 inches long, it actually sort-of isn’t. Huh? See, the back wall of the cargo bed doesn’t actually go straight up and down but is instead angled. Add in the sheer space consumed by the factory-installed roll-up tonneau cover and bed length at the rails is just 41 inches. The compactness of the bed carries through to its width at 53.9 inches measured above the wheel wells and just 42.75 inches measured between the wheel wells, significantly narrower than the beds of many midsize trucks. While there’s no way around width restrictions, Hyundai has used two tiny pieces of hardware to mitigate bed length limitations. Look closely at the tailgate jamb and you’ll see two sets of locating anchors for the tailgate cables. Move the cables to the upper anchors and the tailgate will lay at an angle that supports sheets of building materials stacked atop the wheel wells. There’s more smart design here, too. Steps in the corners of the rear bumper similar to those on GM trucks aid entry to the bed, a very welcome touch.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Review: First Drive

Ridgeline: If the interior of the Santa Cruz was designed with high-tech spaceship whimsy, the Ridgeline’s interior was designed with deep-seated retirement fund pragmatism. While interior materials aren’t as luxurious as those on the Santa Cruz, there’s good use of soft-touch plastics on upper surfaces and upscale comfort comes by way of intelligent design. For instance, both the driver and front passenger get individual seat-mounted adjustable inboard armrests, a massive ergonomic boon for long trips. The seats themselves are softer and have less bolstering for a comfort-first feel that casts off any qualms of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters being made for performance driving. If something needs a physical button, it gets a physical button. Stereo volume is controlled by a knob, not capacitive touch pads. The electronic shifter uses a non-repeating pattern so drivers don’t get confused. Everything feels like it’s designed to have as little of a learning curve as possible.

Instead of using conventional packaging techniques, Honda has delved into Lewis Carroll’s bibliography and made Wonderland physics real. As a result, the Ridgeline seems to bend the concept of space with the amount of interior storage on offer. The centre console is as large as a carry-on bag and because it doesn’t have a pesky fixed armrest, it offers multi-tier storage above and below the durable roller cover. What’s more, the door cards also offer multi-tiered storage for all the trinkets you accumulate in everyday life from water bottles to succulents. There’s plenty of room for humans too: 56.6 inches (1,438 mm) of rear hip room allows for comfortable three-across rear seating, though 36.7 inches (932 mm) of rear legroom isn’t a noticeable increase over Santa Cruz.

The overarching theme of practicality continues on to the cargo bed. While the Santa Cruz may have lockable in-bed storage space, the Ridgeline is the daddy of the in-bed trunk and offers an entire foot more depth in the concealed storage department. I can fit in there, and I’m 5’11” tall. The bed itself is bigger too, measuring 63.6 inches long, 60 inches wide above the wheel wells and 50.4 inches wide between the wheel wells. While the Ridgeline doesn’t feature corner steps to make climbing in the bed easier, it does have a dual-hinged tailgate that can either drop down or swing sideways for flexible access.

Bottom Line: While the Hyundai’s premium materials, flight deck center stack and intelligent tailgate design are sure to impress, the Ridgeline’s sheer user-friendliness, phenomenal packaging and superior practicality will likely matter more in the real world than slick visuals and textile trim.

SEE ALSO: Ford Maverick vs Hyundai Santa Cruz: Which Compact Pickup is Right for You?

Tech and Features

Santa Cruz: Upon first impression, the top-trim Santa Cruz wows with more hi-res screens than your local Buffalo Wild Wings. Two 10.25-inch screens to be precise, one for the gauge cluster and one for the infotainment. Both feature slick configurable user interfaces, black levels on par with current smartphones and high responsiveness. Add in available 64-color ambient lighting and you have interior tech that Captain Picard would envy. Also on tap? One of the best factory navigation systems on the market with genuinely accurate live data and routing. It’ll deftly shuffle you onto side streets and service roads to beat jams and make it to your destination on time. The optional eight-speaker Bose stereo in my test truck is crisp, punchy and a joy to listen to. Staging is just better than mid-pack but immersive and faithful sound replication more than makes up for it.

Overall comfort amenities trail the Ridgeline with no heated rear seats, tri-zone climate control or wiper de-icer on offer, but the Santa Cruz makes up for it with an electronic parking brake with auto-hold, an available 360-degree camera system and standard telematics. Interestingly enough, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are limited to lower trim levels, with the top-spec infotainment only permitting wired phone mirroring. A truly baffling step backwards in connectivity. Out in the bed, an available 150-watt household plug socket is there to power small appliances, though it just doesn’t have the juice to support more power-hungry tools.

Ridgeline: While the Santa Cruz may have bigger screens than the Ridgeline, Honda isn’t going down without a fight. Forget bringing a Bluetooth speaker to tailgating parties, Touring and Black Edition trims of the Ridgeline come with a loud and surprisingly crisp audio system embedded within the truck bed walls. Swap tailgating for power tools and the Ridgeline happily obliges with 400 watts of available on-board power, far more than the 150 watts offered by the Santa Cruz. Neat gimmicks, but they disguise the age of the rest of the Ridgeline’s tech. Instead of a fully-digital cluster, the Ridgeline blends analog gauges with a small 4.2-inch driver information display and a segmented LCD panel from an alarm clock. The latter displays speed in massive, AARP-friendly numbers while the 4.2-inch screen displays a limited amount of trip computer information. Moving onto the infotainment, the gradated 3D-look tiles seem a bit ten years ago while the navigation interface is best described as primitive.

SEE ALSO: Kia Sorento vs Honda Pilot Comparison: Three-Row Throwdown

Overall feature count is good, with heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and a windshield wiper de-icer standard across all trim levels. Higher trims like our Black Edition tester gain heated outboard rear seats and ventilated front seats. Standard tri-zone automatic climate control pays special attention to the coziness of rear seat passengers while front and rear parking sensors make getting into tight spaces easier. Also on tap for Touring and Black Edition trims is a 540-watt eight-speaker audio system that’s more dynamic but less crisp than the Bose system offered on Santa Cruz. Bass junkies will likely prefer the Ridgeline’s system as the subwoofer channel features separate adjustable gain.

Bottom Line: While the technological advancements and slick digital display design of the Santa Cruz are impressive, it’s hard to deny that the Ridgeline simply offers more features and amenities.

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Powertrain, Driving Feel and Fuel Economy

Santa Cruz: As expected for something that looks straight out of a dystopian action film, our top-spec Santa Cruz packs a brawler of a powertrain. On tap is Hyundai’s 2.5-liter twin-cam turbocharged four-cylinder engine with both port and direct fuel injection cranking out 277 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and a seriously robust 311 lb-ft of torque at just 1,700 rpm. Oh, and it does it all on regular gas. Power goes down to all four wheels through an eight-speed wet-clutch DCT and a full-time all-wheel-drive system with a lockable center differential. In fact, that DCT is the same one Hyundai puts in its firecracker Veloster N, just with different tuning. Hold on to your hat, folks.

SEE ALSO: Honda Civic Type R vs Hyundai Veloster N: Fast Goodbye

With numbers like those, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Santa Cruz is surprisingly quick. Mash your foot down and the DCT executes a flawless downshift, the turbos spool up and the Santa Cruz rockets ahead with the authority of a jet boat. The sheer torque on tap pushes you back in your seat as it pulls you toward the horizon, belying the Santa Cruz’s 4,164-pound curb weight. If you really want to go on the attack, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters let you bang off rapid-fire downshifts befitting of a hot hatch. Settle back down to demure speeds and a few quirks become evident. Those not used to the behavior of a DCT may find that the Santa Cruz creeps forward alarmingly quickly. The engine itself is also noisier than one might expect, thrumming away at a cruise with typical four-cylinder gruffness.

Adding to the Santa Cruz’s sporting demeanor is surprisingly good steering. While it doesn’t have much in the way of feel, it’s surprisingly quick. It also weights up beautifully under load, offering up two scoopfuls of confidence in the corners. Self-levelling rear dampers are on tap for stability when loaded, a useful feature that adds to a suspension system so sorted, it’s an absolute masterclass. Cracked and weathered asphalt is heard, but rarely felt. Frost heaves and potholes are met with firm yet controlled calibration mimicking that of European luxury SUVs. Body roll is also kept well in-check, as are squat under acceleration and dive under braking, a true testament to well-selected sway bars and sound suspension geometry. Speaking of braking, the brake pedal is firm, confidence-inspiring and easy to modulate. Braking distances are admirably short for such a heavy vehicle, too. Put simply, driving the Santa Cruz doesn’t feel like driving a ponderous pontoon boat, it feels like you’re behind the wheel of an instrument of precision.

With a four-cylinder engine, eight gears and a smaller footprint than most trucks, fuel economy should be a strong suit for the Santa Cruz. Indeed, after a week of mixed driving, we averaged 24 miles per gallon (9.8 L/100km). Impressive considering the official government combined estimate of 22 mpg (10.6 L/100km). Official city and highway fuel economy estimates clock in at 19 mpg city (12.1 L/100km) and 27 mpg highway (8.6 L/100km).

Ridgeline: While the Santa Cruz wields its turbocharged dual-clutch whiz-bang modernity with all the confidence and bravado of a college senior storming a bottle of Smirnoff, the Ridgeline quietly sticks with known quantities for motivation. Up front sits Honda’s J35Y6 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6 engine with VTEC and Variable Cylinder Management. Pumping out 280 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 262 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 RPM, it’s a proven powerplant that can shut off one bank of cylinders for efficiency while cruising. Power makes its way to the ground through a ZF nine-speed automatic gearbox and Honda’s torque-vectoring i-VTM4 all-wheel-drive system that can overdrive the outside rear wheel by 2.7 per cent for increased cornering agility. That’s mechanical torque vectoring, not brake-based simulation, meaning the Ridgeline effectively has a limited-slip differential on the rear axle. Proper big truck stuff.

Out on the road, the Ridgeline’s powertrain proves to be its power play. Waft about town and the V6 is smooth, demure and linear. Cross the 5,350 rpm VTEC engagement point and the intake cam profile goes on the attack, whisking the Ridgeline up to speed while producing fervent, soul-stirring intake noise reminiscent of the original Acura NSX. When the world goes electric, I’ll miss high-revving V6s like this. While it took Honda a while to figure out the tuning of the ZF 9HP in other products, it’s bang-on here with crisp downshifts and deft gear selection, the torque converter filling in gaps like buttercream frosting in a way that the wet clutch setup in the Santa Cruz just can’t quite manage.

In terms of ride and handling, the first impression of the Ridgeline is one of vast size. While 3.6 inches doesn’t sound like a lot, that extra width over the Santa Cruz makes the Ridgeline less wieldy in urban environments, albeit no more so than a full-size three-row crossover. Thankfully, the excellent ride quality typical of three-row crossovers also carries over, displaying good wheel control and dulling wheel thump over frost heaves. There are some slight murmurs that come up through the rear axle over pockmarked tarmac, although those are in keeping with pickup truck tradition. While the suspension tuning is very comfortable, the same can’t be said for the choice of tires. The Firestone Destination LE 2s on my test truck were obnoxiously loud, on par with many all-terrain tires. As for the steering, it’s lightly-weighted, expectedly lacking in feel, not very quick and offers up a turning radius on-par with a Boeing 787. If you’ve ever wondered how long it actually took for Austin Powers to pull that infamous three-point turn, just try parking a Ridgeline underground.

With unibody construction, nine forward gears and a displacement on-demand V6, you’d expect the Ridgeline to be significantly more economical than a traditional pickup truck. Think again. Over a week of driving, we averaged an embarrassing 16 mpg (14.8 L/100km), significantly worse than the government’s combined rating of 21 mpg (11.5 L/100km). Dedicated city and highway fuel economy figures are quoted at 18 mpg (12.8 L/100km) and 24 mpg (9.9 L/100km) respectively, so it seems that the city number may be more indicative of real-world everyday driving.

(Editor’s Note: We should point out that the Santa Cruz did get more highway mileage in during its week than the Ridgeline. Even still, the real-time ratings in the Honda never quite matched up with either the official numbers or the Hyundai’s figures.)

SEE ALSO: 2021 Ford Ranger Raptor, Sorry, Tremor Review

Bottom Line: While the Ridgeline offers up superior comfort, the Santa Cruz offers up superior everything else. It’s faster, sharper, more agile, more efficient, an absolute royal flush. While the Ridgeline will get you places, the Santa Cruz will make you want to go places.

Safety

Santa Cruz: Hyundai has really thrown its weight behind advanced driver assist systems and in the Santa Cruz, you can really tell. Lane keeping assist does a fantastic job of plotting a true course within a lane while the adaptive cruise control is as deft and nuanced as the best systems from luxury brands. Throw in the option of Hyundai’s Highway Driving Assist and the Santa Cruz is a relaxing, proactive partner for crushing serious miles with safety and confidence.

While the NHTSA hasn’t published crash test results of the Santa Cruz at the time of writing, the IIHS has. In fact, the agency awarded the SC its Top Safety Pick rating, earning top marks in all crash test categories, a superior rating for automatic emergency braking and the highest rating of Good in headlight testing for all trims with LED headlamps. In fact the only reason the Santa Cruz doesn’t qualify for a Top Safety Pick+ rating is because lower-trim models with halogen headlamps simply don’t offer the same light output.

Ridgeline: While the Ridgeline comes equipped with the Honda Sensing Suite of driver aids, not all advanced driver assist systems are equally competent. For instance, I found the Ridgeline’s Lane Keeping Assist System prone to ping-ponging between lane markers and fighting driver input. It grew so annoying that I actually turned it off and kept it off for the remainder of my time with the Ridgeline. I also found the forward collision warning system to be a bit uppity, occasionally picking up turning vehicles as false positives. Nevertheless, blind spot monitoring works perfectly and I found the standard adaptive cruise control to function just fine.

When it comes to passive safety, Honda has employed its ACE body structure technology and six airbags to achieve high safety ratings. The NHTSA has given the Ridgeline five stars overall for crash protection. The IIHS rated the Ridgeline its top grade of Good in most tests, save for in passenger-side small overlap test where it scored Acceptable. That acceptable passenger small overlap rating along with a marginal headlamp rating prevent the Ridgeline from earning a Top Safety Pick rating.

Bottom Line: While the Ridgeline’s safety was considered class-leading when it launched, the Santa Cruz has proven itself to be safer. It offers better small overlap protection, stronger headlamps and superior active safety that doesn’t feel like a learner driver is working the steering, brakes and throttle.

Styling

Santa Cruz: Even when locking eyes on its backlit silhouette at zero-dark-thirty, it’s clear that the Santa Cruz looks unlike any pickup truck we’ve ever seen. While the canted c-pillars lean for structural reasons, they evoke visions of old-school roll bars and pack a leanness that eluded the first-generation Ridgeline. Cast a light on the sheetmetal and things get even more exciting. Forget bolt-on fender flares, the arches on this thing look more swollen than a Kylie Jenner lip kit, cementing an aggressive stance and only requiring minimal plastic trim to enhance their visual effect. The signature mirrored-lens LED daytime running lights glisten like a robotic arachnid’s eyes and the hack-and-slash character lines on the doors only add to the cyberpunk look. Minute details like the silhouette of the truck on each wheel arch trim and “Designed in California” hidden in each tail lamp signify that this is a vehicle built by and for young North Americans. Throw in the assertively-stamped nameplate on the tailgate and it all adds up to a design that doesn’t just turn heads, it breaks necks. During my week with the Santa Cruz, cyclists leaned in for a closer look, kids pointed in awe and a Camry driver tried to snap a picture at highway speeds. I took the Santa Cruz to a Halloween party and people were crowding around it, something that doesn’t happen unless a carmaker has absolutely knocked it out of the park.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Toyota Tacoma Trail Review: Simplicity Is Key

Ridgeline: If the Santa Cruz looks like the pierced-septum future, the Ridgeline looks like the clean-shaven past. That’s not a knock against Honda’s styling department, as the manbun-wearing present of car design is often an uncouth menagerie of fake vents and floating pillars. Rather, the Ridgeline exudes a tastefulness lacking in many current pickup trucks. The strong beltline and minimalist linework are a nod to traditional truck styling, while the vertical bed seams on the bodysides appeal to those with ladder frame sensibilities. New for 2021 is a revised front end with a more prominent hoodline that distances the Ridgeline from its Pilot crossover counterpart. It also features a classic and classy sensibly-sized front grille flanked by large, friendly LED headlamps. It’s a handsome improvement over the outgoing model but yet again, not exactly groundbreaking. In fact, the only thing dragging the Ridgeline’s styling down is the blacked-out everything on my Black Edition tester which carries an air of “you haven’t gained enough XP to unlock this vehicle yet.”

Bottom Line: While the Ridgeline’s styling is conservative and conventionally pleasant, the Santa Cruz packs more visual attitude than a drop-tuned seven-string chugging through a Marshall stack. It gets the people going like a certain Jay-Z and Kanye West song being bombed into a house party playlist and absolutely rules over the Ridgeline in the styling department.

Pricing and Value

Santa Cruz: In America, the Santa Cruz starts at $25,215 including delivery and destination for the base naturally-aspirated front-wheel-drive model. Honestly though, it’s worth spending a bit more money and doing things maple leaf-style. See, Canadians only get the turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive, so their entry-level Preferred trim level retails for $40,454 CAD including delivery and destination. The equivalent US-market SEL Premium model costs $36,905 while a fully-loaded Santa Cruz goes for $40,945 ($46,954 CAD including a $200 premium paint charge).

Ridgeline: As the Ridgeline is the largest unibody pickup truck currently available, it should be no surprise that its pricing reflects its stature. The basic Sport trim starts at $38,115 including delivery and destination ($47,536 CAD) while my Black Edition tester ups the ante to $45,545 ($56,536 CAD). Granted, all Ridgelines are all-wheel-drive and equipped with a V6 engine, so you do get something more than just size for your money.

Bottom Line: Despite the massive price gap between a well-equipped Santa Cruz and a more basic model, it’s still surprisingly good value when you consider that a basic Ridgeline starts north of that latter mark. While the Ridgeline does come with a lot of kit as standard, the premium it commands feels difficult to justify.

Verdict: Hyundai Santa Cruz vs Honda Ridgeline Comparison

What we have here are two very different ways of creating a unibody truck. The Ridgeline doesn’t feel like a current half-ton pickup truck, as it isn’t a stars-and-stripes caricature of a workhorse whispering rose-tinted prose of Coors Light up through pliable rubber body mounts, but it does feel more like a traditional truck than the Santa Cruz. It’s conservative, pragmatic and more of a left-brain choice.

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz runs off Monster Zero and X Games highlight reels. It’s the turbocharged cyberpunk party monster of the unibody pickup market, blending zinc counter top design with weekend warrior practicality. While Honda set about making a pragmatic mid-size truck, Hyundai understood the assignment. The Korean brand popped a wheelie on the zeitgeist, got wavy, pressed its index finger against the neck of a generation, found a pulse and played it back at 800 decibels. The Santa Cruz isn’t just better than the Ridgeline, it’s better than most new vehicles full-stop. That’s why it’s the winner for me.

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