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Hyundai Santa Cruz: vs Strada/Ram 700?

by Bill Cawthon on

According to Reuters, Hyundai is seriously considering building the Santa Cruz Crossover Pickup that made its debut in concept form at the North American International Auto Show in January.

Hyundai-Santa-Cruz-1-Web

Park Byung-cheol, a director at Hyundai’s R&D division, said the concept received a “good response” at the Detroit show. He added there were some obstacles to production but didn’t go into specifics.

Hyundai claims the Santa Cruz is one of its most-researched vehicles. It’s not aimed at traditional pickup customers but at crossover buyers that want a lifestyle vehicle with an open bed, a group Hyundai marketers call “Urban Adventurers.”

While the Santa Cruz is not designed for hauling 4X8 sheets of plywood, the concept does have an interesting expanding bed that pulls out to the rear like a drawer.

Hyundai-Santa-Cruz-2-Web

The blogosphere is all a-flutter over the prospect of a production version of the Santa Cruz but the question that must be asked is if there is a sustainable market for such a vehicle?

Hyundai believes the Santa Cruz won’t really compete with other pickups: it will establish a market segment of its own among buyers who have wanted something like a pickup but didn’t want the real thing. The company says its research shows that industry pickup market share is down more than 5% in the last 10 years. Vehicle buyers under 30 now account for just 7% of pickup sales, which Hyundai says indicates a a need for a truck that “more closely matches these morphing lifestyles.”

The numbers guys at Hyundai also note that women, who buy more than half of all crossovers, make up just 10% of pickup customers.

The total market share for all pickups was 19% in 2005 and 14% at the end of 2014. Younger buyers are choosing vehicles other than pickup trucks and, Ram CEO Bob Hegbloom said separately, women are unlikely to buy pickups.

But Hyundai’s conclusions from the data may be flawed. The lack of small pickups on the market may not be so much a lack of product as a lack of consumer interest.

In 2005, there were 22 different pickup models available. By 2014, that number had been cut in half. Sales of full-size pickups fell 18.4% (Ram was the only full-size pickup to increase sales during that period), but sales of small pickups fell off a cliff, plunging 63.6% as models like the Isuzu pickup, Mitsubishi Raider and Subaru Baja disappeared along with the Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger.

There has also been a consumer preference shift to crossover vehicles. As the latest incarnation of the station wagon and minivan, crossovers are well on their way to becoming the de facto family vehicle of choice in the U.S.

Even assuming there is an untapped market for small pickups, that doesn’t mean the Santa Cruz will be a hit. The Santa Cruz is based on the Tucson, which in turn is based on the Elantra. As a result, it may be just too small to be truly practical, especially since Hyundai claims there is seating for five inside. Even Urban Adventurers need space for the accoutrements of their lifestyles.

Last, there’s the matter of cost. Hyundai recently said it plans to keep production of the Tucson in Korea, which presumably would also mean the Santa Cruz would also be built in Korea. That means there’s going to be a 25% tariff unless Hyundai can persuade the U.S. government that a pickup isn’t a pickup.

In terms of price, there’s been uninformed talk of a sub-$20K MSRP, but that’s unlikely, given the Tucson’s base is about $21,000. The Santa Cruz’s sticker is more likely to start in the low $20K range with a conventional engine (the concept has a diesel) and climb from there, putting it squarely in the sights of the mid-size pickups from GM, Nissan and Toyota, all of which are more capable trucks.

Furthermore, Hyundai wouldn’t have this new market niche all to itself for very long. Ram could federalize the Fiat Strada-based Ram 700 sold in the Mexican market.

Ram-700-Web

The Santa Cruz is a nifty concept and it’s not surprising it was well received in Detroit, where it was rated one of the “must-sees” of the show. But the reality is that positive responses from the media and car show attendees are fairly easy to come by and not the most reliable gauge of potential customer interest.

It’s Hyundai’s money to gamble, but they might want to recheck those statistics before placing their bets. They might not be quite as favorable as they’re made out to be. The concept of a small lifestyle pickup isn’t exactly new (Subaru Brat, Dodge Rampage, Plymouth Scamp, Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup). A crossover pickup isn’t new, either: Honda plans to come back with a new version of the Ridgeline, which traces its roots back to the Accord.

The final, and most important consideration, is whether the Santa Cruz is really the answer to a question that only Hyundai hears anyone asking.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for just-auto.com, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.


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