• Subaru BRAT

Opinion: The Small Pickup Is Back – For Real This Time

The small truck is here, and hey Mr. CUV, it’s going to take your lunch money.

Dan Heyman By: Dan Heyman May 18, 2021

For years now, manufacturers – especially domestic ones – have been talking about turning their small/medium pickups into “lifestyle vehicles”. That is to say vehicles that young, adventurous couples might gravitate to instead of crossovers and SUVs. I remember attending the launch of the new Ford Ranger in 2018 and being greeted upon my arrival at the hotel with Rangers loaded for bear with all manner of adventure gear such as bed-mounted tents, roof-mounted kayaks and ATVs – and not a single work truck in sight.

This was to be the era of the small pickup as a family/fun vehicle, with the Ranger just being the latest addition. A drive up the Sea-to-Sky highway out of Vancouver towards Whistler, British Columbia will undoubtedly lead to encounters with about 30 Toyota Tacomas, most of them with mountain bikes slung over the tailgate. Leave the work truck stuff to the Ford F-150s and Chevrolet Silverados; the small truck is here and hey Mr. CUV, it’s going to take your lunch money.

Subaru BRAT

Here’s the thing, though. The more I think about the arrival and quasi-popularization of these vehicles, the more I’m reminded of an exchange between two characters in one of my favourite films, 2010’s The Ides of March. In it, a presidential hopeful’s campaign media man is instructing the former – played by George Clooney – that while a certain part of his platform is good, it doesn’t “go all the way”, according to good Canadian kid Ryan Gosling’s media man.

Which is kind of what happened as these new small/medium trucks not-named-Tacoma came to market; they didn’t quite go all the way. They were and remain very good vehicles, but they didn’t push the envelope quite as much as perhaps they could have.

For starters, they aren’t that much smaller than their full-size siblings (and are much bigger than the older versions of themselves, especially in the Ranger’s case), and while GM does offer a four-cylinder diesel in Canada and the U.S. for its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins, the Ford only gets a 2.3-litre turbo four cylinder. The Jeep Gladiator, meanwhile, originally launched with a single 3.6-litre gas V6 engine choice, although Jeep has since added a diesel 3.0-litre six option. In short, they aren’t that much of a departure from the massive-selling bigger trucks to really make them believable as a lifestyle alternative to CUVs.

Don’t agree with me? Well, if I’m wrong, then why are OEMs revisiting that well once again, and with even smaller trucks?

Case-in-point: the recently revealed Hyundai Santa Cruz.

Based on the Tucson CUV’s underpinnings (which also means there’s some Elantra sedan in there, too) and able to be built alongside the Tucson in Montgomery, AL, the Santa Cruz is being labeled as a “sport adventure vehicle” by the manufacturer. It has a four-foot pickup bed that also gets a storage bin in the bed floor and while that’s not large, it’s exactly what someone considering an alternative to a CUV would need – for mountain bikes, camping gear or even just to easily haul a hockey bag. It also comes standard with a tonneau cover and once you’ve deployed that, my friend, you’ve got yourself a crossover.

With the corner steps on the bumper and various tie-downs and cleats in the bed, meanwhile, you’ve got yourself a proper pickup.

A pickup that gets AWD as standard, has about as much room inside as a Tucson and gets an ultra-modern interior complete with an optional digital gauge cluster. Not to mention creature comforts like wireless Apple CarPlay and Hyundai’s “Sounds of Nature” app that’s actually there to help drivers relax behind the wheel.

Add the fact that it comes standard in Canada with a turbo’d four-banger good for 275 horsepower and 310 – three-hundred ten! – pound-feet of torque and can tow up to 5,000 pounds, and you’ve got an immensely-capable all-rounder that can work in the city just as it can on the forestry road up to the trailhead. That’s how you’re going to capture the hearts of minds of buyers. That’s how you’re going to show that a pickup bed needn’t mean large and ungainly. It’s got the power, it’s small so fuel economy shouldn’t be an issue and it’s got a proper AWD system. It’s a great blend.

It’s been done before, of course. Think of the Chevrolet El Camino or Ford Ranchero – heck, it wasn’t so long ago that both Ford and GM were populating Australian roads with “utes”: family sedans with the rear half of the cabin swapped for a pickup bed, and a Mustang or Corvette V8 stuffed under the hood. If those manufacturers still built cars in Australia, you can bet they’d still be building utes.

Subaru BRAT

The real pioneer in this segment, though, the vehicle that I’m reminded most of has to be the Subaru Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, better known as the “BRAT”. The BRAT started life as a wagon, lost the back half of its roof in favour of a pickup bed (with two rearward-facing seats installed within) and emerged a car destined to be a cult classic. To this day, you can buy one in 1:64th scale Hot Wheels diecast form or drive one (virtually) in the Forza video game series. You can’t tell me that there isn’t at least some of that in the Santa Cruz.

Subaru BRAT

Speaking of Ford, Hyundai isn’t the only one on this train. Honda’s been building the (bigger, but still) Ridgeline for years and one of the least well-kept secrets currently in the car/light truck world is that of an upcoming Bronco Sport-based pickup called the Maverick.

While I haven’t yet seen it in person, all that suggests to me that the Santa Cruz is absolutely a vehicle I could see myself buying instead of a CUV; and I own a CUV, and I rather like my CUV, but if I were to replace it – or even add a second car to my garage – I already know that I’d have to take a long, hard look at the Santa Cruz.