Three new small pickup trucks have launched over the past three months, and we drove them all. Together, they tell us a lot about the U.S. market’s headlong scramble into trucks of all sizes and types. We think the 2022 Ford Maverick will be a smash hit, the 2022 Nissan Frontier should continue to sell the way it always has, and the new 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz may or may not resonate with buyers.
The 2022 Ford Maverick may be built on a compact front-wheel-drive architecture, and use a hybrid as its base powertrain, but it has such sturdy specs and so many clever design features that we became converts. It earns a TCC Rating of 7.0 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz is a small pickup based on crossover utility underpinnings. It’s more similar to non-traditional trucks like the Honda Ridgeline than to classic mid-size pickups like the Frontier or Ford Ranger. As such, the Santa Cruz will have to carve out its own market, including among car shoppers who’ve never considered a pickup truck. Hyundai’s a smart company, and it says it’s done its market research to understand the buyers. We gave it a 6.4 out of 10.
Finally, the 2022 Nissan Frontier is easiest to pigeon-hole. It’s the first comprehensive redesign of Nissan’s stalwart mid-size pickup, whose prior generation ran from 2005 through 2021—a stunning 17 model years. It competes with the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma, and is a known quantity with fleets and pickup fans alike. The new one is taller and tougher-looking, bringing it closer to being a direct Tacoma competitor, earning a 5.6 out of 10 on our scale.
2022 Ford Maverick
Maverick: Sturdy, square-cut, and smart
The 2022 Ford Maverick has been eagerly awaited as a true compact pickup truck, the first in the market since Ford’s Ranger was canceled in 2012 then relaunched as a midsize truck in 2019. You still see a lot of the old compact Rangers on the roads; most of their owners seem to want a pickup but nothing larger than what they’ve got.
Built on the same “C2” underpinnings used for the Bronco Sport and Escape crossovers, the Maverick shares no external sheetmetal with either. Ford designed a deliberately classic, upright pickup shape—very much in contrast to the flowing Santa Cruz—and the general consensus is that the company hit a home run.
The little truck is tall enough to provide substantial presence, without the aggressive grilles and intimidating high front ends designed into many current mid-size and full-size pickups. It’s 11 inches shorter than the mid-size Ranger, and nearly five inches lower—making it a human-size truck that doesn’t look at all compact unless you park it next to a mid-size or full-size pickup.
The standard drivetrain is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder driving the front wheels through a two-motor hybrid system that produces a combined 191 horsepower. It’s decently peppy unloaded, and it held its own accelerating up a highway on-ramp carrying 1,000 pounds of mulch on a pallet—though the noise level indicated how hard the system was working. Towing capacity is 2,000 pounds.
2022 Ford Maverick
2022 Ford Maverick
The 250-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 and 8-speed automatic makes a speedy truck when unladen, and we towed 4,000 pounds of loaded trailer without the truck seeming to notice. Both versions have a 1,500-pound payload, but all-wheel drive only comes with the larger engine. Either engine can break loose the inside front wheel accelerating through turns.
The Maverick is loaded with little features to make it work the ways a huge variety of owners want. The door pockets hold a metal water bottle; the FlexBed includes slots to accept multiple sizes and levels of lumber; and the tailgate has a halfway-open position to carry flat boards. Ford’s especially proud of the DIY instructions it offers to owners who fancy themselves “makers,” who’d rather wire their own LED bed lights than buy Ford’s—the company built in a plug connector just for them.
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz
2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz: Success in a failed category?
The still-growing U.S. truck market, and a deep understanding of what its SUV customers want, convinced Hyundai to launch a pickup for 2022. The Santa Cruz is the first vehicle Hyundai has ever designed solely for the North American market.
It’s also the latest entry in a long list of attempts by carmakers to market car-based pickup trucks. That list is largely one of failure, from the Volkswagen Rabbit Pickup and Dodge Ramcharger to the more recent Subaru Baja (2002-2006). The exception is the Honda Ridgeline, launched for 2006 and the sole unibody pickup on the market before the Santa Cruz.
Who will buy a four-door compact pickup based on an SUV? According to Hyundai, they’ll be urban and suburban couples who enjoy active pursuits like hiking, biking, sailboarding, and surfing. They may already own a crossover, but want more storage room for their equipment, along with cargo space that can hold wet, dirty, and smelly gear. Still, they don’t want a truck as large as today’s mid-size pickups. These buyers, Hyundai says, found the Santa Cruz design very appealing.
Built on underpinnings shared with those of its Tucson compact crossover utility vehicle, the Santa Cruz has a pair of 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engines, both driving through 8-speed automatics. The base engine produces 191 hp, the optional turbo-4 boosts that to 281 hp. We found the Santa Cruz pleasant on the road, though its suspension didn’t feel as composed through twisty California coastal roads as Hyundai sedans we’ve driven recently.
But the biggest risk Hyundai’s taking, we think, is the flowing, swept-back styling of the Santa Cruz. It will likely have to find a new kind of buyer, one deliberately rejecting classic pickup style for something that’s more like an SUV with an open cargo bay. That’s what Hyundai’s built, and we got the feeling its sales expectations are fairly modest. We’ll be curious to see who buys the Santa Cruz—and what they use it for. We’re betting it’s not hauling that 1,000 pounds of mulch on a pallet … though it could.
2022 Nissan Frontier
2022 Nissan Frontier
Frontier: Heavy redesign, but …
Under sustained questioning from reviewers, Nissan executives acknowledged that the “new” 2022 Frontier is a very heavy redesign of its 17-year-old predecessor’s underpinnings. Buyers likely won’t care about that, given its modern powertrain, new sheet metal and interior, and lines that make the truck appear taller, tougher, and more intimidating.
What largely hasn’t changed is the truck’s wheelbase and overall length and width. That’s a good thing, as it means the Frontier hasn’t been afflicted with the bloat that gives some mid-size pickups the dimensions of full-size trucks from 25 years ago. Only its height varies significantly: the new one is 2.0 inches taller, as is the hood height, despite identical ground clearances.
The design is otherwise squarer, bluffer, and more masculine-appearing, with some echoes of the Toyota Tacoma. Inside, the 2022 Frontier is fully up to date, with car-like features from phone charging points and a central touchscreen to an array of standard or optional active safety features.
The powertrain is an updated 3.8-liter V-6 engine, rated at 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque, paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission. (This combination actually appeared in the last two years of the old Frontier.) The suspension was the trickiest of the three, not surprising for a body-on-frame truck designed as much for work duty in fleets as for personal use. The one startling characteristic we found was that the mid-level SV trim level didn’t ride much differently than the Pro-4X off-road model.
That model includes Bilstein off-road shocks, a Dana rear axle, electronic locking rear differential, extra underbody protection, and all-terrain tires (two of which we managed to destroy on a newly-exposed sharp rock during the trail section of the drive).
By and large, Nissan Frontier buyers know exactly what they’re getting in the truck. The new one works hard not to disturb the traditional formula, while updating the truck to bring it from 2005 into the 2020s. Given the modern specs and the growing truck market, we’d expect it to do well.
Test vehicle specs
We drove two different 2022 Ford Mavericks, both front-wheel drive. One was an XLT with the standard 2.5-liter hybrid powertrain, the other an XL with the optional 2.0-liter turbo-4. Ford didn’t have final pricing at the test drive, but the base Maverick with the hybrid powertrain, front-wheel drive, and very little in the way of options carries a base price of $19,995. It’s basic, with steel wheels and apparently manually adjusted door mirrors—when’s the last time you saw those? There’s also a mandatory delivery fee of a whopping $1,495. Still, we think a $22,000 starting price for a pickup will appeal to a lot of buyers—new and old.
The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz we drove through the San Francisco Bay Area just days later was the highest-spec Limited AWD trim variant. It included 20-inch alloy wheels, and the more powerful turbocharged engine that comes with the all-wheel drive variant. Equipment included a long list of active-safety features, with close to three dozen separate enumerated comfort and convenience features specified on the window sticker. With a suggested base price of $39,720, the only additions were a very nice Sage Gray paint ($400) and carpeted front mats ($195), plus a mandatory $1,185 delivery fee. That brought the bottom-line sticker price to an even $41,500.
Our 2022 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab in Deep Blue Pearl was the only one fitted with the mid-level SV trim, likely to be the highest-selling version. It comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, body-color trim, a sliding rear window, cloth seats with a 6-way power driver’s seat, a vehicle security system, and a Tow/Haul mode. Our test SV did not have all-wheel drive.
What it did have were three option packages that together added $6,000 to the recommended base price of $35,140. The $990 Tech Package bundled various active-safety systems, including adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warnings, blind-spot monitors, and automatic high beams.
A $1,990 Convenience Package added a host of features, including various trim items and several for towing: a trailer hitch with wiring harness, bed lighting, two 120-volt power outlets, spray-in bedliner, and a track system for easier tie-downs in the bed. On top of that, the $2,790 Premium Package added a 10-speaker Fender premium audio system, charcoal leather seats, a sunroof, and various LED lights inside and out. With $145 floor mats and a mandatory $1,150 delivery fee, the bottom-line sticker price totaled $42,205. This year, you’ll likely pay more than that.