Hyundai’s Santa Cruz Unibody Frame Doesn’t Stop It From Off-Roading

I have been a bit critical of Hyundai for not producing an off-road variant of the Palisade. Granted, the SUV is pretty capable in stock form to take on the rigors of shuttling people back and forth, even over a dirt road. However, a true off-road or overlanding capable trim level would add to the customer base. Yet, such a trim package is conspicuously absent. Instead, it seems like the off-road duties will be left to the soon-to-be-released Santa Cruz pickup. Even though many may say that the Santa Cruz’s unibody structure won’t be able to handle real off-roading, I disagree. And I believe Hyundai is going to prove that. Yes, I’m expecting an off-road trim on the new Santa Cruz pickup to rival the TRD packages on Toyotas or the Z71 packages on Chevrolets. 

What is this blasphemy I speak of?

A silver extended cab pickup sits on stage. It is the Santa Cruz concept from Hyundai.
Hyundai reveals the Santa Cruz concept to the media at the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on January 12, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

For many years the industry has shied away from enhancing off-road prowess of unibody structure vehicles. It is true, that a unibody will often mean the towing ability will be compromised. However, on the other side, being able to handle trail riding and rock crawling does not have to be compromised as much as people think.

Before people step away from me in fear that lightning will strike me, let me explain. Although it sounds like blasphemy to say a unibody can handle rough terrain, let me put this thought out on the table. Unibody trucks and many crossover SUVs already have been conquering the off-road. Why should the Santa Cruz be any different?

The Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ)

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The 1999-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, known as the WJ generation, is a unibody construction vehicle. It has a pretty large following. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase now, and there are loads of aftermarket companies providing customization opportunities, including off-road specific packages. That’s right! This unibody SUV has lift-kits, wheel and tire packages, fender flares, specialized bumpers, and other off-roading goodies available for it. For years, the aftermarket industry has been supporting this Jeep platform. In fact, there is even a company offering kits to convert the SUV into a pickup truck. As a reminder, this is a unibody vehicle, like the Hyundai Santa Cruz will be. 

The 2021 Honda Ridgeline

Okay, the design of the Honda Ridgeline has been considered questionable for a long time. For 2021, however, the automaker has butched it up a bit. What does that mean? The grille, hood, and other appointments give it a more brute-ish look, which seems to appeal to truck owners more often than not. Previously, the truck’s appearance and low volume sales may have hindered the aftermarket from embracing the platform as well as it has others. But, there have still been some pretty impressive off-road builds along the way. The refreshed design of the 2021 Ridgeline may also peak more people’s interest.

2021 Honda Ridgeline driving on dirt road
2021 Honda Ridgeline | Honda

Regardless of what people think of the Ridgeline, a quick search online shows that lift kits have been available for the Ridgeline for a while. And, if you’re going to make a serious off-road machine, a lift kit is one of the first things that need to happen to many vehicles. It increases ground clearance and wheel travel. So, the unibody structure of the Ridgeline really is not holding it back from hitting the trails. The Hyundai Santa Cruz will be no different. 

Towing and running trails are different things

Let us not be deceived. The Hyundai Santa Cruz will not have the towing ability like a Tundra, Tacoma, or Silverado. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that an off-road variant of the Santa Cruz will, however, be able to go on trail rides and expect a similar outcome as other prepared vehicles. The unibody structure of the vehicle should not automatically mean dismissal from the trailhead. Also, if the aftermarket comes alongside the automaker and embraces the platform, the wild builds will come. So, I am looking forward to an off-road capable package for the Santa Cruz, or at least for the aftermarket to debut new packages. I hope I’m not wrong.