DETROIT -- Hyundai billed the Santa Cruz as a concept, but U.S. chief Dave Zuchowski can hardly hide his desire to lure "urban adventurers" with a funky compact truck.
He told Automotive News on Tuesday, Jan. 13, that Hyundai should "know in about a week" whether consumers truly want a truck like the Santa Cruz, with its crossover underpinnings and extendable bed.
If they do, Zuchowski intends to push to "get this into a product plan and fast-track it," he said. "There is a market out there that's untapped, and we think this fits that market."
Hyundai has always been defined by cars, not trucks. But the brand now draws 60 percent of its sales from two cars -- the Elantra and Sonata -- at a time when crossovers, SUVs and other trucks make up more than half the U.S. light-vehicle market and low gasoline prices promise to tilt the balance further.
In a break from Hyundai Motor Group's usual practices, the Santa Cruz was conceived by product planners from the U.S., not Korea. For it to be built, Zuchowski would need to persuade his bosses that the Santa Cruz would strike a chord with U.S. customers and sell well enough for Hyundai to get a return on its investment.
"They like the styling," Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said of Hyundai's top executives. "Their biggest question is viability. Is there a niche segment there between pickup and sport utility that will justify the investment in this vehicle?"
To answer "yes," Hyundai would need to succeed where the offbeat trucks of the recent past, such as the Subaru Baja and Honda Ridgeline, have failed. And it will need to avoid imitating today's pickup trucks, said Mike O'Brien, the company's U.S. vice president of product planning.
Many young people are moving into cities with narrow roads and tight parking spaces, where pickups are impractical. O'Brien said there are car buyers who would like to be able to carry dusty hiking gear or muddy gardening tools without throwing them in the trunk but don't care about payload capacity or towing because they'll never need to haul a ton of drywall.
"We've called them urban adventurers," O'Brien said. "We think there's a significant number of these people, and it's growing."
Hyundai's planners have come fairly far in defining their desired product. It would have a unibody construction from an existing crossover to cut weight and reduce noise and vibrations. It would have better fuel economy than a body-on-frame truck and sell at a price competitive with midsize pickups such as the Chevrolet Colorado.
The attention-grabbing feature would be the extendable bed, which Chris Chapman, the top designer at the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, Calif., compared with the drawers in high-end kitchens.
O'Brien said Hyundai has already worked with outside engineering firms to develop the extendable bed, along with tie-down points and a tonneau cover.
Zuchowski said Hyundai is still thinking about a subcompact crossover to vie with models such as the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. But he said Hyundai isn't considering following Nissan and Toyota into the traditional pickup market. Zuchowski said Hyundai holds a "great deal of respect" for the Detroit 3 in this sector.
"They've been doing this a long time, and it's very difficult to come into this market and compete with them," he said, citing Toyota's struggles.
Building a new segment is never easy. Zuchowski said Hyundai is up to the task.
"We know what we do really well," Zuchowski said. "And we can do this vehicle really well."