There was a time in America when choosing the best compact truck was an extremely difficult proposition. Not terribly long ago, buyers could find a small pickup truck or two in virtually every new-car showroom. Those days are long gone, as offerings like the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet S-10 (and later Colorado), Nissan Hardbody and Toyota Tacoma grew in size over the years or were discontinued (and in some cases reborn or renamed) to make up the category we now know as midsize trucks. Interestingly enough, a couple of automakers reentered the compact pickup segment in 2022 with surprisingly different takes on the small truck formula.
There are only two small pickup trucks currently sold in the United States. The class of two is more correctly referred to as compact pickups, sitting beneath the midsize pickup segment that is dominated by the aforementioned Toyota Tacoma. The two compact entries in the small pickup truck segment are the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz.
So which of the two options is the best compact truck in America? We think most buyers will be best served by the Ford Maverick if they are buying a truck to serve as an implement to move people and cargo, whereas the Hyundai Santa Cruz feels like a more premium product that, particularly with its optional turbocharged engine, is more fun to drive. But there’s more to the decision than that. We’ll break down some of the high and low points of each truck, but serious buyers who want to know more would do well to read our latest Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz reviews for the full scoop.
Best compact trucks for 2023 and 2024
Ford Maverick — Autoblog Score: 8.0
Why it stands out: Affordable for a truck; easy to drive; hybrid is efficient; clever design and storage throughout
Could be better: Hard to find in certain markets; no all-wheel-drive hybrid; no shortage of hard plastics
Starting Price: $25,640
Read our most recent Ford Maverick Review
As pointed out in our introductory paragraphs, there are really only two options for buyers shopping for a compact pickup truck. Both the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz represent strong options, which means choosing between the two may come down to styling, pricing and incentives, or preferences related to how the vehicle rides and drives.
The Ford Maverick looks and feels more like a traditional pickup truck than the Hyundai Santa Cruz, with a usable truck bed — despite being 7 inches shorter than the bed of the next-size-up Ford Ranger — that features easy-to-use tie-down points and a configuration that allows full 4×8-foot sheets of plywood or drywall to fit. The Maverick can tow up to 4,000 pounds, which is sufficient for small trailers, dirtbikes or jet skis, but is lower than the 5,000-max-rating of the Santa Cruz. Around town, the Maverick feels small and maneuverable when compared to most other pickups. The ride quality is pretty good, too, though the Santa Cruz feels a bit sportier and more like a crossover with a truck bed.
The standard powertrain features a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine that spins out 250 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, routed through an eight-speed automatic transmission. With front-wheel drive, that combination is good for 23 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. Opting for all-wheel drive drops those figures to 22/29/25 mpg. The optional hybrid consists of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motor combination that offers up 191 horsepower to the front wheels via an electronic continuously variable transmission. Sadly, all-wheel-drive is not offered with the hybrid. While the hybrid therefore sacrifices some power and capability, it makes up for it with excellent fuel economy: 42 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined. We found it pretty easy to meet or beat those figures in real-world driving.
Buyers who intend to use the small pickup truck in off-road conditions may want to look at the Ford Maverick Tremor. The package costs an additional $3,495 over the cost of XLT or Lariat models and comes with a more advanced 4WD system (includes a twin-clutch rear drive unit and locking rear differential), unique off-road suspension with an increased ride height, Trail Control off-road cruise control, heavy-duty transmission cooler, a full-size spare tire and a number of unique appearance upgrades outside and in.
Hyundai Santa Cruz — Autoblog Score: 7.5
Why it stands out: Fun and refined to drive; high-class interior; great tech; clever bed features
Could be better: Cramped back seat; high price with turbo engine; slow and inefficient base engine
Starting Price: $27,985
Read our most recent Hyundai Santa Cruz review
The Hyundai Santa Cruz, like the Ford Maverick it competes against, is built upon a unibody platform instead of the ladder frame that almost every other pickup truck relies on for strength and durability. But in execution and from behind the wheel, there are a lot of differences between the two compact trucks currently for sale in the United States. The Santa Cruz is perhaps more like a sporty compact SUV with a truck bed, whereas the Maverick is a miniature truck. The differences in their designs can be seen at even a glance, with the Hyundai’s sharp angles standing in contrast to the more subdued Ford.
The Maverick earns kudos due to its its marginally larger bed, but the Santa Cruz can tow up to 5,000 pounds (1,000 lbs more than the Maverick). The Santa Cruz is about 4 inches shorter in length than the Maverick, and has less usable space in the rear seat as well. The Maverick crushes the Santa Cruz with its 37-mpg hybrid powertrain but the Hyundai counters with more features, a nicer interior and a very generous warranty.
The Santa Cruz SE and SEL come standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. It is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard front-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is available as an option. In standard form, the Santa Cruz gets 22 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined with FWD or 21/25/23 mpg with AWD. The base powerplant is perfectly adequate, but the turbo engine option offers a much spunkier 281 hp and 311 lb-ft. Fuel economy for the turbo engine is similar to the base engine at 19 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined.