Hyundai Santa Cruz

Hyundai Santa Cruz front three quarter
Hyundai Santa Cruz front three quarter

A lone black mailbox alongside the Extraterrestrial Highway is stuffed with letters addressed to aliens the American government supposedly keeps captive inside Area 51, the world’s least secret secret military base.

Bathed in the summer heat alongside Nevada’s highway 375 – officially renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996, because why waste a tourist opportunity? – you can see why the military would pick this part of the country to build a secret airbase, whether for holding aliens or ‘just’ to test new jet technology.

There is mile upon mile of nothing save for a circle of impenetrable hills made for concealment.


In the distance, a vehicle kicks up dust, heading our way. One of the base’s gates, and said to be how most civilian workers arrive for their shifts, bussed in from a town nearby (though distances are relative), is a good 20 minutes’ drive off the highway, along a dirt road.

The indistinct cloud of dust becomes a large white SUV as it nears, and eventually arrives at the roadside mailbox. A large sticker on the side reads ‘Scenic Photographic Tours’. A family emerges and starts taking photos.

The gate is about eight miles away, along two dirt tracks, the tour guide tells us, and if you want to go for a look, “they know you’re coming”. ‘They’ is used in the manner everybody does to describe a faceless, perhaps sinister, bunch of people in authority. Them. They. Not us. Among online Area 51 enthusiasts, base guards are often dubbed ‘camo dudes’.

Anyway, ‘they’ have got “seismic meters and cameras”, the guide says, which seems like overkill given that a camo dude wouldn’t even have to lift his aviator shades to spot the plume my Hyundai Santa Cruz would kick up. But if we do go to the gate to take some pictures, even simply standing there might leave ourselves open to remote digital interrogation, I’m warned. “I’ve had people who’ve had camera phone pictures automatically deleted,” the guide says.

“I had a woman with a digital SLR camera who got back into the car and found all her images of the gate had disappeared.”

I suspect this is tour guide shtick, told to a group of people who look like they might spread the word about how exciting it all is when we get home. “We do get a lot of visitors from the UK,” he admits.

I’m here, and in a Santa Cruz, because I’m looking for a better way to end the historic Route 66 driving tour, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, loosely following the passage taken by early pioneers travelling in search of a better life. I drove it a few years ago and enjoyed it but had wondered if there was a more interesting path from one side of the US to another, particularly as local enthusiasm for Route 66 feels like it wanes the further west you get: there’s a bit more going on than in America’s quiet middle, where the road is often the biggest show in town.

I’d been in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to preview the new Hyundai Santa Fe and interview its designer. So I picked up the Santa Cruz, and then picked up Route 66, just down the road in Albuquerque.

We don’t get the Santa Cruz in the UK, but it’s the car that Hyundai UK most gets asked about importing. I understand the appeal. Based on the Tucson, it’s a good-looking lifestyle pick-up that is a smidge under 5m long, making it a compact truck in the US. It comes with a five-seat double cab and a relatively short, 1.3m load bay.

And a reputation for not being a ‘proper’ truck, at least in the eyes of those who like their pick-ups bigger, burlier and more separate of chassis and body.

The unitary-bodied Santa Cruz is a family-friendly alternative to an SUV, then, which would be considered perfectly capable if it ever arrived over here. In this upmarket spec, it has four-wheel drive, and a 2.5-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine making 281bhp and 311lb ft, which one American review says is “better suited to urban driving” than the non-turbo base model. Different world.

Anyway, it definitely feels more car-like than the brasher, more rugged and much, much larger trucks with which it shares the highway west out of Albuquerque. In large parts, the road that constituted historic Route 66 has been supplemented by four- or six-lane highway parallel to it, because after all there’s plenty of space to keep both.