I am competing in a 1500 mile off road rally in a 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz


In the last three years, I have completed motorcycle training, learned to ski, and driven a DeLorean (Return to the future goals unlocked!). Somehow I also caught the off-road bug and signed up to compete in a 1500 mile rally without the help of any digital GPS tools. That means I have to know how to read a topographic map, plot latitude and longitude, and use a compass successfully. As I am going to participate in the Rebelle Rally this fall, I have to learn not only the basics of these skills, but also practice them to the fullest. So was my first desert training session and the resulting revelations about the competition car, my team and preparing to find the limits of my own strength.

This October, my teammate and fellow automotive journalist Jill Ciminillo and I will be participating in the Rebelle Rally, a women-only competition that begins on the north side of Lake Tahoe and ends at Imperial Sand Dunes near the Mexican border. For eight days, we’ll be off-roading in a 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz through the mountains and deserts of Nevada and California and collecting as many checkpoints as we can.

Expect. A Santa Cruz? Like that weird utility vehicle that looks like a Ford Ranchero and a Hyundai Tucson that had a baby? Yes, that. When Ciminillo and I decided we wanted to race, we thought about what would be different and interesting, and the Santa Cruz was at the top of our list. There’s no question that it doesn’t have the approach angle of a Jeep Wrangler or a Land Rover Defender, so it can’t tackle some of the more challenging obstacles, because that’s not what it’s built for. But after two days of training and off-road testing in April, we discovered that it has other attributes that exceeded its pay grade and pleasantly surprised us beyond our expectations.


Meeting with the Holy Cross

We arrived in San Diego and picked up our Santa Cruz at the airport for four days of training (two in the field and two practical classroom navigation classes). The two valet staff at Aladdin’s Airport Parking raved about the car, telling us multiple times that they’ve never seen a car like this before, and they see a lot of cars. They wanted to see the inside and walk around the outside and were eager to see what we were doing with it. In the process, we saw the upgraded Nitto off-road tires on the Method wheels, the new skid plate to protect the underside, and the full-size spare wheel mounted on new racks that were attached to the bed frame.

Starting at around $25,000, a base FWD Santa Cruz is solidly in bargain territory. Our steed is a fully equipped AWD Limited, which is closer to $40,000 and still a fair price for a car with heated and cooled seats, a clever array of storage options, and a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine that generates 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque.

Ciminillo calls it a pickup truck and Hyundai calls it a “sports adventure vehicle.” I call it a practical vehicle that ranges between a compact SUV and a pickup truck. There’s a reason the Ford Maverick is so popular right now, including the fact that it has a ton of clever storage cubbies, a truck bed, and an easier-to-park footprint than giant trucks in years past. Once we hit the road, we changed driving duties and tested the speed and suspension on the road, and found it to be a pleasant ride. Along the way, we chose our team name: Brute Squad, after a line of The princess Bride. The name is a bit ironic as neither Ciminillo nor I are particularly brutal (but we are both Italian).

I appreciate the Santa Cruz’s retractable tonneau cover, which has a handy strap to help close it. With the two rack mounts, the cover doesn’t open and that’s not ideal, but we’re exploring other options. Either way, the Santa Cruz’s 41-inch cargo box cleverly stored our two pieces of luggage, a mesh bag with a Bubba recovery rope and soft shackles, an air compressor, two shovels, and two MaxTrax boards. And there was still room for more in the lockable underfloor storage, which is waterproof and drainable.

get acquainted

On the first day of our training, we met with Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller, X Games gold medalist and champion sailor Chrissie Beavis, and Rebelle staff near Brawley, California. Former rebels like Chris Benzie, a former aerospace engineering executive, led us through various exercises to warm up on sandy and rocky terrain. With its 8.9 inches of ground clearance (before skid plate installation), the Santa Cruz still has a couple inches of lead over the Kia Sorento PHEV, which was the winning vehicle in the X-Cross class ( crossover) in 2021.

We found a rock step that the Hyundai’s 17.5-degree approach angle couldn’t overcome, and we didn’t even have to get our carriers out to assess it. Our trainers advised us to either build a rock bridge for the front tires or use our MaxTrax boards to achieve the same effect. Or we could go down the nose hill first, which was the most fun option.

We did it high center (part of the Santa Cruz was stuck on higher ground than the wheels) in the sand during our hillside practice because we had no idea of ​​its consistency; after several shovelfuls of material and a tug from other rookies in a sunny yellow Isuzu VehiCross 2000, we learned our lesson. Later that day we had the opportunity to help out two new friends in a Wrangler that got stuck. Instructor Chris Walker of Overland BC handed us a receiver hitch and we attached the retrieval rope with a steel screw pin bow shackle to the Jeep. A gentle jolt later, the Wrangler was free and we were victorious. The Santa Cruz has the capacity to tow up to 5,000 when properly equipped and it showed that it had the punch.

What surprised me wasn’t just the little ute’s ability to surf the sand as well as a professional surfer, but how much I enjoyed it. Miller put us in the headspace before tackling the sloping dunes, explaining how the curves are formed by the wind and the resulting slippery faces to avoid. Ciminillo and I started on a bunny hill and worked our way up to greens and blues, in ski terminology, and found that a little patience and corresponding taps of the throttle going uphill could get us through all the hills and some. of the highest. dunes.

We learned that the Santa Cruz’s transmission was very responsive using the manual setting, which we could adjust via the paddle shifters or at the shifter. He was happier in first and second gear going up steeper inclines and in second or third gear going up and down the humps.

Really, the key was to feel the rhythm of the car’s weight and what it could handle comfortably, and with each mile, we gained more confidence in the vehicle. In some cases, the rack-mounted tire could prove to be a balance challenge, but we found we didn’t notice much of a difference even when migrated to the right side of the rack, which conveniently opened up a better view through the rear window.

Overall, we’re more than pleased with Hyundai’s abilities, and we’ll be pushing its limits to see what it can do and what equipment we might need to make it even better. The hardest part will be going into the desert without GPS. But heck, let’s learn how to do it and prove to ourselves that it’s never too late to add another skill to our repertoire. Rebelle Rally, here comes the Brute Squad.

Get ready to cheer us on this October! Do you have a comment? Send it to [email protected]