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Hyundai developing ute to rival HiLux

Hyundai finally has a ute on the horizon as the South Korean car maker prepares to dip its toe in the booming market.

The Santa Cruz concept at this week's Detroit motor show is clearly headed for production, with a timeline that could put it into Australian showrooms within three years.

Based on the next-generation ix35 SUV, the Santa Cruz looks like a Toyota HiLux fighter, but is smaller than the current crop of Japanese one-tonne utes..

It comes as Hyundai continues to win friends in Australia, surging to fourth in the sales rankings for 2014 with its first 100,000-plus year and with the potential to leapfrog Holden into second overall through 2015.

It's the one thing we're missing at the moment

The funky looking ute shapes as the most important Hyundai newcomer since the "jelly bean" Excel that got the company firing with drive-away deals in the early 1990s.

"We know we could sell it. We've been asking about a ute for a long time," John Elsworth, the chief operating officer of Hyundai Australia, says.

"I think it's very exciting. It's the one thing we're missing at the moment."

He says there is no timeline yet for production but is confident the ute will get the official go-ahead.

"It's very much a concept car at this stage. There has been no discussion in the product planning meetings about it.

"We don't know if we're going to get it. We hope so. The market for light commercial vehicles last year was 175,000 vehicles and we currently don't participate."

Elsworth expects big things from a Hyundai ute in Australia.

The Santa Cruz could be in showrooms relatively quickly

"It could take us to number two," he says.

The Santa Cruz is displayed in Detroit with a realistic 2-litre turbodiesel engine and all-wheel drive package from the ix35, but there are questions about the crucial towing ability for Australia, with Hyundai in the US saying "towing, payload and ground clearance were not primary goals".

The Australian development team is prepared to push hard for local needs.

"The product planning world at Hyundai can move very quickly, from planning to a production reality," says Elsworth.

He refuses to talk timing, but suggests the Santa Cruz could be in showrooms relatively quickly.

"There has been no discussion about production. It would be later in the decade.

"Two years would be a significant stretch, to achieve it in that short a period. It could be another year more than that."

Meantime, he hints that Hyundai has an expanded SUV line-up on the way as test mules of a baby ix25 have been spotted in Europe.

"We could do with a couple of extra SUVs. And we've been production restrained on the iLoad van since day one — we could sell more if we could get more."