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Is the baby Ford Ranger the next big thing? Why lifestyle utes look set for a comeback with Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz leading the way

Could Hyundai’s Santa Cruz spark a wave of other ‘lifestyle’-orientated baby utes?

A ute crossed with an SUV – it could be the perfect marriage in the automotive landscape of 2021.

Both ute and SUV sales show no sign of slowing down, neither in Australia or the USA, which is why the next big thing could be SUV-based pick-ups like the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz.

Both all-new models are set to officially break cover sometime in 2021 as customers look for adventurous, lifestyle-orientated vehicles that are nicer to drive and easier to live with than a full-size, one-tonne ute.

The Hyundai is the most prominent face of this potential new trend, having first appeared as a concept way back at the 2015 Detroit Motor Show. While it’s been a long gestation period, reports from the US are confident that the final production-ready Santa Cruz will arrive by the end of the year.

That fits neatly with the arrival of the new Santa Fe SUV, which the Santa Cruz is believed to be based on, as these lifestyle utes represent a cost-effective way for brands to expand into new markets.

The Santa Cruz is likely to share powertrains with the new Santa Fe too, which means four-cylinder petrol and turbo-diesel engines that will offer more fuel efficiency than a full-size ute, albeit at the expense of towing capacity. It also means the Santa Cruz could be offered with front-wheel drive, which isn’t very ute-like, but all-wheel drive is also on the cards.

While the Santa Cruz has officially only been spoken about as a left-hand-drive product (and will be built in the US), Hyundai Australia has long maintained an interest in it and its recent success in getting the Palisade SUV built in right-hand drive suggests nothing is off the table.

The Maverick is expected to be an immediate rival for the Santa Cruz, using the same underpinnings as the new Escape and Bronco Sport but with a unique, tougher ute body on top. That likely means the choice of the Bronco Sport’s three-cylinder turbo or four-cylinder petrol engines and both front- and all-wheel-drive options.

While the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger are the most popular new vehicles sold in Australia – and the Toyota RAV4 and Mazda CX-5 SUVs in the top five – the idea of a lifestyle-focused ute is nothing new in Australia.

The Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon-based utes became more lifestyle and performance orientated as they got older, meeting market demand for practical vehicles that drove more like a car than a truck.

Which means if the Santa Cruz and Maverick are a hit in the US and make their way to Australia eventually, we could be looking at the next major expansion market for car brands. With passenger car sales in decline, car makers are looking for SUV-based derivatives to fill out the showroom.

There are numerous possibilities for the leading brands in the market: Toyota could build a junior HiLux on the RAV4 underpinnings; Mazda might find incremental sales with a CX-5-derived ‘BT-30’; and Subaru has the trump card because it could revive the Brumby nameplate as a Forester-based ute.