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Rebelle Rally

How Hyundai's Santa Cruz Fared in a 1,600-Mile Off-Road Competition

Two automotive journalists piloted the quirky vehicle for eight days off-road in the Rebelle Rally, and the results were impressive

  • The Rebelle Rally is the longest rally raid in the United States, spanning eight days from Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to the Imperial Dunes in Southern California. 1
  • Kristin Shaw and Jill Ciminillo drove the Santa Cruz over rocky, uneven and rugged terrain to put the vehicle to the test.
  • At the end of competition, the Santa Cruz team finished strong with no mechanical difficulties.

For the last seven years, the Rebelle Rally has been a proving ground for manufacturers interested in finding out what kind of off-roading punishment their vehicles can take. At first, the eight-day, 1,500-mile off-road competition for women in motorsports was dominated by Jeep Wranglers, eventually expanding to include other capable 4x4s like Toyota's Tacoma and 4Runner and the new Ford Bronco. Kia entered a Telluride three years ago and a pair of fresh-off-the-line Sorento PHEVs last year that took first and second place. Rolls-Royce even allowed a team to pilot a brand-new $400,000 Cullinan SUV (and get it extremely dirty) in the crossover class in 2019. Team Cullinan took a class win, by the way.

Hyundai, however, hadn't entered a vehicle until this year. Our team (Team Brute Squad, named after a line from a particularly iconic 1987 movie) approached the Korean brand to request a Santa Cruz for the grueling competition late last year, and thankfully the automaker obliged. Our goals: to finish and to bring the vehicle back in one piece. Not only did we achieve those goals, the offbeat Santa Cruz surpassed our expectations with its toughness in a variety of terrain situations. We climbed steep hills, tiptoed across rocky mountainside paths, and slalomed atop ridges punctuated by deep ruts in the dirt.

Rebelle Rally

About our plucky little Hyundai Santa Cruz

We chose this quirky little truck for its handy truck bed and comfortable seats; after all, bopping along for 10 hours a day is more enjoyable when creature comforts like heated and ventilated seats come alongside the vehicle's turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. The torque proved itself to be particularly handy while powering down rock-strewn mountain trails and following a Ram truck on a path we didn't expect to tackle — but we went for it anyway and found the little trucklet could capably lay tracks right behind the bigger vehicle.

While there is a Bone Stock category for trucks and SUVs straight from the factory, we opted for a few key modifications. The first was a skid plate to protect the underbelly; during the rally it kept tall, stiff shrubbery from yanking out the Santa Cruz's internal organs. The second was a new front bumper fabricated by Rally Innovations with a light bar with exposed recovery points in case we needed to be winched out of a sticky situation or to help another team.

During a training session in April of this year, our Santa Cruz was hitched up to a Jeep Wrangler and we pulled it from the sand to practice just such a maneuver. We were a little surprised it was that capable, to be honest, and it didn't skip a beat while yanking the much bigger Wrangler from the dirt. A Truxxx 1-inch lift kit was added to compensate for the ground clearance lost by the addition of the skid plate and to help clear low-lying obstacles along the way. Lastly, we equipped our Santa Cruz with a set of gold-colored Gear Off Road wheels and Falken tires.

Rebelle Rally

The bed on the Santa Cruz is small but mighty, and the retractable tonneau cover was handy for keeping our gear from flying out of the back. It didn't keep the dust from covering everything in the bed, but that was really just wishful thinking in the desert. What did make a big difference for us was Rally Innovations' custom rack for our spare tire, fitted on Hyundai-made crossbars. We ratchet-strapped our Maxtrax recovery boards on top, the tire was screwed on with wingnuts, and two shovels latched in with rubber fasteners. On the last day of the competition in the massive Glamis Dunes area, we needed all four of our recovery boards and both shovels to dig out of soft sand. Friends driving a '94 Land Rover Defender, another in a new four-door Bronco, and two Army officers in a Wrangler were all driving on a dune above us and they raced down the hill, shovels in hand, to help us out. That was hands down our favorite moment in the rally.

Luckily, we never had to change a tire and didn't have to pull out the recovery boards until the last day, and that's a big win. The strap holding the doughnut tire under the Santa Cruz's undercarriage ripped off in the first few days and we zip-tied what was left of it to the frame. It didn't affect any major parts, but preventing it from tearing off anything else was a reasonable goal.

Rebelle Rally

On the road ... again and again

Along the razor's edge of the Mojave Desert, the toughest driving conditions awaited us in the Spangler Hills Off-Highway Vehicle Area, which spans over 57,000 acres of open public land. A dizzying snarl of trails curled ruthlessly around the mountains, and in one case we had to backtrack three times to get on the right path to our checkpoint.

Finding ourselves on a lava rock-studded dirt trail, we had to pick our way through carefully, dodging sharp stones to avoid a dreaded mid-competition tire change in the sun. While the Santa Cruz wasn't fitted with a practically indestructible fabricated suspension from Nicole Patel's Total Chaos shop (and unfortunately, she doesn't have a product for crossovers at this juncture), the stock shocks held up quite well. We still have all of our teeth anyway.

The Rebelle Rally is much more than driving, and the bigger challenge is the sheer determination to make it through a full day. Every morning started at 5 a.m. with bleary eyes plotting coordinates on a map, then planning routes from point to point while considering the opening and closing times of each checkpoint.

Rebelle Rally

Hyundai was required to disable the navigation functions on the Santa Cruz for the competition, which also took out the satellite radio and even FM/AM bands on the Bose audio system. Luckily, Bose gave us a USB stick and we listened to that 44-song set of everything from Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" to Marky Mark's "Feel the Vibration" to "Boom Clap" by Charli XCX over and over through the rally as background motivation.

At the end of the rally, we didn't place first, and we didn't expect to. After all, the winners in the X-Cross class competed several times before 2022, and one of them is an astrophysicist and teaches the Rebelle U navigation class; that's a tough resume to beat. Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller often tells the competitors to "run their own rally" and that's sage advice because as rookies, our experience was much different from the multi-time competitors. We learned a lot along the way about the vehicle, our skills as navigators, and ourselves. When the Santa Cruz was left behind at the airport parking lot and the two competitors headed to their respective gates to fly home, we bid farewell with a fond salute and more respect than when we started. The Santa Cruz is way more capable than one might think. And it looks cool with desert dust all over it.

Edmunds says

Hyundai proves once again that it has come a long way from its beginnings as a budget car option. Now boasting a full suite of vehicles including the unusual and versatile Santa Cruz, the brand is stepping out on a limb for new challenges and holding firm.