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Taking on the Off-Road Rebelle Rally in a Lifted Hyundai Santa Cruz

With a 1.5-inch lift in front and an inch of lift in the back, the Santa Cruz performed well

Hyundai Santa Cruz profile Rebelle Rally
  • With eight days of competition (seven of them scored) the Rebelle Rally is the longest off-road rally in the United States.
  • Hyundai entered a 2022 Santa Cruz for the second year in a row, enhanced with a lift kit and upgraded suspension.
  • Journalists Kristin Shaw and Jill Ciminillo competed in the rally, documenting the Santa Cruz's performance.

Last year was Hyundai’s first foray into the Rebelle Rally, a punishing all-female off-road competition spanning eight days. My teammate and navigator Jill Ciminillo and I vied for a place among 65 teams for a second go at this marathon adventure in a Hyundai Santa Cruz, the automaker's quirky adventure vehicle.

The plucky 2022 Santa Cruz small truck held its own, making it all the way across the mountains and deserts of Nevada and California for a total of about 1,300 miles without a single flat tire or serious mechanical incident.

Hyundai Santa Cruz detail Rebelle Rally

It’s challenging enough to traverse an off-road course for 10 hours a day for more than a week. However, what makes the Rebelle Rally special is the total absence of technology for navigation. All phones, tablets, and any kind of GPS devices are sealed and in-car navigation systems must be disabled or covered securely.

Competitors find their way from checkpoint to checkpoint with paper topographical maps and pencils, rulers, plotters and compasses. If competitors' vehicles featured an SOS button above the console, they had to cover them (we purchased a light fixture switchplate from a hardware store and tacked it down with duct tape) to ensure they couldn’t call in for location assistance.

It's a test of fortitude, patience and grit, and both our team and the Santa Cruz passed with flying colors. This is what it’s all about.

Hyundai Santa Cruz front Rebelle Rally

4x4 vs. crossover, gas vs. EV

The Rebelle Rally includes two classes — 4x4 and X-Cross. Vehicles in the X-Cross (crossover) category are all-wheel-drive but lack the transfer case that helps vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco divide power between the front and rear differentials and corresponding axles.

Other crossovers in our category included the winning 2022 Ford Bronco Sport (with an eight-time Rebelle behind the wheel), plus a 2024 Kia Telluride X-Pro, 2023 Honda Passport and two 2023 Honda Pilots, 2014 Subaru Outback and a brand-new 2024 BMW X2 M35i. A hardy 2007 Honda Ridgeline was the oldest vehicle in the competition.

Rivian R1T charging Rebelle Rally

Most of the vehicles in the competition are powered by traditional fuel, but a handful of all-electric vehicles and hybrids took on the rally as well. At the end of the competition, a 2023 Rivian R1T pickup won the big prize in the 4x4 class, piloted by Rivian special projects engineer Lilly Macaruso and navigator Alex Anderson, a senior mechanical engineer for the automaker.

Only one electric vehicle competed as an X-Cross: a 2024 Ford Mustang Mach-E Rally. The Mach-E and all of the EVs in the 4x4 category (mostly Rivians) were charged up by a mobile hydrogen power station on a Renewable Innovations semi.

Rivian R1T front Rebelle Rally

Goal #1: Don't break the truck

Even after crawling across the flood-ravaged terrain in and around Ridgecrest, and rock-strewn paths across Johnson Valley, California, the Santa Cruz held up very well. Other vehicles known for their off-road prowess fell along the way — one vehicle experienced a broken axle and spent some quality time with the mechanics that night. After a major rebuild, Nick Cimmarusti and his team of wrenchers miraculously got it back in shape in time to compete again the next day.

As the driver, I proceeded through the routes cautiously but aggressively. During a training session with our key Hyundai engineering contact, we pushed the Santa Cruz hard and bent a tie rod on one of the flood ruts. That helped us understand the limits of the vehicle, which are substantially better than most drivers will attempt to reach in this crossover-based pickup. Still, it's good to know that it can go the distance.

On Day 5, we navigated to a remote campsite near Soggy Lake and noticed a groaning, grinding sound when we turned hard to the left. The driving felt fine, but we took it to the mechanics' tent when we arrived at base camp on the eve of the final day for a checkup.

Hyundai Santa Cruz rear

As it turned out, we had bent the Santa Cruz's left sway bar connector with hard hits to the underside in Johnson Valley. When it separated at the weld point, the connector rod flopped around and punctured the CV boot, which protects the axle.

A strip of strategically placed duct tape made a difference, and the mechanics recommended we pull the sway bar altogether. Within 15 minutes, the tires were off and the sway bar removed; ultimately, we found that it was beneficial to run without the sway bar in the dunes on Day 7. The Santa Cruz flowed and the tires articulated independently with no problems — and no more groaning noises from the underside.

That was one of our biggest objectives: Don’t break the truck. Not irreparably, anyway.

Hyundai Santa Cruz rear

Our Falken Wildpeak tires were impressively durable, even as we rumbled across dirt paths dotted with jagged rocks. We aired down slightly in Johnson Valley for comfort and kept an eye on the tire pressures on the digital display. When we crested an unexpected dune on Day 6, the Santa Cruz dug into the sand and we aired down even more to get out. The custom rack Rally Innovations built for us carried our shovels and Maxtrax traction boards, keeping them within reach.

On the last day, we found outselves rolling across the sand highway at a good clip. And before we knew it, the 2023 Rebelle Rally was complete. The event is an incredible testing ground for vehicles that can handle even a modicum of off-roading, and the Santa Cruz came through. Stand by for 2024!

Edmunds says

Once again, the Santa Cruz proves it's tougher than it looks.