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Off the pavement: 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T AWD gets dirty

After being very impressed last year with the all new 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, we today got the second chance to drive a 2.0 turbocharged all-wheel drive model. This time we took the popular crossover SUV to the Arizona back-roads to see how it performs in the dirt.

Hyundai's popular crossover SUV proves its talent in the dirt.
Hyundai's popular crossover SUV proves its talent in the dirt.Sam Haymart
Hyundai's Santa Fe shows it can get dirty and likes it
Hyundai's Santa Fe shows it can get dirty and likes itSam Haymart

Styling is still quite fresh since the Santa Fe Sport made its debut. The look is a blend of Hyundai's first and second wave of what they call “Fluidic Sculpture” styling, meaning the Santa Fe has blockier and a bit more hard edged forms than the last generation.

The large chrome grille is prominent and angular stretched headlamps really add a sense of sportiness to the look. With black plastic cladding along the lower half of the Santa Fe, you get some extra protection out here in the dirt as well as a more off-road themed presentation.

The rear quarter view has a more sleekly raked rear side glass than the larger Santa Fe three-row crossover, giving the Sport that extra bit of flair. An integrated spoiler over the rear window finishes up the look cleanly as does a set of traditional round exhaust pipe tips.

While its styling is decidedly Asian in character, it doesn't have the lumpy silhouette or design details that some of its compact crossover competitors do. It remains athletic in stance and as you will see, backs that up in capability.

Inside the Santa Fe Sport is a cabin which impresses most with its consistent fit and finish as well as high quality materials. Everything from switch gear to the steering wheel and shift lever feels and looks as if they are all cut from the same cloth.

While the design itself isn't as dramatic as some, it's a clean and tidy look with controls laid out perfectly for getting the business of driving done. The infotainment touch screen is placed well for ease of use and is shielded adequately from sunlight glare.

Controls for the HVAC, audio and optioned navigation system were all within easy reach - intuitive to learn and operate while driving. Functions for the navigation system as well as top level audio controls work well via the touch screen with no glitches to report.

The tilt and telescoping steering wheel has a healthy list of controls on board which include audio functions as well as the instrument cluster trip computer. The texture of the leather wrap was distinctly soft and buttery too.

Our optioned heated leather seats were plenty comfortable both for support as well as to the touch. In our tester the driver seat was power adjustable, the passenger seat manual. The rear seats have a reclining function for additional adjustment range.

The rear cargo area is sizable as expected even though the Sport's raked roof-line cuts into it a little. With 40/20/40 split folding seat backs you can expand the cargo area in a variety of configurations to fit your needs easily.

While these details are all important, we came out to the desert to see how well the Santa Fe Sport can perform in the dirt. The first stop was our off-road test area where we navigated a number of small challenges that test clearances and the suspension's ability to articulate terrain.

It performed well overall, but got challenged on the harder tests for all-wheel drive traction like in a teetering high-center condition where one front and one rear wheel are off the ground. The Santa Fe Sport isn't really meant to be a Rubicon warrior however. It's all-wheel drive and traction system is really aimed at the driver who needs the ability to navigate occasional snow, ice, and muddy roads in the course of their daily drive.

Under the hood is a 2.0 liter direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder with 264 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft of torque. The power-train is fun to drive with, offering up a pleasant if not sporting power band all through the rev range. There is only a hint of turbo lag and when the power does come on strong, the all-wheel drive system prevents torque steer well.

Standard with a six-speed automatic transmission, it's EPA rated in our all-wheel drive tester at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and 21 mpg combined. We achieved an impressive if not outstanding 28 mpg combined in our week of testing which is well above that promised by the window sticker.

The 2014 Santa Fe Sport indeed showed this week it can enthusiastically navigate terrain that some of its competitors would rather not. Best of all it does so with poise and comfort that is surprising at this price point.

Our tester came in at $35,135 well optioned however the base model does start at $24,950. You can also buy a longer wheel-base three row Hyundai Santa Fe, which begins at $29,000.