The previous generation Hyundai Santa Fe, introduced in 2007, dates to the early years of the Korean automaker's product renaissance, when Hyundais were first starting to rack up awards for more than their low prices and long warranties.
But by 2012, the competition had heated up in both the compact and midsize crossover SUV classes, which the Santa Fe straddles. The attributes that made the car stand out in 2007 – a posh interior, powerful engine, and quiet ride – were no longer enough to offset a lack of ride and handling composure, dated in-cabin technology, and weak performance in tougher new crash tests.
In a 2013 redesign, Hyundai redesigned its best-selling crossover into two distinct Santa Fe models – a large new three-row vehicle that competes with such models as the Chevrolet Traverse and Honda Pilot, and the tested Santa Fe Sport, a five-seater that's closer to a Chevrolet Equinox or Ford Edge, but not quite a full size larger than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4.
Everything from the Santa Fe Sport's name to its styling and its three selectable steering modes suggests that Hyundai did not try to go for plush luxury in the redesign. A brash new look includes a prominent chrome grille and a sharply curved windowline.
The “Sport” name doesn't live up to a promise of zesty driving dynamics. There's better suspension control than the previous Santa Fe, which bounced on the highway and leaned around corners. But steering is numb and the smooth, effortlessly powerful V6 option is gone from the five-seat model in favor of a decently quick but less aurally pleasing – and less fuel-efficient – turbocharged four-cylinder. The cabin is more modern, but it's less hushed and it sheds some volume and a lot of outward visibility to style.
The Santa Fe Sport is certainly a competitive vehicle, with a roomy interior, decent driving dynamics, and some unique features. Unlike its predecessor at its 2007 introduction, the 2013 redesign breaks no new ground in its class. But unlike the 2012 model, the Santa Fe Sport is at least competitive, and worthy of consideration from anyone seeking more room than a Honda CR-V without an interest in three rows of seats or the plushest, quietest ride.
Decent to drive
There's nothing remarkable in the Santa Fe Sport's ride or handling today, which is a key step up from it predecessor – which was notably deficient in both areas.
The Santa Fe Sport generally has a smooth and steady ride, but it can slam over bumps. Part of the blame likely rests with the large 19-inch wheels standard on the tested turbocharged Santa Fe Sport 2.0T – a problem shared in a growing number of competitors. The engine is quiet, but wind and road hum are not silenced on the highway.
Hyundai borrowed a trick from some luxury cars in giving the Santa Fe Sport adjustable steering settings – Sport, Normal and Comfort modes, which adjust the weight and quickness of steering inputs. Because the Santa Fe Sport, like most new cars, has electronic steering assist, it's easy for the computer to offer multiple calibrations.
But none is sporty; “Sport” at least offers decently quick responses and doesn't feel like you could spin the wheel freely with a finger, but it still has none of the connection to the road that would inspire confidence in fast cornering. You feel the car change direction, but no feedback through the steering wheel as it does so.
For a not-exactly-small crossover SUV, the Santa Fe does corner with decent agility. But it isn't rewarding to hustle it.
When Hyundai unveiled the redesigned Santa Fe lineup at the 2012 New York International Auto Show last spring, improved fuel economy was a centerpiece of the upgrades. The 3.3-liter V6 was shelved in the name of increased fuel economy, to grudging acceptance – Hyundai makes a splendid 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo that impressed this reviewer in the Sonata midsize sedan for its smooth power delivery and refined sound, but it's more complicated and not as pleasant to listen to as a nice V6, which the Santa Fe used to have.
But soon after the Santa Fe Sport's launch, it turned out that the fuel economy promise was overstated. Blaming laboratory errors after an EPA investigation, Hyundai reduced the estimated fuel economy from outstanding to competitive – but lower than the 2012 V6 at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway in the tested turbocharged all-wheel-drive variant. (Selecting the base 2.4-liter engine or front-wheel-drive improves mileage.)
As in the Sonata, the 264-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo delivers smooth, strong performance in the Santa Fe Sport, but a decent V6 sounds better than even the smoothest whir of a small four-cylinder. In isolation, its power and fuel economy are certainly reasonable for the class, but it's hard to justify the loss of the V6.
With 190 horsepower, the 2.4-liter engine won't put as much zip in the 3,700-pound Santa Fe Sport, but it promises to at least be able to get out of its own way. It's rated for 20 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway with all-wheel-drive – the same as the 2012 V6. Choosing front-wheel-drive boosts overall mileage by 2 mpg in both engines.
Note that the mechanically related Kia Sorento, newly overhauled for 2014, includes not only a V6 option but also available third-row seating at the size and price of the Santa Fe Sport.
Inside, the Santa Fe boasts the airy cabin and high seating position that have popularized this market class. The interior is nicely finished but has few obvious luxury touches, and the seats don't have the cushiness that have won buyers to such vehicles as the Chevrolet Equinox. The rear seat is too low to be ideally comfortable.
Though less straightforward than the 2012's, the 2013 Santa Fe Sport does offer more user-friendly controls than many competitors. There are a few niggles, like the lack of a dedicated climate display – which prevents you from seeing your temperature or mode settings at a glance. But primary controls are well-marked and easy to find quickly, including a simple central knob for audio power and volume. Models without the optional navigation system have a cleaner layout still. The navigation system works well and has better displays than most mainstream cars' factory units.
The Hyundai “Blue Link” system can notify authorities of an accident; locate and disable a stolen car; provide navigation directions and points of interest; and unlock, lock or start the car remotely using a smartphone application. The system includes a free trial but the bundled feature plans range from $79 to $279 per year.
The Santa Fe has a spacious cargo hold – 35.4 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 71.5 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The rear seat folds in three sections instead of the usual two, which boosts cargo versatility. The seats don't fold or return to their positions easily, though, needing to be muscled into place – an unusual flaw and the complete opposite of a Honda CR-V, in which one gentle tug of a handle sends it automatically tumbling into place. The folded seatbacks also rest at an angle instead of flat.
The cabin does include some features that are rare in this class, including a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and retractable sunshades for the rear windows.
The Santa Fe Sport can be a decent bargain if you go easy on the options. The front-wheel-drive 2.4-liter Sport starts below $25,000 with 17-inch alloy wheels; power windows, locks and mirrors; and a full complement of safety features. A $950 Popular Equipment Package includes heated front seats, a power driver's seat, and automatic headlights; all-wheel-drive is $1,750 extra.
Beyond that, though, prices inflate rapidly. It costs $3,000 more for the Leather and Premium Equipment Package, which includes a 4.3-inch touch-screen audio display and rearview camera, leather seats, a power passenger seat, and a proximity key. $2,700 more buys the Technology Package, with a navigation system and 8-inch screen, upgraded sound system, panoramic sunroof – the only sunroof offered on the Santa Fe – heated steering wheel, and rear seat sunshades. The options can't be purchased outside of these packages.
The tested turbocharged version is even pricier. It includes more standard equipment than the 2.4-liter – the proximity key, 19-inch wheels, power driver's seat, heated front seats, and automatic headlights – but starts at around $28,000 with front-wheel-drive. The Premium Equipment and Technology packages run $2,450 and $2,900 respectively with the turbo, plus the $1,750 all-wheel-drive. These features plus floormats brought the tested car to $35,925; expect to haggle about $1,500 off that MSRP.
Compare the 2.4-liter Santa Fe to a four-cylinder competitor and the 2.0T turbo to a competing V6. The Santa Fe undercuts a Ford Edge or Nissan Murano, and is similar to a Chevrolet Equinox, but is significantly more than a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V.
Hyundai sells a smaller crossover SUV, the Tucson, which is half a size smaller than the CR-V or RAV4 instead of half a size larger. It drives well and is a compelling bargain, but it has relatively skimpy cargo room.
The longer-wheelbase Santa Fe, which can really be considered its own model, starts at just over $28,000 with a standard V6.
If “generally decent” sounds like damning the Santa Fe Sport with faint praise, that's not exactly true. Even though standards continue to rise, the Santa Fe Sport is a consistently competitive vehicle – more so than its predecessor, which was deemed “kind of okay” when it finished fifth place in a six-vehicle comparison two years ago.
But it is true that the Santa Fe Sport has come to the market without a compelling standout attribute – now that its standout fuel economy advantage has been rescinded. You should consider the Santa Fe Sport as a jack-of-all-trades competitive crossover, but you'll be more likely to buy it because a competitor did something especially badly than because this Hyundai did something especially well.
More photos of the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Review: 2010 Hyundai Tucson GLS
Review: 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited
Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited
Review: 2012 Hyundai Genesis R-Spec
Review: 2011 Chevrolet Equinox LTZ V6
Review: 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L
Review: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Sport
Comparison review: 2013 midsize sedans
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Vehicle tested: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $24,450
Version tested: 2.0T AWD
Version base price (MSRP): $29,450
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $35,925
Estimated transaction price as tested: $33,359
Test vehicle provided by: Hyundai Motor America
Length: 184.6 inches
Width: 74.0 inches
Height: 66.1 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Weight: 3,706 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 35.4 cubic feet
Cargo volume with rear seat folded: 71.5 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 264 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 19 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 24 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 21 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 19.3 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Georgia
For more information: Hyundai website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.