When a newly introduced vehicle is trying to make itself known in a crowded marketplace, it's typically expected that it offer something to draw attention away from the established competition.
There's no doubt that the large crossover SUV market is quite crowded. Best-sellers include the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse. All are priced in the $30,000s when typically equipped and surpass $40,000 easily enough as the options add up. All promise to come close to the user-friendly comfort, utility and fuel-efficiency of a minivan while adding an extra dose of style and luxury. Most do so, at least to some extent.
Two of the latest arrivals to this market are the Nissan Pathfinder and Hyundai Santa Fe, each introduced for 2013. Both bear familiar nameplates that earned their reputations affixed to very different vehicles than today's iterations.
The last Pathfinder had been a truck-based SUV in the world of cars, without the passenger space or ride quality of a Pilot or Highlander. And the last Santa Fe had been a compact model, a slot in Hyundai's lineup that's now filled by the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport and the even smaller Tucson.
Nissan has pitched a few unique features to draw attention to the Pathfinder. Its fuel-efficiency is impressive for a large vehicle, with an EPA rating of 21 miles per gallon in mixed driving even with all-wheel-drive. Its middle-row seats can flip forward for third-row access without removing a child seat. A new hybrid version has just been launched. And....that's about it. It otherwise follows the standard playbook for the class, with little fuss or drama.
Hyundai has offered up an even more conventional crossover in the Santa Fe, which replaces the Veracruz – a model that strove to be luxurious but never took off in this utility-oriented market. The Santa Fe gives off an accomplished vibe of a vehicle that's been quietly doing its job for ages, not an all-new model looking to make a splash. It has Hyundai's standard virtues of a lower price than most competitors and a longer warranty, but beyond that it relies on its quiet competence to dazzle prospective buyers.
Consider this reviewer dazzled. While there isn't much the Santa Fe walks away with, it has made it to the upper tier of the class in many notable ways, taking over as the class leader. It's one of the best large crossovers for ride quality and for handling. It's one of the peppiest, quietest and most fuel-efficient. It's one of the most maneuverable yet still quite roomy. (Though not the roomiest in its class.) And it's one of the best values without ever feeling cheap.
The Pathfinder is less brilliant. Bulkier but not much roomier, the Pathfinder feels like a full-size SUV from behind the wheel, ponderous and hulking compared to the Hyundai. It's softer and cushier, both in its look and its feel, but the biggest obvious difference is its bulk. This Nissan is 300 pounds heavier, and three inches taller and wider than the Santa Fe. The extra size does give a passengers a bit more breathing room – especially the passenger in the middle row. For some that's worth the tradeoff. For others, not. The Pathfinder also has an arguably uninspired interior design and inarguably mediocre panel fit and materials quality.
That's not to say the Pathfinder is a bad vehicle. Like many large crossovers before it, it's roomy, comfortable and quiet. Some may find its mix of qualities to be the best fit for their needs.
The Santa Fe's appeal is broader, though. It's simply a longer (and V6-powered) version of the five-passenger four-cylinder Santa Fe Sport, and it shares its driving dynamics with that smaller model. That's not to say it corners like a sports car – the Mazda CX-9 is still the full-size crossover that could come the closest to saying that with a straight face – but it's satisfyingly easy and natural to drive. It avoids feeling big. It's not just comfortable, but comforting, especially to someone who's stepping up for the first time to a vehicle this large.
Ease of use abounds throughout the car. Besides its driving dynamics, the Santa Fe also has a particularly well-designed instrument panel, a standard backup camera, and a fairly tight turning radius.
That said, some people will gladly make some sacrifices for some more cabin space. The Santa Fe has just 13.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seat, which is only enough for a few grocery bags. The Pathfinder isn't much better, with 16 cubic feet, but the Nissan's cargo hold is better shaped for tall or bulky items.
Both have second and third rows that fold easily flat to open up a total of 80 cubic feet; the Santa Fe's middle row rests at an angle, though. These are not very impressive specs, trailing such competitors as the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander and landing far behind the Chevrolet Traverse/GMC Acadia and any minivan. But both are still quite useful, though.
There's plenty of passenger room for four adults in both crossovers, on comfortable seats. The Santa Fe's seats are firmer and have more lateral support; the Pathfinder's are wider, flatter and plusher. The difference is a matter of individual taste.
In the rear, Santa Fe GLS models are sold with a rear bench seat that lets the car accommodate a total of seven passengers. The tested upper-level Limited model has rear captain's chairs, reducing total capacity to six. The Pathfinder is sold only as a seven-passenger, and it's wide enough to fit a center-rear adult a little more comfortably than in a Santa Fe GLS. Both have third-row seats that are usable but not terribly comfortable for adults.
The tested 2013 Santa Fe was several thousand dollars less than a comparable 2014, but even the 2014 is a solid deal. A base GLS at $29,800 has a 290-horsepower V6, seven-passenger seating with rear air conditioning, a power driver's seat, a rearview camera (newly standard for 2014), 18-inch alloy wheels, and other typical amenities. Add $1,750 for all-wheel-drive.
A $3,550 Premium Package adds leather seats, a power liftgate, automatic climate control, a proximity key system, and blind-spot monitoring. $4,000 more adds a navigation system, panoramic sunroof, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, 19-inch wheels, rear park assist and a heated steering wheel. At just under $40,000, it's essentially fully loaded, giving up only xenon headlights, LED taillights, and an upgraded sound system. Unless you would rather have a six-seater than a seven-seater, stick with the GLS.
The base Pathfinder S undercuts the Santa Fe with a base price of $28,950, and it's not stripped down, with such features as 18-inch alloy wheels and a tri-zone automatic climate control system. But all-wheel-drive is the only option on the S ($1,600), and the more popular SV model brings a $3,000+ price bump to add a power driver's seat, rearview camera, Bluetooth cellphone link, a USB port for the audio system, roof rails, and a proximity key. This isn't $3,000 worth of equipment; the omission of certain items was clearly an attempt to make the value-priced S undesirable.
Add another $3,000 for the tested SL model, which brings leather seats, a power liftgate, heated front and rear seats, a power passenger seat, a memory system for the power seats and mirrors, remote engine start, and foglights. The tested all-wheel-drive model further added the $2,650 Premium Package with an upgraded sound system and panoramic moonroof, for a total sticker price of $40,345. The SL also has a $1,570 Tech Package with an in-dash navigation system, but bizarrely you can't get both Premium and Tech. Only line-topping Pathfinder Platinum, starting at $39,750, lets you have both features.
Nissan also offers a four-cylinder Pathfinder Hybrid, with a 5-mpg advantage over the gas version (primarily in the city) at a price premium of $3,000 over a comparable gas model.
Although there's no exact equivalent, the closest well-equipped Pathfinder and Santa Fe would be, respectively, the Pathfinder SL AWD with no options packages ($37,510) and Santa Fe GLS AWD with the Premium Package ($35,955). Both have healthy discounts available as well. Neither of these models would have a sunroof or navigation system, though; if you want both, be prepared to pay a lot extra for the Pathfinder.
Overall, the Santa Fe is a compelling vehicle at a compelling price. If you want a cushier feel, sportier handling, or a more stretch-out spacious interior, there are a few models that would do better. But thoroughly competitive and particularly affordable and easy to drive, definitely consider it.
The Pathfinder is also competitive, but less of a standout. Though it's comfortable and fuel-efficient, and has particularly convenient third-row seat access, it doesn't offer too many unique strong points to offset its bulky, cumbersome feel. It's worth a slot on your short list if you prioritize a smooth, quiet ride; you relish a big-car feel; or you would regularly be keeping child seats in the center row.
Photos of the Santa Fe and Pathfinder
Comparison review: Eight large crossovers
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Review: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Review: 2014 Hyundai Equus Signature
Review: 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL
Comparison review: Five minivans
Vehicles tested: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe* / 2014 Nissan Pathfinder
Vehicle base prices (MSRP): $29,800 / $28,950
Versions tested: Limited AWD / SL 4WD
Version base prices (MSRP): $35,450 / $36,500
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $41,290 / $40,345
Test vehicles provided by: Hyundai Motor America / Nissan of Chantilly; Chantilly, Va.
Key specifications: (Santa Fe / Pathfinder)
Length: 193.1 inches / 197.2 inches
Width: 74.2 inches / 77.2 inches
Height: 66.5 inches / 69.6 inches
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches / 114.2 inches
Weight: 4,057 pounds / 4,364 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: 16.0 / 13.5 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind second-row seat: 40.9 / cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 80.0 / 79.8 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet / 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 3.3-liter V6, 290 hp / 3.5-liter V6, 260 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic / CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 18 mpg / 19 mpg
EPA highway mileage: 24 mpg / 25 mpg
EPA combined mileage: 20 mpg / 21 mpg
Observed mileage during test: 22.9 mpg / NA
Assembly location: South Korea / Tennessee
For more information: Hyundai website / Nissan website
*The 2014 Santa Fe has different pricing and options than the 2013 model driven for this review. Quoted prices are for the 2014 that is now available.