This reviewer first tested a 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander a year ago – a V6 model that was a direct competitor to the strong-selling Kia Sorento. Both were newly redesigned and boasted seven-passenger seating capacity in a modestly sized and relatively affordable package. (read comparison)
But while most Sorento buyers opt for the V6 that's standard on most versions, the Outlander is more commonly sold with its standard four-cylinder engine. So, too, is the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, cousin to the Sorento. When the Outlander and Santa Fe spent recent weeks with the Cars Examiner, a fresh comparison was in order.
To be clear, a key difference exists between the two: the Santa Fe Sport, introduced for 2013, is offered only with two rows of seats, whereas the Outlander, heavily updated for 2014, has a third row standard. But if you're looking at these crossovers – sized midway between the typical compact and midsize models – without an eye toward squeezing two more little ones into the far back, you'll find a lot of similarities between the two. Both tested cars have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, both have roomy cabins for five passengers and their cargo, both boast long lists of available high-end amenities.
Where they differ, though, is in their characters. The Santa Fe Sport isn't perfectly executed, but it exudes a feeling of sophisticated competence. There's a certain slickness to the Hyundai's operation, everywhere from the driving dynamics to the interior. It doesn't have a coddling ride or sporty handling, but it still feels upscale of an ordinary compact crossover like the Honda CR-V that won this reviewer's comparison last year. If you want most of the feel of a five-seat midsize crossover of a Ford Edge or Nissan Murano and are willing to sacrifice a smooth ride and V6 performance, the Santa Fe Sport is an excellent value alternative. (The Santa Fe Sport is not to be confused with the larger Santa Fe, an outstanding three-row midsize crossover with a V6 and excellent driving dynamics and passenger comfort for its size.)
The Outlander, meanwhile, is a spec-sheet winner – the Mitsubishi boasts the lower price, the higher fuel efficiency, and the better safety record, in addition to the extra row of available seating. But in person, the Mitsubishi is clearly not as fancy as the pricier Hyundai. The fuel-saving powertrain can feel wheezy and slow, the ride and handling aren't great, the seats aren't terribly comfortable, and the in-dash electronics are dated. It is okay as basic seven-seat transportation; the safety and affordability are clear family-friendly features, and while it doesn't feel like a premium car, it gets the job done. Shop it against the slightly pricier, slightly cushier, and slightly more fuel-efficient Nissan Rogue if you're interested in seating seven, keeping in mind that the Nissan doesn't offer a third row on all versions while it's standard on every Outlander. (Note that the Outlander cannot be confused with the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, a smaller and unpleasant crossover.)
Outside the cars
The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport was not styled to be ignored. A large chrome grille proudly wears a large Hyundai badge, and the dramatically creased body also includes a steeply sloping windowline. While passersby won't likely ogle the Santa Fe Sport, the design cues keep it from looking like a generic box. It's also wider than most cars this length, giving it a substantial-looking stance.
Meanwhile, the extended length seven-seat Santa Fe wears a more subdued grille and loses the chunky, assertive stance of the tested Santa Fe Sport.
All new for 2013, the Santa Fe Sport replaced a previous model (simply dubbed Santa Fe) that was anonymously curvy. Mitsubishi, though, took the opposite track with its 2014 redesign of the Outlander – the aggressive sportiness of the previous generation was replaced by smoother and more elegant styling details. The new rounded-off styling isn't as striking, though, and few flourishes try to disguise its boxy length. It's also narrower than the Hyundai.
Mitsubishi followed up on the 2014 redesign with a series of 2015-model tweaks; 2015 Outlanders are now starting to become available. The overall look isn't changed, just a few details like the pattern of the grille trim.
Inside the cars
The most obvious difference between the interiors of the Santa Fe Sport and the Outlander is what fits into them – chiefly, that the Mitsubishi has a third-row seat.
This small seat folds flat in two sections when it's not in use, which will be most of the time – it will prove adequate for transporting children in a pinch and adults in a dire emergency, but there's very little legroom for the Outlander's rearmost passengers and very little cargo space behind the seat.
The seat is a step up, at least, from the previous-generation Outlander, which offered only thin cloth stretched across a metal frame, with no padding. This seat was basically unusable for anything except providing a cacophony of squeaks on bumpy roads. The 2014 Outlander's seat is small but now has an actual cushion, albeit one that sits practically on the floor. It also helps that you can slide the middle seat forward to give third-row passengers some extra legroom.
Sadly, Mitsubishi's engineers weren't able to retain a feature in which the third row could flip backward and stow into a cargo well behind it, minivan-style. This would have allowed for a lot more cargo space behind the third row and kept the cargo floor lower. As it is, the Outlander's third row folds like most competitors' – it drops forward to create a flat but higher cargo floor. The huge head restraints must be removed to fold the seat. Another unique and very handy feature lost in the redesign was a two-piece tailgate where a smaller top part opened up and a second section swung down.
What the redesigned Outlander did keep, though, was a particularly fussy way of folding the middle-row seats: remove the head restraints, lift the seat cushion up, then pivot it down against the front seats, then drop the seatbacks. Putting them back into place isn't any more of a breeze.
The Outlander has plenty of cargo room, but the high floor and relative narrowness cuts into its capacity compared to the Santa Fe Sport and a number of smaller crossovers. There's a competitive 34 cubic feet of space with only the third row folded, but the maximum cargo capacity isn't as impressive at 63 cubic feet. Just 10 cubic feet is available with the third row in place, smaller than the trunk of a subcompact car and less usefully shaped.
Meanwhile, the Santa Fe Sport has similar cargo capacity to the Outlander behind the rear seat, but has an extra 8 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. Moreover, it's simple to fold the Hyundai's seat – push a button and plop the seatback straight down. The Santa Fe Sport has the added unusual feature of folding in three pieces instead of just two, allowing for greater flexibility in carrying people versus cargo. The resulting cargo floor isn't flat like the Outlander's, though, with the folded seatbacks resting at an angle.
The Santa Fe Sport lacks the third-row seat found in the similarly sized and mechanically related Kia Sorento because of the Hyundai's more svelte shape. The Sorento is closer to the long-bus profile of the Outlander than to the chunkier Santa Fe Sport.
Moving to the front of the cars, the 2014 Outlander has a clean and attractive dashboard design finished in high-quality materials – a marked improvement over its cheap, flimsy predecessor. A large block of false wood trim (silver false carbon fiber on some models) on the passenger side is an outdated styling touch, though.
Also dated is the Outlander's optional navigation system. While not terrible, it lacks the sharp graphics and vibrant colors found in some competitors, including the Santa Fe Sport. The screen also doubles as a touchscreen infotainment interface, where it's ergonomically sound but not always especially quick to respond to inputs. The tested Outlander included physical buttons along the sides of the screen, including a radio tuning knob; models without the nav system require use of the touchscreen or steering wheel controls for everything but volume adjustment.
The Santa Fe Sport also has a well-finished dashboard, and a mix of shapes and colors add variety. The Hyundai is ergonomically sound as well, though it would benefit further from a tuning knob and dedicated climate control display. It too has a choice between false wood and false carbon fiber trim, and here too the wood option doesn't work all that well.
The two crossovers differ more elsewhere in the interior. Mitsubishi put more of its investment into the dashboard, but left the cabin with tinny-sounding doors and rather hard and flat seat cushions. The Outlander's front seats have sporty-looking bolsters, but there's not much between them. The Santa Fe Sport's cabin is more thoroughly high-quality, and the front seats are more comfortable.
Moving rearward, though, the Outlander has the upper hand. The Santa Fe Sport's rear seat is too low and doesn't have very good legroom, whereas the Mitsubishi's is high, supportive, and roomy. The Santa Fe Sport's cushion is shaped and padded a little better, and in upper-level trims passengers have built-in window sunshades, but the Outlander's seat is quite a bit more comfortable overall.
The Outlander also leads on visibility, particularly to the rear. Hyundai elected to make a more stylish crossover and Mitsubishi strove for a more functional one, and it pays off in being able to see out the back of the Outlander. Full-size sedans easily hide in the Santa Fe Sport's over-the-shoulder blind spot.
Driving the cars
The Santa Fe Sport's biggest advantage over the Outlander is the driving dynamics. The Hyundai isn't outstanding either, with a stiff, bumpy ride, but it feels like a more solid and higher-caliber vehicle than the Outlander.
Part of the difference is that the Outlander was designed for outstanding fuel economy, with a less powerful engine and significant weight-reduction efforts. This pays off, with the Mitsubishi earning EPA ratings that are 4 mpg higher than the Hyundai's – 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving versus 21 mpg, comparing all-wheel-drive models. The tested Santa Fe Sport had front-wheel-drive and returned 24.2 mpg during a weeklong test, compared to 27.5 mpg from the all-wheel-drive Outlander in similar conditions, which is in line with the 3-mpg difference in their EPA ratings.
But at the same time, the Outlander suffers from a less substantial feel and a lot less zip than the Santa Fe Sport, which outweighs it by some 150 pounds and has an an extra 24 horsepower. Part of the issue is the Outlander's continuously variable transmission, which constantly varies gear ratios rather than shifting among set ratios. In engines that don't sound great and have a lot of power, this leads to a wheezy drone in all but the gentlest acceleration – and the Outlander neither has a lot of power nor a great-sounding engine. The Santa Fe Sport has a conventional six-speed automatic transmission and is peppy and quiet. Both models have available “eco” modes that can be activated at the touch of a button; the Outlander's worsens the already weak performance, whereas the Santa Fe feels fine either way. The Outlander saw revisions to its CVT and additional sound deadening for 2015, but don't expect its fundamental character to change.
The Outlander is also available with a 3.0-liter V6 that's smooth, quiet and fuel-efficient, but which sadly requires premium fuel. The Santa Fe Sport's uplevel engine option is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that gives up little fuel efficiency over the less powerful engine but that doesn't sound as rich as a V6.
The Santa Fe Sport isn't really sporty, but it has responsive steering and capable handling that lend confidence to the driver. Actually push the car into a fast corner and the lack of steering feel can become alarming, though. The Outlander feels less natural in routine conditions but less unnatural when driven hard, so pick your poison. The Santa Fe Sport includes adjustable steering modes that vary steering effort; Sport mode feels the best except when maneuvering the car into a parking space, but it doesn't offer any further communication from the wheels to the driver.
Neither crossover has great ride quality. The Outlander's is jiggly even on smooth roads and the Santa Fe Sport's can slam over bumps. But the Hyundai is significantly quieter than the Mitsubishi, and it tracks more confidently in a straight line.
Buying the cars
The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport has an attractive base price of $24,950 and it's well-equipped even without adding options. All models include power windows, locks, and mirrors; alloy wheels (17 inches on most Santa Fe Sports); Bluetooth connectivity; and Hyundai BlueLink.
Options do start to add up, though. There's the $1,150 Popular Equipment Package – a power driver's seat, heated front seats, a rearview camera, roof rails, heated mirrors, automatic headlights, foglights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The next step up is the $3,200 Premium Equipment Package (leather seats, a power passenger seat, a proximity key, rear sunshades, a blind-spot monitoring system, and automatic climate control), followed by another $3,200 for the Technology Package (navigation system, panoramic sunroof, rear parking sensors, upgraded sound system, memory system for the driver's seat, cooled front seats, heated rear seats, abd a heated steering wheel). Add the $125 for floor mats, and the tested car – a fully-loaded front-wheel-drive 2.4-liter model – has a sticker price of $33,500.
Opt for the 2.0-liter turbocharged Santa Fe Sport and you end up with most of those features as standard equipment, starting at $30,650, or comparably equipped to the tested car (plus a few more appearance items like 19-inch wheels) at $36,000. All-wheel-drive adds $1,750 on all models. Expect to haggle about $4,000 off the sticker price of a well-equipped Santa Fe Sport.
Meanwhile, the Outlander has an even more tempting base price of $22,995 for the ES model, with basic convenience and safety features but without the Hyundai's standard alloy wheels. The most popular version will likely be the SE, which adds 18-inch alloy wheels, the touch-screen radio and rearview camera, automatic climate control, heated front seats, and a proximity key system – at a premium of just $800.
The SE's $2,800 Premium Package buys leather seats, a sunroof, a power driver's seat and tailgate, and an upgraded sound system.
Instead of those packages, the tested car has the $6,100 Touring Package, which the Premium Package features and a navigation system, as well as such rare-at-this-price features as adaptive cruise control, which automatically slows and resumes the car's cruising speed upon approaching and then overtaking a slower car; a lane departure warning system; and forward crash mitigation, which senses an impending collision and automatically applies the brakes.
As tested, with the Touring Package and the $2,000 all-wheel-drive system, the tested Outlander SE all-wheel-drive has a sticker price of $32,720; as in the Hyundai, expect to haggle about $4,000 off that mark. Out the door, the Outlander is about $2,500 less than a comparable Santa Fe Sport.
Outlander buyers seeking the V6, which is only offered with all-wheel-drive, will pay a $2,000 premium over the SE for the GT model, which is otherwise similarly equipped. Another available feature is a $1,695 rear entertainment system.
2015 models have slight equipment and pricing changes; a key difference is the availability of stand-alone navigation system, a $2,375 option on the SE and GT. This makes it one of the costliest units outside of a premium make; while those prices were once typical, they're increasingly available for under $1,000.
The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport offers all of the quality and most of the comfort of larger, pricier midsize crossovers, while adding a good measure of agile maneuverability. Its gas mileage isn't outstanding even compared to some more powerful competitors, though, and the ride quality, rear seat room, and rear visibility are also negatives.
The Mitsubishi Outlander, meanwhile, could hit the spot for someone seeking seven-passenger space and family-friendly safety, especially if having a long list of available features is more important than a high-end driving experience. But its weak engine and lack of refinement make it hard to recommend over an ordinary compact crossover if seating for seven isn't high on your priority list.
Photo gallery of the 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander
Review: 2014 Kia Sorento SX vs. 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander GT
Comparison review: Nine compact crossovers
Review: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE
Review: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T
Review: 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited
Review: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE
Review: 2014 Hyundai Genesis 3.8
Vehicles tested: 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport / 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander
Vehicle base prices (MSRP): $24,950 / $22,995
Versions tested: 2.4 FWD / SE AWD
Version base prices (MSRP): $24,950 / $25,795
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $33,500 / $32,720
Vehicle prices as comparable (MSRP)*: $35,250 / $32,720
Estimated transaction prices as comparable**: $31,366 / $28,847
Test vehicles provided by: Hyundai Motor America / Mitsubishi Motors North America
Key specifications: (Santa Fe Sport / Outlander)
Length: 184.6 inches / 183.3 inches
Width: 74.0 inches / 70.9 inches
Height: 66.1 inches / 66.1 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches / 105.1 inches
Weight: 3,616 pounds / 3,461 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: NA / 10.3 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind second-row seat: 35.4 / 34.2 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 71.5 / 63.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet / 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.4-liter I4, 190 hp / 2.4-liter I4, 166 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic / CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 20 mpg / 24 mpg
EPA highway mileage: 27 mpg / 29 mpg
EPA combined mileage: 23 mpg / 26 mpg
Observed mileage during test: 24.2 / 27.5 mpg
Fuel capacity: 17.4 / 15.8 gallons
Assembly location: Georgia / Japan
More information: Hyundai website / Mitsubishi website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.