Hyundai is feeling very confident in themselves lately. If you add in the sales figures from Kia, of which Hyundai owns 39%, they are together the world's fifth largest automaker, and now they're apparently willing to make some pretty risky moves.
Case in point: the Santa Fe crossover, which is completely redesigned for 2013, has joined the Sonata midsize sedan (and the Kia Optima, for that matter) in substituting the V6 in its top-of-the-line models for a powerplant that's smaller in displacement than the one in the base models.
The powerplant in question, though, is the Theta II, a 2.0L 4cyl from which the South Korean duo have wrung 264 hp and 269 ft-lbs of torque by virtue of an intercooled twin-scroll turbocharger. Oddly, that's 10 fewer horses than the smaller and lighter Sonata/Optima, but it still makes nearly as much power as the 3.5L Lambda V6 in the preceding model, and actually makes more torque. Also, thanks to the marvels of direct injection, it can run on the same 87 octane fuel as well.
The 3.3L version of the Lambda V6 will return in the long-wheelbase Santa Fe, due out very soon as a replacement for the slow-selling Veracruz. But for now, Hyundai is betting that consumers will get behind the wheel of this artificially-aspirated Santa Fe and not notice the difference when they step on the gas.
Considering that my test vehicle tipped the scales at 3,706 lbs, and that all four wheels have the responsibility of getting it all moving, it should be evident why this is such a gamble for Hyundai. That's quite a heavy load on that diminutive little mill's crankshaft, both literally and figuratively.
But with no complaints and only a very slight hiss from the turbo under full throttle, it did in fact get it all moving. 60mph took 8.8 seconds, while the quarter mile took 16.6 seconds, with an 83mph trap speed. Aside from being a bit sluggish off the line, the tiny little engine actually makes good power through just about all of the rev range, since it reaches its torque peak as early as 1750rpm. Hyundai even has enough faith in the Theta II to rate it to tow up to 3,500lbs, as much as the old V6. The six-speed Shiftronic transmission's ratios are spaced perfectly, something I've praised Hyundai for in the past, though the increasing ubiquity of a rev-matching feature for downshifting in other cars makes its absence in the Santa Fe a bit disappointing.
Thankfully absent, though, is the previous Santa Fe's trucklike slab of a dashboard. In its place is a more visually and ergonomically attractive layout with the HVAC controls and optional 8-inch navigation with a 12-speaker Infinity sound system residing in Hyundai's signature hourglass center stack. Those options are part of the Technology package, which adds a heated steering wheel and panoramic sunroof. The Leather and Premium Equipment package was also bestowed upon the test vehicle, adding heating elements to all four major seating positions and a rearview camera. Though the big-brother navigation asked me to confirm every single time I started the car that I wasn't going to fiddle with it while driving, I found my way around its functions without trouble and left the owner's manual in the glovebox.
Underpinning the Santa Fe are most of the same bits and pieces off of the outgoing model, except for Hyundai's patented MDPS, or motor-driven power steering system. It replaces the conventional rack-and-pinion setup, and its level of assist can be adjusted on the fly by the driver via a button on the wheel that cycles through three modes: Comfort, Normal, and Sport. Comfort provides the most assist, but it makes the car feel wallowy and more difficult to control, while Sport makes the steering feel heavier and more direct. None of this gives the Santa Fe catlike reflexes, but it handles well considering its size and weight. The rear swaybar is larger, so understeer is reduced for more neutral behavior in hard cornering, and the 19-inch Continental tires (my favorite) had better-than-expected grip for all-season rubber.
The highlight of my test-drive was not the turbocharged engine or the improved ergonomics, however... it was the attention to ride quality. I've test driven some 150 cars since I started doing reviews nearly four years ago, and the new Santa Fe is one of the quietest and smoothest-riding of them all. Even on brick roads, the occupants remained undisturbed, and on the highway, it feels supple on the same level as much higher-priced luxury cars. The turbo 4cyl does make a bit more noise in the upper rev range than the V6 would, but at cruising speeds, it's practically inaudible, especially if the A/C or radio is on. If I had a chance to read through Hyundai's R&D notes when they were designing the new Santa Fe, I'd be willing to bet that the largest portion of it would be devoted to NVH and ride comfort. They've really done their homework in this department.
They may be winging it somewhat by dropping a turbo four-banger in the spot where a V6 would normally go, but perhaps I can explain it better this way: If I were told to drive across the country, and I had to choose from the current stock of $30,000 crossovers to make the journey, I'd grab the keys to the Santa Fe without giving it a second thought.
And as soon as the trip was complete, I'd open the hood, look down at the engine, and say to myself "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could..."
Price as tested: $35,925
0-60mph: 8.8 sec
1/4-mile time: 16.6 seconds at 83mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.77g
60-0 braking distance: 121ft
Torque: 269 ft-lbs
Fuel economy: 19.3 mpg
Test vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America.
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