Editor's note: Estimated mileage ratings have been lowered to reflect a November 2012 EPA audit of this car's stated mileage.
Time had passed the Hyundai Santa Fe by. A once-great vehicle started settling for OK as the competition — and all of Hyundai's other models — got better. The automaker has enlivened its lineup during the past two years with fresh designs and new powertrains; now it's the Santa Fe's turn.
A major redesign pushes the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport to the front of the midsize SUV pack with a new turbocharged engine, dynamic styling and competitive pricing.
The third generation of Hyundai's midsize SUV is available for 2013 as the five-seat Santa Fe Sport (compare the 2012 and 2013 models here). A long-wheelbase version with seating for up to seven, called simply the Santa Fe, will be out early in 2013, replacing the brand's current seven-seater, the underperforming Veracruz. This review covers the Sport.
The Santa Fe is in the midsize class, which includes crossovers like the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Murano. But at 184.6 inches long, it's on the smaller side of the segment and is better matched in both length and interior volume against entries like the Ford Edge and Kia Sorento. Compare all three here.
New Name, Fresh Look
Hyundai added "Sport" to the Santa Fe in both name and design for 2013. It adopts a more aggressive look, barely resembling the vehicle it replaces. A new aerodynamic shape with LED-accented, sweeping, angular headlamps, upswept bodyside lines and a rear spoiler give it a leaner, more fluid look. Hyundai says the crossover shed 266 pounds this year. Additional chrome trim and an updated hexagonal grille add some much-needed spunk.
The new Santa Fe is another example of Hyundai's move toward family styling. It looks a lot like its smaller sibling, the Tucson. The risk here is a dull lineup full of clones, but the Santa Fe wears its new face well. More assertive design cues distinguish it, but its new grille and wedgy, angular shape tie it to the family.
Going & Stopping
The base engine for the 2013 Santa Fe, borrowed from the Sonata sedan, is a 190-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder, an engine more powerful than the 2012's base four-cylinder. It wasn't made available for testing. I tested a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder trim level, called the 2.0T. Borrowed from the Sonata Turbo, this 264-hp power plant replaces the old Santa Fe's upgrade engine, a V-6.
At an elevation of 8,000-plus feet, the thin, power-sapping air in Park City, Utah, is not usually an engine's friend. But unlike myself — lethargic and thirsty — the 2.0-liter turbo had no problem digesting the oxygen-deficient high-altitude air.
The 2.0-liter and six-speed automatic transmission are a good match for the Santa Fe. It's lively from a stop, and if there was any turbo lag, I missed it. The responsive six-speed promptly snapped off shifts; even during hill climbs, the Santa Fe never felt underpowered.
The front-wheel-drive turbo is EPA-rated at 20/27 mpg city/highway, and the front-wheel-drive base 2.4-liter at 21/29 mpg. With all-wheel drive, which is optional with either engine, the gas mileage drops to 19/24 mpg and 20/26 mpg for the turbo and base models, respectively.
Standard on both engines is Active Eco mode. It alters acceleration and shift points to raise fuel efficiency by as much as 7 percent above the EPA rating, Hyundai says. It's engaged via a button next to the steering wheel, and the change is noticeable but not annoying.
Ford's Edge also has an optional turbocharged four-cylinder. Called the EcoBoost, the 2.0-liter makes 240 hp and gets 21/30 mpg, a smidge better than the Santa Fe's best rating.
Highway cruising is a strong point. The Santa Fe's cabin is quiet and its ride smooth. Even during a quick jaunt on a dirt road, it demonstrated a high level of composure and bump absorption. It bounded over larger potholes but stayed buttoned-down over smaller imperfections. The standard Downhill Brake Control system got a workout during a few miles of hilly, unpaved terrain. Instead of requiring the driver to stand on the brakes during a steep decline, it automatically slows the car. The sound is jarring, but the effect is helpful.
The engine's noise is well-muted at takeoff and nearly silent at highway speeds. Hyundai says it added several pounds of sound-deadening material to the cabin, and it shows. It's impressively isolated; road noise is hushed. Though wind rush around the mirrors is noticeable, it's never intrusive.
In terms of handling, body lean could be better checked around corners, but the motion is never obnoxious. Newly standard is a unique driver-selectable steering system with three modes: Normal, Sport and Comfort. Sport feels dull and heavy; Comfort feels light and twitchy. Normal struck a comfortable balance between the two. I suspect the typical midsize SUV driver won't care for anything else.
Cabin Materials and Controls
Inside, cloth seats are standard; leather is part of a $2,450 option package. Several different color and texture combinations are available, and the two I sampled looked stylish. Though plenty of plastic is evident, it's cushy in all the right places. The use of the cheap-looking hard stuff is minimal.
With the black leather palette, the interior is dressed with satin metallic-looking painted plastic trim and smoky-toned imitation wood. The two-tone gray interior wears fake carbon fiber and thatched plastic trim and surfaces. It sounds busy, but the overall look is interesting and tasteful. Large, chrome-ringed gauges lend a sporty look.
The standard cloth seats have fabric from Yes Essentials, and it is resistant to water, stains, odor and bacteria. I did a test spill of milk, and it quickly beaded up instead of absorbing into the fabric. Cleanup was easy so the risk of mysterious, lingering odors was minimized. The Yes upholstery isn't new — Chrysler uses it in a few of its vehicles — but it's new to Santa Fe, and parents will love it.
Another plus is the large touch-screen navigation system, optional on all models. The text on the 8-inch screen is large and easy to read, and its placement, high and flat on the dash, is ideal.
Functionality-wise, it could be more intuitive. For audio and navigation tasks, you use a combination of the touch-screen and panel buttons. Some functions must be done first by using the physical buttons and then completed via the touch-screen menu. For others, you can go straight to the screen. For example, the route button takes you directly to the touch-screen route menu.
Climate functions are separate and controlled through a large dial and clear buttons. Also available is a 4.3-inch touch-screen audio display with a backup camera.
People & Cargo
The Santa Fe Sport's cabin is roomy and, in models equipped with the optional panoramic moonroof, airy. Up front, head- and legroom were plentiful for my 5-foot 5-inch self and my 6-foot-2-inch passenger. There was enough wiggle room for us in the backseat, too. A little longer than the Edge, the Santa Fe offers about an inch more legroom but slightly less front headroom. The two also compare in the rear headroom and legroom departments, and both offer more room than the Sorento.
The driver and front passenger sit on bolstered seats, snug and comfy. The bottom cushions could be longer, though; taller passengers may want more thigh support.
A deep center console and large bin behind the shifter can hold a lot of small items. Cupholders are plentiful, too. There are two of them and two door-pocket bottle holders in front and two of each in back.
Backseat passengers get the benefit of a sliding and reclining bench seat — a nice perk that the Edge and Sorento don't match. The bench can slide 5.2 inches and folds in a 40/20/40 split, which affords more cargo and passenger flexibility than the traditional 60/40 split. The seats don't fold flat, and there's a gap between the seatback and the floor because of the sliding seat. The process is very easy, however; the seat folds with one hand after pulling two cargo-area handles or seat-mounted levers.
Behind the backseat is a fairly high load floor, but there are also underfloor storage areas. There are two compartments, and the larger one is divided into handy bins for keeping small items from rolling around.
The cargo volume behind the backseat is 35.4 cubic feet, much more than the Edge's 32.2, though the Sorento beats them both with 37.0 cubic feet. With the seats folded, Sorento wins again with 72.5 cubic feet, compared with the Edge's 68.9 and Santa Fe's 71.5 cubic feet.
Features & Price
In base 2.4-liter trim, the 2013 Santa Fe starts at $25,275 (all prices include destination charges). The 2.0T starts at $28,525. All-wheel drive adds $1,750 to either trim. The turbocharged Edge starts at $29,345, and four-cylinder versions of the Sorento start at $23,950. The latter also comes with a V-6 starting at $26,500.
Turbo to turbo, the Santa Fe looks like the better deal, but you must option it carefully. Many features only come bundled in pricey packages; there are few standalone options. For example, if you want the panoramic moonroof, it's available only in the $2,900 Technology Package and also requires you to first upgrade to the $2,450 Leather and Premium Equipment Package. That's an extra $5,350. Hyundai also doesn't offer a power liftgate on the Santa Fe; it's optional on the Edge.
As a new model, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport hasn't been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as of this writing.
It comes standard with a full complement of airbags, including a driver's knee airbag and side curtain airbags that cover both rows. One other notable standard safety item is Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system, which is similar to GM's OnStar. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Visibility straight back is fine, but a high belt line and upswept windows partially obscure the view to the rear corners. A blind spot warning system isn't available, and a backup camera is optional.
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport in the Market
With the redesigned Sport, Hyundai has taken the Santa Fe from ho-hum to head of the class. It will be tough for shoppers in this segment to overlook the Santa Fe's newfound style and impressive powertrain. Prices are appealing, too, if you choose your packages wisely.
Hyundai is on a roll. As its products continue to improve, so do its sales, and it looks like the automaker has another hit in the making with the Santa Fe Sport.
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