Behold the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe — wait a minute, you say, didn't we already see a review on a Hyundai Santa Fe? Yes, you did, but that was the Santa Fe Sport, this one is just plain old Santa Fe. Despite the shorter name, this is actually the larger version of the same vehicle. While the Santa Fe Sport is a short wheelbase, five-passenger model that matches up well against vehicles like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the larger six- and seven-passenger Santa Fe takes the fight to the bigger Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder while undercutting most of them in price.
Confused yet? It helps to think of the Santa Fe lineup like Hyundai does: one model with three trim levels. The Sport trim level is meant for pre-family couples; it's short, seats five, has fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines and is less expensive. The midlevel Santa Fe GLS is a seven-passenger family model; it's longer, only comes with V-6 engine and can tow 5,000 pounds. Top of the line is the Santa Fe Limited, which sounds like a 1950s passenger train but is actually a luxurious six-passenger version of the crossover with captain's chairs instead of a second-row bench, a leather interior, 19-inch wheels and other niceties.
Outside, the styling is largely the same, aside from a different side window look and rear fenders to accommodate the longer Santa Fe and its bigger cargo area. There's also a slightly revised front end with a different grille and fog lamp treatment. The look is clean, modern and a good progression from the sleek styling of the last Santa Fe. Big 18- and 19-inch wheels fill out the arches nicely, and even base models look upscale.Unlike the smaller Santa Fe Sport, the larger Santa Fe comes equipped only with a V-6. The 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter direct-injection engine makes a lot of power for a small V-6, giving the Santa Fe brisk off-the-line acceleration and more than enough passing power on freeways. The standard six-speed automatic transmission behaves well, too, providing smooth shifts and quiet operation. Steering is a bit light with overboosted electric power steering that doesn't provide much in the way of feel or feedback, but steering feel has honestly never been Hyundai's strong suit. For most drivers, the easy operation will be welcome, but it isn't as much fun as the new Nissan Pathfinder to throw through curves.
The ride is a bit choppy for a crossover this size, but being able to accommodate seven people and tow 5,000 pounds means the suspension has to skew more toward industrial than luxurious. Brakes are strong and progressive, with good pedal feel and little fade under repeated hard use. Fuel economy is middle of the pack in the segment, with the front-wheel-drive version earning an EPA-rated 18/25 mpg city/highway and 21 mpg combined. The all-wheel-drive version drops only slightly, coming in at 18/24 mpg and 20 combined.
Athletic performance is not what the Santa Fe is about, however. This is a family hauler and frankly, a good one. The dashboard is shared with the Santa Fe Sport, and it's a fine piece of work — excellent fit and finish, high-quality materials, clearly marked and easy-to-use controls, all arranged in an attractive form. It's an amazing step up from even the last Hyundai Santa Fe and is fully competitive with the best in the industry.
Seats are big and comfortable in the first two rows, but they're somewhat cramped in the third. This is not the largest third row you can buy on the market. While it may offer slightly more legroom back there than the Toyota Highlander or Nissan Pathfinder, it comes up considerably shorter in the headroom and shoulder room categories. That third row does offer some amenities, however, including dedicated climate controls, a 115-volt power outlet and the ability to fold the seat completely flat.
Safety equipment is decent but not class leading, with seven standard airbags, traction control and an optional backup camera, but lacking some of the electronic aids that are appearing in competitor vehicles like rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning.
Hyundai intends to make inroads into the family crossover segment with the bigger Santa Fe through value pricing — starting at $29,205, including an $855 destination charge, for a Santa Fe GLS with front-wheel drive. The Santa Fe is $300 less than the less powerful but larger Nissan Pathfinder S and a full $2,045 less expensive than a base V-6 Toyota Highlander. The Santa Fe Limited with front-wheel drive starts at $33,955, causing the advantage to grow to $1,740 when the Santa Fe Limited is put up against the Pathfinder SL and coming in $1,450 less than a Highlander SE V-6. All-wheel-drive adds $1,750 to the Santa Fe's price across the board.
As is typical with Hyundai, only a couple of option packages are offered, keeping the number of Santa Fe variations down to a remarkable 24 build combinations (not including paint color). That, plus the Santa Fe's made-in-South Korea origins allow Hyundai to keep prices at or below competitor levels.
Stacked up against competitors like the brand-new 2013 Pathfinder, the Santa Fe comes in a little short on interior room, fuel economy and driving dynamics. Compared to larger vehicles like the Ford Explorer, it doesn't quite match up in terms of electronic sophistication and all-terrain capability. But as a basic, all-around kid hauler for a young, growing family, it represents a solid value with its reasonable pricing, excellent interior quality, decent fuel economy and class-leading warranty.