Our view: 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

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Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

Today’s family can fit its daily routine into a variety of cars, from a small crossover to the largest SUV or minivan on the market.

The 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport offers a happy medium of more overall room than a compact SUV but with a price lower than larger, three-row vehicles.

Both the Santa Fe Sport and the Santa Fe are well regarded by editors for their family-hauling proficiency. The Santa Fe Sport won our Small Family Car of the Year award for 2015, while the Santa Fe won the award for both the Large Family Car of the Year and the overarching honor of Family Car of the Year.

With few changes to this year’s model, there’s still a lot to like, whether or not children are a focal point in your life. See the 2015 and 2014 models compared here.

Exterior & Styling
“Handsome” is a decent word to describe the Santa Fe Sport’s looks. A few years ago it might have been considered radical, but these days its large grille, flashy taillights and beefy stance are pretty commonplace among both cars and SUVs.

Car shoppers might confuse the smaller Sport with the three-row Santa Fe, as few styling cues differentiate them.

How It Drives
The Santa Fe Sport’s base engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder producing 190 horsepower. That isn’t a huge advantage compared with the considerably smaller Honda CR-V’s 185 hp, but it’s a decent bump from the comparably sized Subaru Outback, which has 175 hp.

Note that horsepower alone doesn’t reflect performance. Comparing base all-wheel-drive versions of these three models, the Hyundai is the heaviest — 23 pounds heavier than the Subaru and a more significant 137 pounds more than the Honda. None of these cars’ base engines offer anything close to the feeling of “sport,” and both the front-wheel-drive CR-V and all-wheel-drive Outback (where front-wheel drive isn’t available) return decent combined mileage of 29 and 28 mpg, respectively. The front-wheel-drive version of the Santa Fe Sport returns just 23 mpg combined.

Opting for the 2.0T version of the Santa Fe Sport does put you in another realm of performance, however. Rated at 264 hp and 269 pounds-feet of torque, the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder packs slightly more power than the six-cylinder version of the Outback, which has 256 hp, and just a touch more than the all-new, V-6-only Nissan Murano at 260 hp. (See the four competitors compared side by side.)

While all three of these models drive with command in terms of having ample passing power, only the Santa Fe Sport feels fun to drive. The turbo twitches a bit under hard acceleration, though, a characteristic once common among turbo engines that’s endearingly called “lag.” These days, most turbos are refining that lag out. The Outback and Murano, both equipped with continuously variable automatic transmissions, are characteristically steadier under hard acceleration.

The Hyundai also has decent steering, with precise feedback and a nicely weighted steering wheel — an attribute we cannot say is shared with the rest of Hyundai’s lineup.

But the handling itself could use some improvement; there’s a considerable amount of body lean in tight turns at routine speeds. The new Murano is shockingly flat in these situations, and the Outback’s shorter greenhouse makes it feel less top-heavy as well.

There are three selectable steering settings in the Hyundai: Normal, Comfort and Sport, but there isn’t a dramatic difference among them.

Like the non-turbo version, the 2.0T’s mileage is behind the pack, coming in at 22 mpg combined with front-wheel drive, compared with 24 mpg for the front-wheel-drive Murano. The Outback gets 22 mpg with a V-6 and its standard all-wheel drive.

The starting price of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport — and the Subaru Outback, for that matter — isn’t much higher than smaller crossovers like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, but you get a significantly larger vehicle.

This translates to a roomier cabin in front and back, making it a better choice for anyone who covets extra space and is willing to trade on attributes like fuel economy.

The interior is also of decent quality, from the base model on up to the top 2.0-liter turbo trim level I tested for this review. The nearly $15,000 price difference between those trims (when the 2.0T is fully loaded) is noticeable at the higher end of the spectrum, where buyers might not be as impressed when cross-shopping similarly equipped competitors; Nissan’s new Murano starts at $30,445 including destination and has a significantly more upscale cabin. Compared with the Santa Fe Sport I tested, the Murano is a near luxury vehicle.

It’s in its lower trims that the Santa Fe Sport earns its due as a quality family vehicle, with the same space and a fair amount of style.

The front seats are wide and comfortable over long drives, and the rear seats recline and have plenty of room for child-safety seats. In terms of interior dimensions, the Outback and Murano are very similar to the Santa Fe Sport.

I’m also a big fan of the Sport’s rear air vents, which are located in the door pillars so the air blows nearly at the height of a passenger’s chest. Most cars have the vents at the back of the center console between the front seats, near the floor.

Ergonomics & Electronics
Many Hyundais suffer from old-shoe syndrome. They don’t really astound a driver, but they feel comfortable and familiar from the first time you sit down. This is a testament to well-executed ergonomics, from the air-conditioning controls to the color display between the two analog gauges.

The optional navigation system — which can be had only along with an assortment of other options that bring the Santa Fe Sport’s cost to well more than $30,000 — is quite good, with crisp graphics on an 8-inch touch-screen. Commands are easy to see and implement on the screen, and there’s a considerable number of other functions buried in the system itself, including telematics, in-depth tracking of mileage and more.

Cargo & Storage
My own family car somehow accumulates stuff in every cargo nook and cranny. The Santa Fe Sport would be a good fit for similarly challenged families. There’s a large, open cubby directly in front of the shifter that can hold wallets and smartphones. This is also where the car’s USB port is located.

A covered storage area directly behind the cupholders, under the armrest, is a decent size, and the large door pockets can handle a few items and drink bottles — but they’re too far down to reach easily.

The cargo area measures 35.4 cubic feet behind the backseat, nearly identical to the Outback and the smaller CR-V. The Murano, however, is a bit bigger, at 39.6 cubic feet. Any of those cargo areas should handle most hauling duties for the average family.

The rear seats fold flat by means of levers on the seats themselves or ones located near the rear cargo hatch, which I always find invaluable. Maximum cargo space with the seats folded flat is 71.5 cubic feet, a bit ahead of the CR-V and Murano but slightly behind the Outback.

The Santa Fe Sport’s cargo area has a massive under-floor storage system that can hold bulky items, not just perfectly folded blankets.

If you opt for either the 2.4-liter with the top Tech Package or the 2.0T with the Ultimate Package, the Santa Fe Sport comes not only with a power liftgate but also a “smart open” feature. This detects when the car’s key fob is approaching the rear of the vehicle and, if it remains there for 3 seconds, will automatically open the cargo hatch. Some systems like this exist on other vehicles but require the user to wave a leg under the rear bumper to trigger a sensor.

The Santa Fe Sport has a top five-star crash-test rating from the federal government. Incorrectly identified by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as the Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Sport earned the organization’s top score of good in all tests to which it was subjected. However, it has yet to undergo the small-overlap frontal crash test that has damned more than half of the nine models tested to date in the midsize SUV class.

The Santa Fe Sport doesn’t feature optional safety equipment like a blind spot monitoring system or forward collision warning system.

See all the Santa Fe Sport’s safety features listed here.

Value in Its Class
There’s a wide range of prices for the Santa Fe Sport that might draw in shoppers looking for anything from basic transportation with a lot of room to something sporty and fun with luxury features. For shoppers on the low end, it offers more room than the typical compact but is offset by low fuel economy.

On the high end, it offers everything the competition does except perhaps a near-luxury interior.

The fact that the Santa Fe Sport can compete on so many levels is impressive.

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