2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport Review
Hyundai's popular crossover goes with a two-pronged strategy.
- Smooth ride
- Fuel efficient
- Sloppy handling
- Confused transmission
- Numb steering
Hyundai is one of the major automotive success stories of recent years. The South Korean automaker has thrived while other manufacturers have simply survived, and it has done so by building high-quality, good-looking automobiles. The company's compact Elantra and midsize Sonata are challenging for the sales lead in their respective classes, and vehicles such as the Genesis and Equus are pushing the brand ever more upscale.
However, SUVs have been an issue for Hyundai. The compact Santa Fe has been a reasonable success, but the midsize Veracruz has barely registered with American buyers.
Hyundai is redesigning the Santa Fe for 2013 and killing the Veracruz in hopes of remedying this situation. The automaker is adding a long-wheelbase Santa Fe to replace the Veracruz, and rebranding the short-wheelbase Santa Fe as the Sport.
But will the changes make any difference to the American consumer?
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is offered in two body styles, the short-wheelbase 5-passenger Santa Fe Sport and the long-wheelbase 6- to 7-passenger Santa Fe. The Sport comes in 2.4 or 2.0T models. Each is offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
Standard equipment on the Santa Fe Sport 2.4 includes stain-resistant cloth upholstery, AM/FM/CD stereo with satellite radio, USB ports, Blue Link telematics system, Bluetooth cellphone link and 17-inch alloy wheels. The 2.0T gets 19-inch wheels, automatic headlights, heated front seats, fog lights, and keyless access and starting.
Option packages add features such as leather upholstery, navigation system, rearview camera, Dimension and Infinity audio systems, panoramic sunroof and a heated steering wheel.
The long-wheelbase Santa Fe is due early in 2013. It will come as a single model called GLS and includes a third row of seats, fog lights and 18-inch wheels.
Under the Hood
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is offered with three engines. Santa Fe Sport models get either 2.4-liter 190-horsepower 4-cylinder or a turbocharged 2.0-liter 264-horsepower 4-cylinder. The longer wheelbase Santa Fe will only come with a 3.3-liter 294-horsepower V6. All three engines are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability.
Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings for the 2.4 are 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway with front-wheel drive and 21/28 mpg with all-wheel drive. The 2.0 is rated at 21/31 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/27 mpg with all-wheel drive. The 3.3 is not yet rated, but Hyundai estimates ratings of 19/26 mpg with front-wheel drive.
The available Dynamax all-wheel-drive system sends all the power to the front wheels during normal driving, and redirects up to half the power to the rear when the front tires lose grip. Drivers can also select a lock mode that locks in a 50-50 front-rear torque split when they are driving on slippery surfaces.
Hyundai is known for interiors that offer lots of bang for the buck. They are typically assembled from better materials than the rest of the vehicles in the class and they are available with features expected in higher-line vehicles. The Santa Fe delivers on both fronts.
The materials boast a mix of soft-touch surfaces and sturdy plastics. Plus, the vehicle has plenty of cubbies, as well as bottle-holders in each door, to make small-items storage quite handy.
The control layout ranges from basic to advanced. Base models have a simple stereo, and buyers can opt for a navigation system with an 8-inch touch screen. The touch screen is easy to use and quick to react, and it is paired with a thumping Infinity stereo. Every Santa Fe comes with Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system, and buyers can opt for different levels of service. The base version has automatic crash notification and emergency and roadside assistance, but higher-line versions get features such as voice text messaging, vehicle diagnostics, turn-by-turn navigation, and point-of-interest web search and download. These features are easy to access through the touch screen or buttons on the rearview mirror.
The Santa Fe's space is well utilized. Front seat passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom, and the seats are comfortable, though not very thickly bolstered. The standard upholstery is stain and odor resistant, and the available leather adds some class.
The rear seat has plenty of room for two and a decent amount of space for three, and an optional second-row seat adds some versatility. It reclines and slides fore and aft up to 5.2 inches, allowing passengers to maximize seating space or cargo room. The cargo area is useful, too. The second row folds almost flat in a 40/20/40 split that allows several cargo configurations. It has 71.2 cubic feet of space with the second row folded, and Hyundai provides some shallow underfloor trays that can be used to keep muddy or sensitive cargo out of sight.
On the Road
Hyundai did a lot of work to keep the Santa Fe's weight in check. Greater use of high- and ultra-high-strength steel--and lighter seat frames, wiring harnesses and suspension components — helped the Santa Fe Sport shed 266 pounds from the last-generation model. In fact, the Santa Fe Sport is now the lightest vehicle in its class, and is even 59 pounds lighter than the smaller Ford Escape. You would think that would make the Santa Fe quite sporty. You would be wrong.
The Santa Fe Sport isn't an ill-handling beast like the truck-type SUVs of a decade ago, but it's not as well controlled as most of today's crossovers. The brakes feel natural, but the vehicle leans more in turns than passengers might like, and it flops from side to side when changing directions. The available all-wheel-drive system comes with active cornering control that brakes the inside rear wheel in turns to help the vehicle rotate. That may be happening, but we couldn't feel it.
The steering also offers too little feel to allow drivers steady control through sweeping curves. This can result in passenger head-toss as the driver saws at the steering wheel to keep a constant line. That's especially disappointing because Hyundai lets drivers select the firmness of the steering. We found the Driver Selectable Steering system's Normal and Sport modes to feel artificially heavy. The Comfort mode rectifies this problem, but the steering is still slow and numb.
The good news is the Santa Fe is smooth and quiet on the road. The suspension soaks up bumps like a sponge, and Hyundai has done an excellent job of blocking intrusive noises. Both engines are smooth and subdued for four cylinders, and the turbocharged version is the quieter of the two.
The base engine has just enough power for the Santa Fe Sport. Hyundai isn't quoting a zero-to-60-mph time, but it likely takes about nine seconds, which is par for the four-cylinder course. It works well with the automatic transmission to eke out enough oomph for passing, but buyers looking for more willing response should choose the turbocharged engine. It cuts the zero-to-60-mph time by about 1.5 seconds, without any detectable turbo lag or torque steer. However, during our drive at 8,300 feet, the transmission often seemed confused, searching for gears and shifting with a clunk. We suspect the transmission will be better behaved at lower elevations.
Hyundai's efforts at weight savings do pay off in fuel economy. The base engine is quite thrifty and turbo buyers give up only one mpg overall.
The Santa Fe's all-wheel-drive system is a bit more advanced than the systems in most crossovers, thanks to a button that locks in a 50-50 front-rear torque split and standard hill-start-assist control and downhill brake control. These features give the Santa Fe a modicum of off-road ability, but the street tires and lack of low-range gearing mean you're better off using the all-wheel drive to manage foul-weather traction than for off-roading.
Right for You?
With its combination of space, comfort, fuel efficiency and value, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is a good choice for active singles, young families and empty nesters. Larger families will have to wait for the long-wheelbase model due early next year, and those who want a sporty vehicle should look to Ford or Nissan.
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.