Many a word has been written about Hyundai's attempts to take over the (automotive) world, but one segment where the "Korean automaker that could" has never properly competed is the burgeoning midsize crossover department.
Splitting its Santa Fe lineup into two models - the five-seat Santa Fe Sport seen here and the larger six or seven-seat Santa Fe - Hyundai thinks it has what every Joe Buyer from Pasadena, California, to Pasadena, Texas, to Pasadena, Maryland, could ever want.
What is it?
Related only by name to the Santa Fes that preceded it, the 2013 Santa Fe Sport is available with two engines and either front or ($1,750) all-wheel-drive. Value-leader Santa Fe Sports include a 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder, while Sport 2.0Ts like our tester feature, not surprisingly, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Regardless of engine, all Santa Fes use a six-speed automatic gearbox.
All-wheel-drive Santa Fe Sports include the automaker's Active Cornering Control system, which utilizes the stability control system to simulate torque vectoring - the rapid transfer of side-to-side power - between all four wheels.
The larger Santa Fe stretches about 9 inches longer overall, but it shares much of its sheetmetal and interior with the Sport. All regular Santa Fes include a 3.3-liter V6 engine.
Our test car was further loaded up with both optional packages - one that included leather trim and a touchscreen audio system and another that brought with it a gigantic sunroof, navigation and Infinity speakers.
What's it up against?
Santa Fe Sport's natural rivals include the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Subaru Forester Turbo and Nissan Murano. We'd also throw in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and sister brand Kia's V6-powered Sorento.
What's it look like?
Given its 5 inch-shorter wheelbase, the Santa Fe Sport is a lot more balanced-looking than its bigger sibling, even though both share many panels and design cues.
Boasting an expressive front fascia with no shortage of chrome-like bling, the Santa Fe is about as rugged looking as a trip through Saks Fifth Avenue. Only its New Mexican name conjures up images of traversing the road less traveled.
To that end, the Santa Fe isn't really a standout, but it is handsome and polished. We're not as smitten with its high belt line, which serves to make it look something like a show car but really limits its rear visibility. Check out the side profile shot in our photo gallery - the rearmost side window is essentially there for decoration.
And on the inside?
Following in Hyundai's most recent design language, the Santa Fe Sport's interior reaches a new high mark for the automaker's mainstream models.
A big navigation and audio touchscreen sits at the top of the instrument cluster, where it's easy to see and reach. Just below sit logical buttons and knobs, which combine with a fast-operating infotainment system. Only an odd switch blank on the center console by the gear lever seems out of place.
Passenger room is terrific all around and second row riders get vents on each B-pillar and their row is heated. Moreover, the second row features three separate seat back sections to aid with large item cargo hauling.
Although we're not sold on its edgy look, there's no denying that it is generally composed of class-above materials Soft touch plastics and vinyls adorn most surfaces where hands might find themselves, plus Hyundai paid attention to details with an interesting print pattern for the perforated leather and the floor mats.
Luckily, Hyundai also offers more expressive interior shades than our tester's bland grey.
But does it go?
Using the same turbocharged four-banger also seen in the Hyundai Sonata, the Santa Fe Sport is rated at 264 horsepower and 269 lb-ft. of torque, the latter of which is available from just 1,750 rpm to 3,00 rpm.
That torque curve - the amount of thrust available - isn't particularly big, but it's enough to make the Santa Fe Sport generally feel zippy from any speed. Particularly notable is the crossover's ability to merge or pass at higher speeds, when its six-speed automatic has already shifted into a high cruising gear.
Santa Fe Sport tips the scales at a fairly svelte 3,750 lbs., which also helps it make the most of the power on tap. Like other turbocharged vehicles, the Sport's 2.0-liter isn't notable for its especially linear power delivery. Lag isn't really an issue, but there are occasionally times when drivers will be surprised with more grunt on tap than they were expecting.
Grippy and nimble, Santa Fe Sport feels like a smaller vehicle than it is. Its all-wheel-drive system looks at the terrain you've just encountered and assumes that it's the same as you're bound to see, so it "anticipates" the likelihood of slipping and sliding. In other words, if you've been on a snowy road, the system assumes you're going to continue down that path, so it tailors grip accordingly. We didn't encounter much more than rainy weather, which hardly challenged the Santa Fe Sport.
Despite the Sport moniker, there's not much in the way of genuine sportiness on offer here. The Santa Fe Sport's fully independent suspension gives it a compliant, almost soft ride. Throw in over-boosted electric power steering that's entirely devoid of feel (even when its nifty user-adjustable tension is set to sport mode) and strong but slightly wooden-feeling brakes and you're not going to find yourself looking forward to canyon carving. A little handling polish would do the Santa Fe Sport some good, although the midsize crossover class is hardly one known for its performance pedigrees.
On the other hand, we found its fuel economy to be right on its 19/24 mpg target - we averaged the EPA test-estimated 21 mpg during our testing period.
Leftlane's bottom line
More than competent all around, the more focused Hyundai Santa Fe Sport should fill the needs of a diverse buyer base. And its attractive, comfortable and high-quality interior will make it an easy sell for Hyundai dealers.
Now that Hyundai has tackled all of those obstacles, we hope the Korean brand sets its sights on handling and steering.
2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T AWD base price, $29,450. As tested, $35,645.
Leather/Premium Package, $2,450; Technology Package, $2,900; Destination, $845.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.