Resisting the urge to simply balloon its five-seat Santa Fe crossover into a full-out seven-passenger family vehicle, Hyundai has taken the rather unique initiative of expanding the lineup to include two configurations of what is essentially the same vehicle.
That restraint means that Hyundai can offer a compact Santa Fe and a midsize Santa Fe for 2013, each with its own wheelbase and powertrains but with the economies of scale benefits of an otherwise shared design. The longer wheelbase Santa Fe won't hit the market until early next year, but the Santa Fe Sport, which is dimensionally on par with the outgoing 2012 model, should be arriving in dealers now.
It was that shorter Santa Fe Sport that we found ourselves strapping into amid the thin air found 8,000 feet above sea level in Park City, Utah. But Hyundai was confident that the Santa Fe Sport's optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder would make mincemeat out of the limited oxygen, and as we've seen from the fast-growing automaker over the last few years, it is rarely wrong in its hunches.
No growing pains
The third-generation Santa Fe Sport rides on an updated version of the car-like unibody platform that underpins the Sorrento from sister brand Kia. In fact, the two crossovers share a factory in Georgia (the long-wheelbase Santa Fe is sourced from South Korea), and they use similar 2.4 and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines.
Despite its larger displacement, the naturally-aspirated, 190-horsepower 2.4-liter will serve as the base engine. In Park City, we were only able to sample the 2.0-liter turbo, which puts out a healthy 264 horsepower and 269 lb-ft. of torque, the latter of which comes on at a low 1,750 rpm. Both engines are paired exclusively to a six-speed automatic with a manual-style gate but no paddle shifters.
Fuel economy is a mostly rosy picture, but those who select the optional all-wheel-drive system will be forced to make heftier-than-usual compromises. The 2.4-liter is rated as high as 33 mpg on the highway (or 28 mpg with all-wheel-drive), while the 2.0T nets 21/31 mpg with front and 20/27 mpg with all-wheel-drive. Those generally lofty numbers are made possible by big reductions in curb weight that bring the Santa Fe Sport to about 3,700 lbs. as-tested, a figure more in line with smaller 'utes like the Ford Escape. But Santa Fe Sport is sized more against the Ford Edge, Chevrolet Equinox and Kia Sorrento.
The larger Santa Fe, meanwhile, offers only a 294-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 sourced from Hyundai's Azera. With either six or seven-seat configurations, it will go up against the likes of the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer next year.
Underneath, Santa Fes feature a fully independent suspension that has been reconfigured out back to reduce intrusion into the cargo area. All-wheel-drive Santa Fes include a new rear differential that incorporates torque vectoring, thus aiding nimbleness via the traction and stability controls. A center differential lock dials in a predictable front/rear split for particularly challenging terrain, but Santa Fe is not a serious off roader.
Both Santa Fes feature versions of the same styling, although the Sport is a bit more "rugged"Ł with additional touches of unpainted trim and a swept-back D-pillar at the rear of the glass area. The big Santa Fe has a larger glass area that the automaker says is designed to give a feeling of more interior room, even if both vehicles are identical inside up to the second-row seatbacks.
Leaps and bounds ahead of its bland predecessor internally, the 2013 Santa Fe's interior sets the bar high for the segment. Stylistically, the interior is an evolution of the automaker's "pinched"Ł center stack design, a look that is maturing nicely. High-quality materials with unique surface graining are evident throughout, although the lower half of the dashboard is covered in hard plastic.
Three audio choices are on offer, but we were only able to sample the range-topping navigation package, which is paired with stellar Infinity speakers. A leather package offers the choice of four shades that mate nicely with four unique appliqu├ęs. Loaded with every option, our 2.0T tester came in just shy of $36,000, which isn't a bad value given the level of specification.
Second row Santa Fe Sport riders are treated to good space and an innovative 40/20/40-split-folding seat that allows for two passengers to ride comfortably with, say, a set of skis dividing their space. The configuration is much more convenient than standard 40/60 splits. Out back, the cargo area is well-finished, including a thoughtful under-floor storage compartment for the cargo cover.
High altitude performer
With its turbocharger spooled up, Santa Fe Sport was barely affected by Park City's altitude. A sprightly performer, Santa Fe Sport impressed us the most with its utter refinement. Turbo lag is virtually nonexistent, as is any of the buzziness we used to see in small Hyundai engines. We suspect that most buyers won't have a clue that a relatively small four-cylinder is parked under the crossover's sculpted hood, since this turbo behaves more like a smooth V6.
The six-speed automatic was prompt to downshift and not as over-eager to wind up in a higher gear to save fuel as many rivals.
Straight-line performance aside, Santa Fe Sport didn't quite live up to the latter part of its moniker, but it proved composed and classy over our high altitude test loops. Steering is precise and, uniquely, user-adjustable on the fly. A steering wheel-mounted button toggles between three modes that change resistance: Normal, Sport (firmer) and Comfort (lighter). We found Sport to be the most appealing of the three, although there is no notable change in feel and control even as the resistance rises or decreases.
Underneath, the Santa Fe Sport's independent suspension took to Utah's smooth highways with aplomb, soaking up expansion joints and wavy surfaces with minimal drama. The torque vectoring on our all-wheel-drive tester delivered nimble, if not overly entertaining, handling.
In sweeping corners and zippy twisty roads alike, Santa Fe remained highly composed and confidence-inspiring, accolades that we haven't readily applied to its predecessors.
Leftlane's bottom line
Santa Fe Sport makes a serious case for itself with its class-leading fuel economy (which even bests many smaller crossovers), composed driving dynamics and classy look inside and out. With so few obvious demerits, Santa Fe Sport just might become the five-seat crossover segment's standard-bearer. Like the larger Azera, the Santa Fe shows that Hyundai's efforts at bringing its driving dynamics up to the same par as its styling and value are paying off.
And we have high hopes for the larger seven-seat Santa Fe, too, which very well might shake up the family hauler market.
2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
base price, $24,450.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.