Hyundai gets serious with its new three-row Santa Fe.

Life goes through various stages. Sociologists point to Pre-Family, Family and Post-Family stages that roughly parallel the car buying habits of today's consumers. A bunch of pabulum for the egghead set, for sure.

Regardless, with the addition of its latest Santa Fe, Hyundai has you covered. Sure, the Santa Fe has been around since 2000, but Hyundai's getting really serious now. Last year, the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport arrived. Today, it's time for the six or seven-passenger three-row Santa Fe, with its 8.5-inch longer and 3.9-inch wider body covering 38.6 more cubic feet of people and cargo space.

Replacing the slow-selling Veracruz, the Santa Fe is tasked with luring families into the Hyundai fold.

What'll you have?

Aside from its size and seat count, the Santa Fe differs from the Santa Fe Sport in its engine room: Buyers can have their Santa Fe motivated by any engine, as long as it's Hyundai's 3.3-liter gasoline direct-injection V6.

Shared with the Hyundai Azera, this familiar engine produces 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque. Codenamed Lambda II in Hyundai-speak, it has been refined with high-tech chromium nitrate deposition coatings to reduce internal friction and is complete with an electric oil pump to eliminate parasitic waste that comes with a mechanical connection to the engine.

By comparison, the Santa Fe Sport offers only four-cylinder motivation.

Power is sent to the front or, optionally, all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual-style shifting. The Dynamax-developed AWD system focuses 100 percent of the power to the front wheels during ideal driving situations but reverts to as much as a 50:50 split when sensors determine more traction is needed rearward. It is also responsible for rear-wheel torque vectoring to distribute power from side to side in hard cornering. Handling felt solid through twisty turns on the way to Julian, California, where we felt the system subtly pulling us back in when the feeling of extreme handling was reached.

Additional niceties include a driver-selectable steering mode that tightens up the steering feel via a push of a wheel-mounted button. For what Hyundai says is a 5 to 7 percent fuel savings, there's an Active Eco button that smoothes throttle response. Curiously, the Santa Fe is not offered with a blind spot warning system like most rivals.

Handling is achieved with the ubiquitous strut system up front and multilink kit in the rear of the vehicle. It is well suited for the intended market, but we would opt for a firmer feel if one were offered, either through a push-button control or via a specific handling package. Perhaps more important to most shoppers is the Santa Fe's class-leading turning radius.

The Santa Fe tips the scales at a relatively svelte 3,933 lbs., which gives it EPA fuel economy of 18/25 mpg for FWD and 18/24 mpg for AWD. Unlike the Santa Fe Sport, this big brother can tow up to 5,000 lbs.

Crisp looker

The looks of the Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport are similar from the nose to the b-pillar. Still, there are slight variations. The Santa Fe features a four-bar grille opening while the Sport opts for a three-bar set up. Further down the flanks, the larger Santa Fe has a more mature (grown up, as opposed to old) line following the window glass openings, rather than the upswept, uh, sporty look of the Sport. Regardless, both looks are attractive, just different.

Santa Fe is available in a well-equipped GLS trim level or as a range-topping Limited. Our tester featured a three-toned interior with leather, soft touch materials and titanium-colored plastic that showed a look of quality that we have become used to from the brand. First and second-row seats offer heating controls and outboard seat reclining functions. A fully functional steering wheel was complete with all the redundancies, while traction control, heated steering wheel and center differential lock buttons were located on the lower left dashboard.

An eight-inch display helped to control the navigation and Dimension-branded audio. The navigation did not offer 3D birds eye views, instead opting for standard 2D map graphics. While the seats in the middle row now add almost two inches and the third row has 31 inches of total legroom. Those opting for the Limited can order a pair of captain's chairs in place of the GLS' 40/20/40 bench seat.

Oddly, a rear-seat entertainment system isn't on the options list.

On the road

Hunkered down on its 18-inch wheels, the Santa Fe has a surprising dose of attitude. Even though the 3.3-liter V6 is among the smallest engines in this class, it offers plenty of usable power.

Despite the sporty look, the Santa Fe is a soft rider clearly not intended for aggressive driving. Throttle tip-in occupied the sweet spot between mild and aggressive, and Hyundai's engineers earned their keep once again by making the Santa Fe an extremely quiet ride - at least until the skinny pedal was squeezed.

Leftlane's bottom line

Continuing its string of hits, the Santa Fe should satisfy just about anyone looking for a three-row family hauler.

Stretching about 193 inches from head to toe, the Santa Fe is a bit more compact than most of its rivals like the Ford Explorer and Mazda CX-9, but its excellent interior space utilization should suit many buyers just fine.

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe base price range, $28,350 to $37,750.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.