First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

Park City, Utah -- Hyundai marches to the beat of a different drummer -- or, at least, a different marketer. Beyond its unusually long ten-year powertrain warranty and its slightly offbeat entries like the Veloster and Elantra GT, the Korean company seems to have its own ideas when it comes to naming conventions: we're still not sure why a $25,000 sports car shares a Genesis badge with a $35,000 luxury sedan. Now Hyundai is looking to shake up the crossover markets with the redesigned Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe was already something of a 'tweener, bigger than most compact crossovers but smaller and cheaper than mid-size offerings. The new model not only doubles down on that distinctive positioning with a more powerful base engine and a higher price, but it also adds a second, larger wheelbase variant that takes on three-row competitors. That variant's name? Santa Fe.

Indeed, the standalone Santa Fe badge now refers to a longer wheelbase, seven-seat replacement for the outgoing Veracruz that will debut late this year or early next year offering a 294-hp, 3.3-liter V-6. The model we're here to drive, the five-seat version -- that is, the "real" Santa Fe -- gains a "Sport" designation. It comes with a choice of the 190-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder or the 264-hp 2.0-liter turbo found in the Hyundai Sonata. The name consolidation is intended to reduce confusion and leverage the better known of Hyundai's crossover nameplates.

"Santa Fe is such a strong brand, and, frankly, there are too many model names in the universe," said Hyundai America CEO John Krafcik.

We can't help but suspect the new strategy will lead to more confusion, especially since the "Sport" designation for the five-seat model does not denote any sort of performance package.


Styling: Lose the braces

The two Santa Fes (Santas Fe?) look nearly identical from the B-pillar forward with the exception of slightly different -- and equally odd -- chrome grille treatments. Braces faces aside, the crossovers are attractive if somewhat unassuming efforts. The Santa Fe Sport bears a subtle resemblance to the Veloster in its upswept rear quarter window and mildly chopped roof. The Santa Fe, which we'll heretofore refer to as "the seven-seat model, " has a more traditional C-pillar.

Mid-size roominess, compact efficiency, and a premium interior

As noted, the Santa Fe Sport costs more than the old version, with a base price of $25,275. That's some $2000 to $5000 more than most compact crossovers (including Hyundai's own Tucson) but still saves you roughly the same amount of dough compared with midsize offerings like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Edge. Hyundai has not yet announced pricing for the seven-seat model, but it's safe to assume it won't much exceed the Veracruz's $29,170 base price.

The Sport's 71.5 cubic feet of cargo room, which surpasses compact entries like the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V, begins to justify the higher price. And yet some of the new car's biggest advantages owe to the voodoo engineering we've come to expect of Hyundai. For instance, even though the Sport has more base power than any compact crossover, it also beats most of its smaller competitors in fuel economy, with a rating of 22 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway in front-wheel-drive form.

And then there's the interior, which is much richer than that of most compacts but also compares well against all but the very nicest mid-size models. We should note that the variant Hyundai proffered for our drive was an all-wheel-drive Sport with the 2.0-liter turbo and a $35,935 window sticker. Keeping in mind that this is the most expensive and impressive iteration, it did feel, well, expensive and impressive. Every surface appears soft to the touch and almost all of them actually are. The rear bench folds in three segments rather than two for extra versatility. On premium models, those seats also slide, tilt, and are heated. Optional saddle brown leather adds a warm touch to what is already a convincingly premium interior. The optional touch-screen navigation system functions much like that in other Hyundais, which is to say very well and very intuitively.

Living up to the Sport badge

Krafcik offered a disclaimer before we set off through the mountain roads around Park City, Utah: "Don't worry about the Sport moniker, it's just a trim level." That's true, but the five-passenger Santa Fe is no couch potato, either. The 264-hp 2.0-liter we already know and like from the Sonata becomes even more likable when it's sending power to all four wheels. It has no trouble hauling us up to a dizzying 8347-feet above sea level, a credit both to the inherent ability of turbochargers to perform in thin atmosphere and to another Hyundai hallmark: low weight. The Sport weighs some 350 pounds less than the V-6 powered, all-wheel-drive version of the last Santa Fe, affording it one of the best power-to-weight ratios in the segment. (The seven-seat model shed even more weight compared to the old Veracruz -- nearly 400 pounds -- despite growing slightly longer.) Only an occasional harsh double downshift from the six-speed automatic betrayed any signs of strain.

The Sport's all-wheel-drive system incorporates brake-based torque vectoring to individually slow an inside wheel during cornering, and while that doesn't transform the soft-riding crossover into a BMW X6, it does keep understeer in check. Less successful are the multiple steering modes: comfort, normal, and sport. Though the sport setting noticeably increases steering effort, that effort remains unnervingly artificial, especially off-center. As our speed builds on our mountain descent, we find ourselves wishing we could trade the Hyundai's power for the steering feel and nimbleness of our favorite compact crossover, the Mazda CX-5.


Conclusion: At the head of a class of one

Of course, most people who buy crossovers simply want a high-riding, versatile vehicle that's easy to drive, comfortable, and relatively efficient. The Santa Fe Sport checks all those boxes with the authority of a mid-size crossover even though its fuel economy whips that of many compact competitors. That combination should guarantee Hyundai dealers yet another vehicle with many customers, even if those customers don't know quite what to call it.

Specs

Base price: $25,275; $27,700 (Sport; Sport 2.0T)
On sale: Now
Engine: 2.4-liter I-4, 190 hp, 181 lb-ft; 2.0-liter turbo I-4, 264 hp, 269 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 20-22/27-33 mpg, city/highway

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