2013 Hyundai Santa Fe First Drive

Coronado, California

From the moment it was launched in the 2001 model year, the Santa Fe has been one of Hyundai's best sellers. It has helped push the brand past its image as Filene's Basement on wheels offering near-luxury convenience features at sub-Toyota prices.

For 2013, the Santa Fe Sport replaced the two-row Santa Fe. David Zenlea's review of the Sport, which has been on sale since September, is here. The new full-flavor Santa Fe -- also a 2013 model and arriving at Hyundai dealers as we speak -- replaces the unmemorable Veracruz in the lineup. Hyundai hasn't decided whether to count the two Santa Fes as one in its sales charts. They share the same, clean exterior design, although with subtle changes to the lower front fascia and grille mesh. The Santa Fe's wheelbase is 3.8 inches longer than the Sport's, it's 8.5 inches longer overall, and it has a spare 38.6 cubic feet of interior space. With the slidable, reclining second row slid no more than halfway back, there's adequate third-row legroom, as well as headroom, for adults during relatively short trips.

In place of the Sport's four-cylinder and turbo four options is one engine, the venerable 290-hp, 3.3-liter V-6. It's enough for the sub-two-ton front-wheel-drive Santa Fe, although the heavier all-wheel-drive model strains a bit on steep hills. Hyundai claims a best-in-class 5000-pound towing capacity.

To have room for seven, order the standard GLS with its second-row bench seat. The fancier Limited, with perforated leather seats, has captain's chairs in the middle, cutting the body count to six.

"Tepid," as in the subheadline, might sound like damn faint praise, but in this category, it's not. Large mid-size CUVs essentially are tall mid-size station wagons. Their mission is not to fulfill Walter Mitty fantasies while you're on a family trip zigzagging some canyon road. Mitty will have to be satisfied with the Santa Fe's capacity for loading kayaks or mountain bikes on the roof. The new big-bodied Santa Fe is equal to the segment's status quo. It doesn't have the Mazda CX-9's impressive chassis balance, but it's better than the aged Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, and it's certainly better than the Ford Explorer.

To make the best of the Santa Fe, skip the nineteens and go for the base eighteen-inch wheels. High unsprung weight never does a big crossover any favors, and in this application they amplify the body motion and head toss that chassis engineers couldn't completely eliminate, but at least it rides far better than the Veracruz. The outside rear wheel seems prone to creating an extra little bit of rebound when coming out of a twisty road's dip. There's more road-impact harshness with the nineteens, too, with no payoff in handling -- the Santa Fe is appropriately cushy in the corners. The bigger tire option transmits more road noise, and Hyundai's choice of home-market Hankooks instead of pricier Michelins or Goodyears doesn't help.

Engineers have taken advantage of the electric power steering to add a three-level steering-effort button. Let's just say differences among "comfort," "normal," and "sport" are "subtle." The amount of steering feel, in any setting, is not bad for an EPS system, though, and you can feel enough road grain to indicate that it might give decent feedback on slippery roads, which we didn't encounter in SoCal.

Overall, the Santa Fe's cabin is about as quiet and comfortable as the best of the competition. The interior has a familiar, modern mix of textures and materials that look tightly screwed together, although some of the dashboard and door-panel plastics feel cheap by modern standards. The wood-grain dash applique, for instance, seems to have come from the 1970s.

The Santa Fe GLS's standard cloth seats are attractive and feel sturdy enough for long-term ownership. The perforated leather in the Limited isn't luxury car -- supple, but it also looks good. They're heated up front but not cooled, which isn't very Hyundai-like. One could see the Santa Fe Limited as a kind of upscale crossover complementing the Genesis sedan in Hyundai showrooms. The automaker decided not to offer, even optionally, the active cruise control system from the Equus.

Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik expects South Korean production capacity, not demand, to limit the number of Santa Fes the company sells. Hyundai is minimizing the number of high-end options available, so dealers won't be able to stock up on take-it-or-leave-it $45,000 units. Our pretty-much-loaded $38,730 Limited AWD tester's technology package added 8.0-inch touchscreen navigation, a panoramic sunroof, a 550-watt Infinity audio system, and a heated steering wheel. It's as if Hyundai is going out of its way to protect its customers. Don't be surprised to see more high-end options added when demand reaches its natural level after the first model year or two.

Hyundai has a reputation for trying to take care of its customers in a way that should make Lexus owners envious. Now the brand has a credible entry for those loyal customers who have grown big families.

On sale: Now
Price: $29,195/$30,945/$33,945/$35,695 (GLS FWD/GLS AWD/Limited FWD/Limited AWD)
Engine: 3.3L V-6, 290 hp, 252 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 18/25 mpg, 18/24 mpg city/highway (FWD, AWD)

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