The Hyundai Santa Fe mid-size crossover utility is all-new for 2013, built on a new lighter-weight, higher-strength platform. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe comes in two handy family sizes.
The two-row, five-passenger 2013 Santa Fe Sport, about the same size as the outgoing 2012 Santa Fe, competes in the fast-growing field of domestic and import compact crossovers that includes the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, and Nissan Murano.
The larger, three-row, six- or seven-passenger 2013 Santa Fe is 8.5 inches longer on a 3.9-inch-longer wheelbase to take on the Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Mazda CX-9.
The compact Santa Fe Sport fits neatly between Hyundai's smaller Tucson and the larger Veracruz. The long-wheelbase (LWB) Santa Fe will replace the Veracruz. Santa Fe (and Tucson) are crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, meaning they are car-based sport utilities, essentially tall wagons, which offer more car-like driving dynamics and fuel efficiency than truck-based SUVs.
Two engine choices are available in the Santa Fe Sport: a 190-hp 2.4-liter non-turbo inline-4 and a 264-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. The LWB Santa Fe comes with a 290-hp 3.3-liter V6. All three engines benefit from high-pressure gasoline direct injection (GDI) and drive through 6-speed automatic transmissions with SHIFTRONIC manual capability, and all models offer available Active Cornering Control (ACC) all-wheel drive.
EPA fuel economy ratings range from 22 City, 33 Highway, 26 Combined for the base front-wheel-drive four-cylinder Santa Fe Sport to 19/26/22 mpg for the LWB FWD Santa Fe with its V6.
Hyundai's ACC all-wheel drive continuously monitors driving conditions and enhances stability by managing brake and engine torque and vectoring one or the other toward or away from individual wheels to balance side-to-side and front-to rear traction. The result is improved cornering stability, reduced understeer (loss of front-wheel traction) or oversteer (loss of rear-wheel traction) to help the driver maintain control in tricky conditions. Standard Hillstart Assist Control (HAC) minimizes roll-back on steep uphills, while Downhill Brake Control (DBC) manages speed and enhances control on steep descents.
To our eyes, this new Santa Fe is a handsome piece that's more distinctive than most of its compact CUV competitors. Its styling follows Hyundai's recent fluidic sculpture design direction, though slightly toned down from the level of boldness that has helped lift the company's Sonata to a major player in the super-competitive mid-size sedan segment.
The 2013 Santa Fe's new interior is modern and stylish, with an obvious focus on soft-touch materials and thoughtfully arranged, well-marked controls. The base Santa Fe Sport offers YES Essentials stain-resistant cloth seats, a trip computer, Hyundai Blue Link (similar to GM's OnStar) safety and convenience connectivity and a 40/20/40 split folding second-row seat to accommodate skis, golf clubs or surfboards along with one or two rear passengers. The Sport 2.0T and Santa Fe add more equipment, and a plethora of comfort, convenience and communications features, some exclusive, are available.
The longer Santa Fe boasts 1.9 inches more second-row legroom and 5.6 cubic feet more total cargo capacity than the shorter Sport does. Santa Fe comes with second-row climate controls and vents and a 50/50 split folding third seat with 31.5 inches of legroom. The second row is the 40/20/40 split folding bench in the GLS trim, twin Captain's chairs in the Limited.
The new, lighter structure is built with 37.7 percent high-strength steel, part of the reason the base Sport model is some 266 pounds lighter than the outgoing 2012 Santa Fe and the LWB Santa Fe nearly 400 pounds lighter than the Veracruz it will replace. This also makes it stiffer, which enhances both ride and handling for driving enjoyment, and better manages crash energy should something bad happen. The suspension is lightweight MacPherson struts in front, independent multi-link in back, with stabilizer bars at both ends.
We found our test Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T fully competitive and pleasant to drive. Its performance was impressive when needed, its ride was smooth and controlled over most surfaces, its braking was strong and stable, and its handling was at least as good as most competitors in its class. Aside from a few minor niggles, our only disappointment was averaging 21-22 mpg in mostly freeway driving, well short of its 27-mpg highway government rating.
Hyundai further defines the Santa Fe's Fluidic Sculpture design language as Storm Edge because it seeks to capture the types of strong, dynamic, constant-motion shapes created by nature during a storm. We see it as handsome, dynamic and more distinctive than most other entries in its class.
Its three-bar hexagonal grille and wraparound headlamps (with LED accents) lead to a rising beltline and that sweeps upward to a stylishly narrow third window and a standard rear roof spoiler. The rockers bulge between bold, round wheel arches, while a sculpted character line runs through the front chrome door handles, then hops over the rear handles to frame the upper surface of the taillamps, which wrap well into the rear liftgate.
Distinguishing the three-row LWB Santa Fe from its two-row Sport stablemates are a four-bar grille and different lower front valence/park lamp treatments in front and different taillamps and dual exhausts (vs. twin passenger-side tips on the turbocharged Sport 2.0T or a single outlet on the base model). Most important, the three-row Santa Fe's side character line is flatter, and its side glass extends to incorporate a larger third window, which emphasizes its additional length and passenger capacity.
The 2013 Santa Fe plays a digital tune when you boot it up, and again when you shut it down. That may be charming at first but could get annoying over time. The proximity key lets you walk up and push the the front door handle's touch button to unlock the door, then get in and start the engine while keeping the fob in your purse or pocket, and the push-to-start button has On, Off and Acc lights to let you know its status. But we found the engine temperature, gear selection, fuel gauge and outside temperature read-outs too dim to read easily through sunglasses in bright sunlight.
We found the front bucket seats comfortable and easy to adjust, but rear-quarter visibility from the driver's seat was hampered by the narrow rear side windows.
The sliding second-row seats fold down easily, but not quite flat. The outside ones flop forward using either levers on their sides or pull handles in the cargo area, while the central section that doubles as an armrest has a release on its upper back surface. Slid fully back, they provide adequate leg- and knee-room for a six-footer to sit comfortably behind another; slid fully forward, they maximize cargo room.
In general, the new cabin is warm, modern and inviting, with lots of soft-touch materials in our leather-lined Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T test vehicle. The panoramic sunroof is huge, and there's sectioned hidden storage under the load floor.
We loved the fact that virtually all buttons and controls are easy to see, read and reach, with good-size white letters and graphics. The three-spoke steering wheel has large, well-marked audio and cruise controls on its horizontal spokes, and phone, voice-command and trip-computer buttons along both lower edges of its V-shaped center hub. On the dash to the left of the wheel are controls for instrument lighting, Hillstart Assist, Active ECO mode, heated steering wheel and the AWD center differential lock. In the vertical stack to the right are the thoughtfully designed and conveniently arranged audio, navigation and climate controls.
The two primary instruments are a large, round tachometer (left) and speedometer (right) flanking the central information/trip computer screen. Inside the tach is a coolant temperature dial and a gear selection indicator, while the speedo houses matching readouts for fuel and outside temperature. The trip computer conveniently displays average and instantaneous fuel economy and range at the same time, and can toggle through other information on demand.
Both sun visors (with vanity mirrors) swing and extend for side sun protection, and there's a sunglasses holder in the overhead between them. A nice touch is convenient placement of two (of the four) 12V outlets flanking USB and Aux ports above a bin under the vertical console. The large, deep console storage box has a small-item tray under its cover, the driver's side console cup holder can accommodate a typical ceramic cup with handle, and the commodious door storage bins can securely hold large cups or water bottles.
Audio volume is controlled by a large central knob, while an even larger one in the climate cluster below it handles fan speed. We appreciated the radio's scan function, too often missing in some modern cars, but there's no knob for station fine tuning, which means that weaker stations are missed while the system electronically seeks and finds the stronger ones. One constant annoyance for iPod users is that the Shuffle function must be reset (a two-step process) every time you re-start the car or change functions or playlists. Most modern systems remember and return to Shuffle (aka Random), as they do the previously set volume and song, but not Hyundai's.
On the positive side, continuing the theme of the surrounding hard buttons, the big audio/navigation touchscreen displays large, easy-to-read and -activate touch pads. The navigation system's function and graphics are outstanding, offering realistic representations of route-related intersections and interchanges. We tried using voice commands to select destinations with mixed results.
We drove front-wheel-drive base and turbocharged Santa Fe Sport models on city streets and curvy country roads during a press event, then borrowed a 2.0T AWD example for a few days at home. The base 2.4-liter engine's performance seemed more than adequate on flat roads with light loads, but we recommend the available 2.0T turbocharged four for family excursions, especially in hilly country. Wide-open-throttle zero-to-60-mph acceleration with the former takes roughly nine seconds, while the turbo four is about two seconds quicker.
We found our test Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T pleasant to drive in nearly every way. Its on-demand performance was ample, its ride quiet, smooth and controlled over most surfaces, its braking strong, stable and fade-free and its handling short of nimble but as good as most competitors in its class.
The steering mode settings, selectable via a steering-wheel button, adds 10 percent effort (vs. Normal) in Sport mode (our choice) and subtracts 10 percent in Comfort mode for low-speed maneuvering. And the AWD's Active Corner Control, while transparent to the driver, seemed effective in keeping all four tires firmly planted even when driving aggressively.
Our only disappointment was averaging 21-22 mpg in mostly freeway driving, in line with its 22-mpg EPA combined rating but well short of its 27-mpg highway number.
We have not yet driven the V6-powered, three-row LWB Santa Fe that is scheduled to arrive in early 2013, but we expect it to be as comfortable and quiet but less eager, agile and fuel efficient due to its added size and weight.
Hyundai has made great strides in styling, quality and overall pleasability of its cars in recent years, especially the mid-size Sonata (which shares the Santa Fe's platform) and compact Azera, and these two new entries in the highly-competitive compact/mid-size CUV segment will stand proudly alongside them. They are major improvements over the outgoing 2012 Santa Fe and Veracruz, fully competitive and worthy of consideration.
Veteran automotive journalist Gary Witzenburg filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Santa Fe Sport near Detroit.