Those guys – the Hyundai guys – know what they’re doing. One brilliant design after the next. It’s almost boring – like watching the ’70s-era Steelers win another game.
But hey, better that – and cars like the new Sante Fe – than cars like the Aztek and Volt.
WHAT IT IS
The Sante Fe is Hyundai’s entrant in the compact and mid-sized crossover wars. Unlike the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Chevy Equinox – unlike all the others – the Sante Fe comes two ways:
It’s available in compact-sized Sport trim – with two rows of seats and room for five and an available high-performance turbocharged four cylinder engine. Or, you can buy a larger wheelbase GLS/Limited – with three rows and seating for seven and a standard 290 hp V-6 under the hood.
It’s thus got two bases covered instead of just the one – something none of the others can brag about.
Prices start at $24,700 for the base five passenger, FWD Sport with 2.4 liter (non turbo) engine. You can upgrade to the turbo 2.0 engine – which boosts the MSRP to $27,950.
The seven passenger GLS with V-6 starts at $28,350 and tops out at $33,100 for the Limited with all-wheel-drive.
Main cross-shops are models like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but probably the closest-in-kind is the just redesigned Ford Escape. It does not offer seven passenger seating, but it does offer a turbo four that’s comparably powerful – and even more fuel efficient (up to 33 MPG on the highway vs. the turbo Hyundai’s 27 MPG best-case).
The Sante Fe is all new for 2013. The new model not only replaces the old SF, it also replaces the Veracruz – which Hyundai no longer sells. Rather than have two separate models – one smaller, one larger – Hyundai now has one model that’s available in smaller – and larger – sizes.
Pick your size – and your engines.
Peppy – or practical. And both at the same time.
Much more available engine than 185 hp-only CR-V and 176 hp only RAV4.
Available turbo 2.0 engine (264 hp) delivers almost the same (very good) gas mileage as weak-sister competitor engines.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
All Sante Fes are automatic-only, including turbo 2.0 Sport model.
Not as fuel efficient as Ford Escape, which also offers a high-performance turbo four.
Priced about $2,230 more to start than the new Ford Escape ($22,470), $1,900 higher than CR-V ( $22,795) and $1,400 more than RAV4.
Many automakers are paring down their engine lineups. For example, the Toyota RAV4 no longer offers anything but a small four (it used to offer an optional V-6). And of course, the Honda CR-V is still four-cylinder-only.
The Sante Fe, in contrast, offers three engines. Standard in the regular wheelbase/five passenger Sport is a a 2.4 liter non-turbo four that produces 190 hp – already, more power than the CR-V’s take-it-or-leave it 185 hp 2.4 liter engine and the RAV4’s that’s-all-there-is 176 hp 2.5 liter engine. It’s also more than you get in the base trim Ford Escape, which comes with a 168 hp 2.5 liter engine.
Next up is a turbo 2.0 four – and it makes 264 hp. This completely outclasses the CRV and RAV4 – and also beats the Escape with its standard engine and its next-up and its top-of-the-line engines, a 178 hp turbo 1.6 and a 240 hp turbo 2.0 respectively.
But wait, there’s more.
The long wheelbase/seven-passenger Sante Fe comes standard with a 290 hp 3.3 liter V-6.
Now, you can get a comparably powerful V-6 in something like the Chevy Equinox – which is available with a 301 hp, 3.6 liter V-6. But the Equinox – which is larger than the regular wheelbase Sport Sante Fe but not quite as large as the long-wheelbase Sante Fe – does not offer seven passenger seating. To get that, you’ve got to up-size to something like a Traverse (or a Mazda CX-9).
See what I mean about Hyundai having all the bases covered?
Fuel economy with both fours is very good:
The base 2.4 (non-turbo) engine rates 21 city, 29 highway and 20 city, 26 highway if you buy the optional AWD set-up. This compares favorably with the less powerful CR-V (23 city, 31 highway w/FWD; 22 city, 30 with AWD) and the RAV4 (24 city, 31 highway with FWD; 22 city, 29 highway with AWD) and the base-engined (2.5 liter) Escape (22 city, 31 highway w/FWD – which is the only way this engine is offered).
What compares even more favorably, though, is the Sante Fe’s optional (in regular wheelbase versions) 2.0 turbo engine. Despite the 74 hp uptick, gas mileage with this engine is almost the same: 20 city, 27 highway with FWD. The AWD version droops to 19 city, 24 highway – but that’s still solid given the power – and the performance.
The turbo Sante Fe can scoot to 60 in about 7.9 seconds (FWD; AWD versions take a tenth or two longer). Stack that up against the CRV and RAV4, both of which take well over nine seconds to reach the same speed. Ditto the four-cylinder-powered Equinox, which is even slower (9.3 seconds). The V-6 Equinox is speedier: 0-60 in about 8.7 seconds (FWD) but it’s also thirstier: 17 city, 24 highway with FWD – and 16 city, 23 highway with AWD.
Only one same-sized competitor runs quicker and gets better gas mileage – the 2.0 turbo’d “Ecoboost” version of the 2013 Ford Ecape. It can hustle to 60 in the mid-high sixxes and delivers 22 city, 30 highway (FWD versions) as the icing on the cake.
But, you can’t have that great performance – and economy – and seven seats, too. Because like all the others in this class, there’s no third row, chico.
I test-drove a Sport model with the 2.0 turbo engine – which is (slight tuning differences aside) the same excellent engine found in other current Hyundais like the Sonata (and its corporate cousin, the Kia Optima) where it makes an advertised 274 hp vs. 264 in the SF.
But the key number is torque – 269 lbs.-ft., peaking at 1,750 RPM. This is almost 100 lbs.-ft more torque than the four-cylinder (non-turbo) RAV4 and more than 100 lbs.-ft stronger than the CRV. Plus, both the Toyota’s and the Honda’s torque peaks don’t arrive until 4,100 and 4,400 RPM (respectively).
Blessed be the turbo.
The only area where I’d say Hyundai hit a triple instead of a home-run is transmission-wise. There is nothing objectionable about the standard – and only – six-speed automatic that comes with every SF engine. It shifts smartly and quietly, working well with the turbo engine’s strong bottom end torque and its high-RPM horsepower. It doesn’t shift too soon – or too late. I hardly used the driver-selectable manual gear change mode because there’s no real point. The transmission didn’t need any help from me. It knew when to drop down a gear – and when to hold a gear. I never felt the need to over-ride its decisions.
However… it’s still an automatic. And no matter how perfectly timed it shifts, how quiet it is – or how fuel efficient – it is not as much fun as working a clutch and rowing through the gates. If you prefer to row your own, you’ve got two possible choices: The VW Tiguan and the Subaru Forester. The Tiguan’s appealing because it comes standard with a 2.0 turbo engine (200 hp) and a six-speed manual. The Soobie is less so because its standard engine is not turbo’d (and makes only 170 hp) and the manual is only a five-speed manual. A stronger 2.5 turbo engine is available but – egads – it is teamed with not merely a mandatory automatic, but a mandatory four-speed automatic. Holy 1986!
And of course, neither the Tiggy nor the Soobie offer more than seats for five.
Speaking of which: I haven’t yet test-driven the seven passenger SF, so I can’t say whether its longer wheelbase (110.2 inches vs. the Sport’s 106.3 inch wheelbase) or its beefier curb weight (3,964 lbs. vs. 3,459 lbs.) mucks up the handling. I can tell you the short-wheelbase (and lighter weight) Sport handles crisply for what it is – and relative to other CUVs I’ve driven recently. It goes where it’s pointed and it doesn’t lurch or heave or bounce excessively. It reacts like a typical sporty-ish FWD/AWD car that rides a bit higher off the ground.
The wild card here is the new Escape, which I haven’t gotten my hands on yet. I definitely recommend checking that one out before you commit to anything.
For years now, you could buy extended wheelbase versions of several sedans – and SUVs. This made it feasible for people who liked a given model but had to have a bit more passenger or cargo space to stay with that model. It’s amazing it took this long for someone to extend the same idea to CUVs – which up to now presented you with the proverbial take it or leave it choice: You want seven seats? Sorry, this model is a five-seater only. Let me show you . . . cue sales pitch for that manufacturer’s next-biggest (and usually, much more expensive) model.
With the Sante Fe, you can upgrade to seven-passenger status for $3,650 – the difference in price between the base five-passenger Sport ($24,700) and the base seven passenger GLS ($28,350). Not only this a way to way to save a chunk of change on a three-row CUV (for some perspective, a three-row ride like the Chevy Traverse starts at $30,510; the Mazda CX-9 at $29,785 and the Ford Flex at $30,900) you can still buy the SF – not a different – and physically much bigger – vehicle.
The seven-passenger SF isn’t quite as big as models like the Traverse, CX-9 and Flex. It’s 193.1 inches long overall and rides on a 110.2 inch wheelbase – vs. over 200 inches long for these others, all of which also have several inches more wheelbase (118.9 for the Traverse, 117.9 for the Flex, 113.2 for the CX-9).
But – and here’s a surprise – it turns out the physically smaller on the outside SF actually has more second row legroom (41.3 inches) than the much larger Traverse (36.8 inches) and the CX-9 (39.8) and its cargo capacity (80 cubes) is only slightly less than the Ford Flex ‘s (83 cubes).
Now, the Flex has really generous second row legroom (44.3 inches) and the Traverse and CX-9 much more cargo space (116.3 cubes and 100.7 cubes, respectively) but the SF splits the difference pretty nicely and may be just roomy enough – without being too big – for your needs and wants.
And for those who don’t need that third row, there’s the regular wheelbase SF. The second row’s a little tighter (39.4 inches) and there’s a bit less cargo capacity (71.5 cubes) but these stats still stack up well when compared with the stats of other two-row-only, compact CUVs. In fact, the two-row SF has considerably more second row spreadin’ out space than its most direct rival, the new Ford Escape – which has just 36.8 inches of second row legroom. That’s 2.6 inches of difference – which is a big difference. The SF also outclasses the CR-V (38.3 inches) and the RAV4 (37.2 inches) and absolutely mauls the VW Tiguan – which has a crumple-you-up 35.8 inches of second row legroom. That’s 3.6 inches of difference – a huge difference. Ditto the cargo capacity count. The tiny Tiggy has only 56.1 cubes of cargo space.
Of course, utilitarian considerations aren’t most people’s only consideration. Style – and features – matter, too.
On style, I’m reminded of the refrain from that little ditty that plays during the opening credits of the HBO TV series, Weeds:
Which, they pretty much do. It is getting really hard to tell one brand’s CUV from another brand’s CUV. None are ugly or anything like that. Just . . . derivative. I’d be willing to bet that the up-canted rear quarter glass from a new RAV4 would fit a new Escape, which would fit a CR-V . . . which would fit the new SF.
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – but not all that much. A coalescing sameness is spreading across the land. You have to look really hard to discern aesthetic differences – and identify one brand vs. another brand. Thank the motor gods for those helpful badges they glue to the tailgate, eh?
Overall, the meme is more sportwagony than SUV-ish, if that makes any sense. The SF and its rivals are less box-on-box-like, with swept-back rooflines and asses raised high in the air, a visual trick to make them look like they’re about to pounce. (We did the same thing to muscle cars back in the ’70s with a set of Gabriel Hi-Jacker air shocks.)
But I have no real objection – other than the distorted (and limited) view to the rear – a consequence of the “fast” roofline and truncated (and also steeply slanted) back glass. The SF has this issue; they all have this issue.
Inside, it’s modern and slick-looking (as is the case with Escape and the others, too). But there are some individualized coolnesses, such as the available rear seat heaters – and the beautiful panorama glass roof. I also like the side bolsters on either side of the center console – with a semi-hidden storage cubby in between. That’s not a new concept (Volvo had it first, several years ago) but it’s new enough that it’s still kind of neat.
Also, you can replace the second row bench with a set of captain’s chairs in the Limited. A heated steering wheel is available, too – and on all trims, including the base Sport (typically, you’re forced to buy a more expensive higher trim to get features like that).
Really, what’s not to like? If you are in the market for a versatile CUV that’s also a sporty CUV that’s also a pretty reasonably priced CUV, the SF will very likely meet the must-haves on your list – along with the I-likes.
The only thing I didn’t like about it is more a matter of wishing it offered the one thing it doesn’t – a manual transmission to go with that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 2.0 turbo engine. I know, I know. Hyundai – like most everyone else – is moving away from manuals because most buyers prefer automatics (and also because automatics are now so efficient, they confer a gas mileage advantage relative to a manual – which is a huge big deal in this era of ever-upticking federal fuel economy mandates).
Still, it would be nice to find a clutch down there. The SF is not a CR-V or a RAV. That is, it’s more than merely an appliance. It wants to have fun. Hell, it is fun.
But it would be more fun with a six-speed stick.
That’s all I’ve got.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hyundai’s riding a wave – and there’s no telling when it will crest.
Throw it in the Woods?