Standing Out In A Segment Of Me-Too Crossovers

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe

This may sound strange, but bear with us – there is indeed a point to this little exercise. Okay, ready? We'd like you to close your eyes and imagine a crossover. Any modern crossover is fine.

Done? Good. Recall what you saw in your mind's eye. What did it look like? Did it have a somewhat aggressive shape – an upright greenhouse, pronounced wheel wells with some type of body cladding, a bold grille up front bracketed by large headlamps and hulking bodysides with a bit of visual flair provided by creases or rising shoulder lines? Did it sit jacked up a tad on oversized alloy wheels, distancing itself from any thoughts of mere station wagons? Yep, that was a crossover all right.

Point being, there isn't all that much to differentiate today's crop of car-based utility vehicles, at least when it comes to visuals and overall impressions, which means, to use a somewhat tired phrase, the devil is in the details. Clearly, what makes a family choose one over another has a lot to do with their individual wants and needs, and each automaker is building a vehicle (or two, or three) designed to appeal to these masses, but with ever-so-slightly differing formulas.

It was with all these thoughts swirling through our minds that we accepted an invitation to drive the new three-row 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe in San Diego, California for a full day of highways, twisty roads and ocean breezes. We were rewarded mostly with confirmation of our preconceived notions, but also with a few genuinely surprising details designed to attract the eyes and wallets of buyers all across North America.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe side view2013 Hyundai Sante Fe front view2013 Hyundai Sante Fe rear view

It looks a heck of a lot more stylish than the outgoing seven-passenger Veracruz.

A quick walkaround confirms that Hyundai hasn't strayed too far from the typical – and wildly successful – crossover formula. That said, this model's style sits in between the automaker's so-called Fluidic Sculpture and Fluidic Precision design language, and it looks awfully good on the Santa Fe. We are reminded that Hyundai North America CEO John Krafcik not too long ago told us to expect a bit more maturity from the automaker's swoopy themes, and we can see how it applies on this three-row 'ute. We can also see lots of carryover design highlights from the Santa Fe Sport, the five-passenger version of the family.

Up front, Hyundai added a fourth chrome bar in the grille (compared to the Sport's three) and altered the shape of the driving lights at the bottom of the fascia. The sides of the Santa Fe are heavily sculpted, as is Hyundai's recent tradition, with an upward swing in the shoulder lending a stylish look that does impede a bit on the airiness of the cockpit. Oh, and there is indeed the requisite body cladding at the bottom and over the wheel arches. There's not a whole lot to see at the rear, other than the standard dual exhaust tips and the power tailgate, with large light clusters stretching from the car's rear flanks across the liftgate.

It may go without saying, but we'll say it anyway: The Santa Fe sure looks a heck of a lot more stylish than the outgoing seven-passenger Veracruz, the model that this ostensibly replaces, albeit at a more affordable price point.

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It's a similar story inside, as the 2013 Santa Fe exudes a modern look and feel with plastic and rubber bits that seem to be of reasonably good quality. All the surfaces your body will touch are soft, though it's not very difficult to find harder bits where Hyundai doesn't think you'll notice. Plus, there are at least five different finishes inside, including various grades and shades of plastic, leather and wood, along with some pieces that sport a metallic sheen. While all of them are fine in and of themselves, together they are a bit much. All in all, though, the interior is a pleasant place to be, and it looks and feels more upscale than its pricing would otherwise indicate.

If you don't opt for the 8-inch display, you'll get a much smaller 4.3-inch one that looks out of place.

Hyundai has included a good amount of technology inside the Santa Fe as well, with BlueLink coming standard and a year's worth of complimentary service. BlueLink includes voice text messaging, point-of-interest search capability and turn-by-turn navigation, plus extras like restaurant ratings and weather information. Users will also get monthly updates on the status of their vehicles. For added convenience, the system can remotely lock or unlock the car, remotely start its engine and alert the owner if the car's alarm goes off.

An eight-inch multifunction display in the middle of the dash is optional. Hyundai boasts that this is the third generation of its user interface, and it includes voice activation. If you don't opt for the display, you'll get a much smaller 4.3-inch touchscreen unit that looks out of place considering that the dash is obviously designed for the larger unit. Sadly, you'll need to pony up $4,000 to get the Leather and Navigation Package on the GLS model or $2,900 for the Technology Package on the Limited to get the large screen. Not cool.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe interior
2013 Hyundai Sante Fe gauges2013 Hyundai Sante Fe instrument panel2013 Hyundai Sante Fe AUX and USB input

While on the subject of GLS versus Limited Santa Fe trim levels, the less-expensive GLS boasts standard seven-passenger capability. The Limited, on the other hand, comes with bucket seats in the second row, reducing total passenger capability to six and adding standard leather seating surfaces. It's not possible to get the bucket seats on the GLS or the second-row bench on the Limited. Hyundai is clearly playing the option sheet odds here, but again, not cool.

Compared to the Santa Fe Sport, the extended model picks up 1.9 inches of second-row legroom.

While we're not fans of being locked into six- or seven-passenger configurations based on the trim level we choose and its attendant cloth or leather seating surfaces, either way, the third row is a fairly pleasant place for passengers. Kudos to Hyundai for giving the far-back seaters their own control panel for heating and ventilation, going so far as to include a separate compressor for the third row. We also like the well-placed vents for the way-back passengers and the built-in cubbies and cupholders. Nicely done. Second-row passengers also make out with the Santa Fe – compared to the Santa Fe Sport, the extended model picks up 1.9 inches of second-row legroom.

Desirable features including heated front and rear seats and steering wheel are optional. If cloth is selected, Hyundai uses stain-resistant YES Essentials fabric standard. A 12-speaker surround-sound audio system from Infinity can be ordered on Limited models, while Bluetooth connectivity joins the expected AM/FM/CD/HD/SiriusXM/MP3 capabilities as standard equipment across the board.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe rear seats2013 Hyundai Sante Fe third row2013 Hyundai Sante Fe rear cargo area2013 Hyundai Sante Fe rear cargo area

Not only is it lighter than its peers, it's also 333 pounds lighter than the old seven-passenger Veracruz.

Assuming you've got a full load of passengers and their assorted... stuff, you'll appreciate the standard 3.3-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. This unit is impressive, offering up 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque. Compared to its rivals, those are very good figures. For instance, the 3.5-liter V6 in the Toyota Highlander offers up 270 hp and 248 lb-ft, the Nissan Pathfinder features a 3.5L with 260 horses and 240 lb-ft, and the Honda Pilot's 3.5-liter engine is rated at 250 hp and 253 lb-ft. Note that the Hyundai makes more power with less displacement, in no small part due to its direct injection gasoline delivery.

Even better, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe weighs 3,933 pounds. That means each of the engine's horses is hauling 13.6 pounds. For comparison, the Highlander's 4,045 pounds put 15 on each of its horsepower, the Pilot is saddled with 17.2 pounds per horsepower due to its heavy 4,306-pound weight and the Pathfinder's V6 moves 16 of its 4,149 pounds with each horse underhood. Less weight and more power, folks, is the best of both worlds.

Kudos to Hyundai for the Santa Fe's impressive weight loss. To wit, not only is the new CUV lighter than its direct peers, it's also a whopping 333 pounds lighter than the old seven-passenger Veracruz. The diet is due mostly to the increased use of high-strength steel, which also improves rigidity.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe

We should note that the V6 engine is the only unit offered at launch, though Hyundai hints that it wouldn't be a problem to outfit the Santa Fe with its excellent turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 264 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. That engine can be found under the hood of the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport, and it moves that crossover with authority. We think it'd work just fine with the added mass of the larger seven-passenger model, too.

The Santa Fe can tow 5,000 pounds, which equals or betters all of its main unibody rivals.

Fuel mileage is competitive for its segment, with the 2013 Santa Fe earning EPA-estimated ratings of 18 city, 25 highway and 21 combined. The Nissan Pathfinder is the only vehicle with appreciatively better efficiency, with ratings of 20/26 and 22 combined, likely due in large part to its use of a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), for better or for worse. Hyundai also offers a button to put the Santa Fe in Eco Mode, which it says will improve fuel efficiency by around five percent, but also feels like it reduces power output by at least twice that.

Hyundai also points out that the Santa Fe can tow 5,000 pounds, which equals or betters all of its main unibody rivals. This is an important factor for many buyers, and it could bring new customers to the Hyundai brand – the previous Santa Fe and Veracruz models offered max ratings of 3,500 pounds.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe shifter

All-wheel drive is also optional on the Santa Fe in either GLS or Limited trim levels. As with the Santa Fe Sport, the system is outfitted with Active Cornering Control, torque vectoring and active braking. Torque can be routed to whichever wheel has the most traction, and each wheel can also be independently braked. All of these technologies are meant to keep the Santa Fe under control no matter what surface you're driving on. While we weren't able to drive the Santa Fe in any real situations where all-wheel-drive traction would be beneficial, or even back-to-back with front-wheel-drive models, our past flings with the Santa Fe Sport and 2013 Kia Sorento, which uses a similar system, lead us to believe the high-tech system will work as Hyundai claims.

We can't imagine any buyers will be disappointed by this crossover's strong acceleration.

What we were able to verify, and rather frequently at that, was the prowess of Hyundai's direct-injected 3.3-liter V6 engine. As its spec sheet implies, those 290 horses move the Santa Fe along very smartly. We can't imagine any buyers will be disappointed by this crossover's strong acceleration, and Hyundai's six-speed automatic shifts gears with nary a hitch. We tested the manual mode, which is engaged by slapping the gearshift horizontally, and... well, it works – gears can be manually held for those few occasions where such things are desirable, like when descending down long slopes. The vast majority of the time, though, leaving the shifter in D works just fine.

Similarly, handling is likely to please the Santa Fe's intended customer base. The crossover rides well, with a firm feel that turns compliant enough to absorb large impacts from its MacPherson struts up front and a compact multi-link independent setup at the rear. Depending on trim, the crossover wears alloy wheels measuring either 18 or 19 inches in diameter, and we didn't notice any real difference in ride comfort or handling prowess between the two.

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The seven-passenger Santa Fe drives pretty much the same as the five-passenger Santa Fe, and that's a good thing.

Hyundai has included its Driver-Selectable Steering Modes technology with the latest Santa Fe. Using a button on the steering wheel, the driver can choose between Comfort, Normal and Sport modes. As alluded to in our First Drive of the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport, Sport mode is mostly superfluous in this application, as it doesn't improve steering feel over Normal mode. Instead, the steering just feels artificially stiffened, as if the gears were now rotating through thicker oil. In any case, you shouldn't expect much feedback from the wheel, so our advice is to forget the switch altogether and leave the steering in Normal.

What we most appreciated about the 2013 Santa Fe is that it didn't seem to suffer from its enhanced capacity compared to its smaller sibling. Despite its four-inch increase in wheelbase and 8.5-inch rear overhang extension, the seven-passenger Santa Fe drives pretty much the same as the five-passenger Santa Fe. And that's a good thing.

The one place where you'll see and feel the difference between the Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Sport is in your wallet. While the five-passenger model starts at $24,450 (albeit with a four-cylinder engine), the upsized seven-passenger Santa Fe starts at $28,350 in GLS trim and $33,100 in six-passenger Limited trim. All-wheel drive adds $1,750 to the bottom line on either trim, and don't forget to tack on $845 for delivery.

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe

Whether or not the extra expenditure for the Santa Fe versus the Santa Fe Sport is worth it will come down to the buyer's needs, both real and perceived. As Krafcik himself pointed out to us before our drive, many purchase decisions in this segment are influenced by trips that the buyer may plan on taking just once or twice a year. How useful that extra cargo capacity and third row of seats is the other 50 weeks of the year may or may not even matter, but when it does, we're sure buyers will be happy to have it available. The same can likely be said for all-wheel drive – those living in areas pummeled each year by heavy snow and those who live at the end of a mile-long driveway of dirt, mud and stone will be happy to pay for the extra traction, while the rest of us can save some cash and miles per gallon by accepting the standard front-wheel-drive configuration.

Those of you who fit into the so-called "active lifestyle" bucket so coveted by every automaker should know that Hyundai has got a pretty appealing crossover for you to consider. While many in the industry wonder why the minivan is losing sales momentum year after year – not to mention the time-honored station wagon – consumers have spoken loud and clear with their hard-earned dollars: Crossovers are here to stay. And now, we're happy to report that there's another legitimate contender for those dollars in this ever-important segment of the automotive market.