The last place I expect to find myself piloting the latest Hyundai crossover is at over 8,000 feet above sea level. Expectations seem to be something that this automaker enjoys breaking, however, because here I am and here’s the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. This is the third generation of a vehicle that hit the market in the year 2000 as a 2001 model. Back then, the Santa Fe hit upon a market that was eager to test the crossover waters, and that first-generation machine proved to be a sales success for the company. Now though, we’re staring at a segment filled with options from pretty much every single automaker.
Hyundai believes it invented the crossover here in the States. That’s not exactly the case, as I’m quite confident that most of you remember the name AMC Eagle. Produced from 1979 through 1987, the Eagle made headway into the uncharted waters of automotive mash-ups that involved SUV-like space with car-like handling. Though the Santa Fe wasn’t the first crossover, it was one of the first sales hits for Hyundai. Now, it’s all-new for 2013 and swimming in waters that are both charted and filled with competition.
Let me get something straight right here; I hate crossovers.
Well, I should clarify that because it’s more correct to say I used to hate crossovers. I’d rather tell people to buy actual wagons if they desire car-like handling and increased cargo space over a sedan. The problem for me is that crossovers have been on a steady quality incline for some time now. My personal crossover revelation happened while behind the wheel of a 2010 Audi Q5. Sure, that four-ringed German fat wagon might have a leg up on the Hyundai in the luxury department but… then again, maybe it doesn’t.
Inside, the 2013 Santa Fe Sport is equipped with solid base amenities like wireless streaming audio via a Bluetooth connection, a cooled glovebox, and dual automatic climate zones. Grab a pen and check off a few items from the options list though, and you’re surrounded by an eight-inch touchscreen navigation system, 12-speaker Infinity sound system, heated front seats and steering wheel, and a panoramic sunroof that allows plenty of light in to your now rather premium cabin space.
On top of that, Hyundai is finally understanding that comfort and support go hand in hand. The seats of the 2013 Santa Fe Sport are on par with the units found in the Azera. Those thrones I found to be superior to the ones found in both the Genesis and the Equus, and the same goes for the two front buckets in the all-new Santa Fe. While the rear doesn’t have buckets, it does have a bench that gives the back seat adult passengers enough space to enjoy the ride.
Speaking of passengers, Hyundai is offering up a variety of seating arrangements with the 2013 Santa Fe. I keep mentioning the Santa Fe Sport, because that’s now the name of the five-passenger crossover replacing the 2012 Santa Fe. There’s also the new long-wheelbase three-row Santa Fe, which can be had with seating for six (second row captain’s chairs) or seven (second row bench). I only got a quick peek inside the LWB Santa Fe and I didn’t drive it so this review will focus on the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport.
It’s the driving, after all, that matters most to us here. To start, literally, you need an engine and Hyundai allows you to pick between two four-cylinder mills (The LWB Santa Fe is fitted with the 3.3-liter V6), and each engine can be paired with a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive setup.. The base engine is a 190-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-four, which is paired with a six-speed automatic gearbox. The engine you want though, and the only one I drove, is the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-banger. It puts out 264 horsepower, 269 pound-feet of torque, and is also mated to the same six-speed automatic transmission.
At eight to nine thousand feet above sea level, the average engine feels sluggish, lackluster, and generally down on power. The addition of a turbo goes a long way the higher you climb away from the ocean, and the Santa Fe Sport benefits from a twin-scroll forced-induction unit. Throw in a 3,500 pound curb weight, and you’ve got a compact crossover that keeps on climbing as quickly as an altimeter. On certain grades, a judicious use of throttle was required, but the power was always there. Like most turbocharged engines, there is a bit of lag in the beginning, but once the snail is spooled it’s go time.
An engine might be useless though if not paired with the right dance partner. Thankfully, the six-speed automatic employed here is surprisingly smooth and a welcome choice over every other automakers scramble to cram CVT units down our throats. The Santa Fe Sport doesn’t need one of those, and it’s rated at 31 miles per gallon on the highway with the traditional automatic cog swapper.
The reason for the positive power figures and solid fuel economy numbers comes down to one major factor that had Hyundai engineers working overtime; weight. Apparently, they hired the Ghostbusters who tracked down Colin Chapman and forced his ghost ass to get to work because serious amounts of lightness have been added here. The five-passenger 2.4-liter Santa Fe Sport drops 266 pounds over the 2012 model, while the turbocharged Santa Fe sheds 366 pounds over the outgoing V6 version from last year. This is biggest loser territory, and the results were achieved by increased the amount of ultra-high strength tensile steel used. Apparently it’s a very good thing to own your own steel plant.
Still, all of that added lightness didn’t translate into delightful handling. The Santa Fe Sport handles fine it just lacks any sort of feedback through the wheel. This is the curse of most modern electronic power steering systems, which smooth out any rough patches while also improving fuel economy. Hyundai no doubt noticed this because they equip the vehicle with the same Driver Selectable Steering Mode that’s found on the Elantra Coupe. A button on the steering wheel allows one to choose between Normal, Sport, and Comfort. Comfort lightens things up by increasing the amount of input assistance by 10 percent, while Sport does the opposite and cuts that assistance by 10 percent. It all feels very artificial, and does nothing to provide more actual road feel.
Numbness aside, the overall ride quality is very impressive. In fact, despite the reduced weight tallies, the Santa Fe Sport exhibits the same NVH levels as cars costing far more. Road noise is minimal and the interior cabin space is free of any droning or unwanted audio junk contaminating your commute. Additionally, the available Dynamax all-wheel-drive system is courtesy of Magna is off the torque-vectoring magical variety. The Santa Fe Sport transfers torque along the rear axle to help reduce understeer, which keeps drivers confident. Further aiding the confidence department is the inclusion of suitable brakes. Up front sit a set of 12.6-inch rotors while the rear axle is saddled with 11.9-inch units. Through the mountains of Utah, I notice no fade and instead I’m greeted with a smooth reduction in speed every time I call the brakes into action.
Once stopped, I can step out and take in the most up-to-date interpretation of the Fluidic Sculpture design language. This is where Hyundai might find some lovers and some haters, but the average Hyundai customer states that they’re motivated by design. This might be the cleanest application of the automakers style. It’s a more mature version of the sweeping lines found on the Sonata, and it’s as if the skin of the Santa Fe Sport has been pulled as tightly as possible across the body underneath. Viewed from the front, it comes off as a more stylish Honda CRV. Out back, I get the slightest hint of Porsche Cayenne, and I mean that in a good way. This might just be the maturation of Fluidic Sculpture, and it’s taking place on a crossover of all vehicles. This is surprising… but it’s surprisingly good.
The rest of the crossover segment should be paying close attention here. Other automakers are building good CUVs at the moment, but Hyundai is quick to improve on the category in a variety of areas. While most manufacturers are churning out compact creations that climb over the 4,000-pound mark, Hyundai has gone in a different direction. It’s done so while making the interior nicer to boot. The 2013 Santa Fe Sport has more power than a handful of the V6 offerings on the market, weighs less, and gets better fuel economy as well.
Entry-fee for this compact crossover is $24,450 for the base 2.4, and you’ll need at least $27,700 for the turbocharged motor. If you want the all-wheel-drive, saddle-interior wearing, nicely optioned version I drive here? Expect to spend well into the low thirty-thousand dollar range. That’s a lot of money, but you’re actually getting a lot of car here. This includes less severe styling than the new Escape, a better interior than most of the competition in this range, highly capable torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive, the class-leading warranty, and a 264-horsepower four-banger. Price out a comparably equipped competitors crossover and you’re left with a few bucks in the bank should you opt for the made-in-Georgia Santa Fe Sport.
Hyundai might not have invented the crossover, but the automaker is clearly trying hard to perfect it.
[Disclosure: Hyundai wanted me to drive the 2013 Santa Fe Sport, so they flew me to out to Salt Lake City, Utah and put me up in a stunning hotel in Park City. I was fed good food, rode the alpine slide at the Olympic Village, and spent most of the fancy cocktail hour discussing brewing with a gentleman representing Wasatch Brewing.]
Photos copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker