I’m staring out the window of my room at the Hotel Del in Coronado. For the third time in 20 minutes, a military helicopter has flown past and interrupted my particularly lovely view of the Pacific Ocean. I’m not upset though, because this flight path brings up memories of my childhood. As a boy, my family lived in a few different areas of Southern California due to the fact that my father was in the Navy. It wasn’t unusual to see Naval Aviators practicing landings at Fighter Town USA while my mother, brother, and myself emerged with the haul from the on-base grocery store. We piled the food stuffs into the back of the cap-covered Ranger, and my brother and I jumped in there as well. Not exactly safe, but a positive memory for sure.
It’s now 2013 and I’m 32 years old. I don’t have kids and I’m not competing with Maverick or Goose for the last bottle of orange juice and a pack of English muffins. Instead, I’m back in Coronado to sample a vehicle that would’ve certainly made my mother and father’s lives easier in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is waiting for me downstairs by the valet court, so I must turn my attention away from the chopper-filled view and snap back to the 21st century… it’s time to meet a potential new Top Gun of the midsize crossover world.
My first impression of the Santa Fe is that I may have already driven it back in Utah last year. That’s incorrect, of course, because that vehicle was the new Santa Fe Sport, and that last bit of lettering is key. Hyundai are dropping the larger Veracruz from the lineup. The automaker will instead offer up a one-two crossover punch with the Santa Fe. Sport means you’re looking at the smaller five-passenger machine while GLS or Limited signify a longer wheelbase and three rows of seating. More specifically, GLS refers to a seven passenger vehicle while the Limited serves up second row captain’s chairs and six places for folks to rest their rears.
Upon a secondary glance, you can tell which model you’re looking at without taking a peek at the badging or interior feng shui. This is accomplished by eyeballing the rear section of side glass. It turns up on the Sport and kinks downward on the GLS and Limited. Besides that it’s pretty much the same in the looks department, which is a pretty good thing because we’re dealing with a rather handsome machine. The nose is punched up with the stretched horizontal grille and that helps push the headlamps and fog lights out into the corners. Daytime running lamps keep the look current, and the lower fascia butches up the whole affair. Down the side the upper and lower character lines help sweep the eye rearward without standing out too much on their own. Out back, the Santa Fe actually takes on a similar appearance to that of the (far more expensive) Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. During my drive time with the Santa Fe, I kept thinking of the big Benz while behind other Santa Fe drivers. When placed side-by-side the two would be rather easy to tell apart, but folks finding me flying by on a San Diego-area highway might meet momentary confusion and it works in favor of the Hyundai once they realize what they’re looking at.
It’s out on these highways where I come face to face with both the (very) good and (consistently) bad of seemingly all Hyundai vehicles being produced right now. Let’s start with the sour before I delve into the sweet. Hyundai, like all automakers right now, is moving or has moved to an all electric power steering-based system. I understand why this is so, and I don’t expect a revolution back to hydraulic equipment. Some engineers have the tuning down and the result is a vehicle that delivers feel through the wheel and an accurate driving experience. Others seem to be finding their way in this area, and I feel that Hyundai is swimming in the deep end. There’s no positive feel being returning through the wheel, and the tires could be pointing sideways for all I know. Now, I do appreciate the choice to adjust the steering weight by way of a button on the tiller. The choices are comfort, normal, and sport, and I find that only normal and sport should even be considered. Comfort is far too light, even if I were to find myself in stop-and-go LA traffic. Sport increases the amount of heft needed to turn the wheel, but it still feels far too artificial for me to enjoy. I wish instead for feel, not heft.
There’s good news though, because that’s pretty much my only fault with the 2013 Santa Fe.
On the inside, Hyundai continues to refine the quality of their seats. I remember going from an Equus into an all-new Azera and it was like a revelation. Hyundai seating now walks the line between support and comfort, and I find these upgraded thrones filtering throughout the rest of the lineup. The seats in the new Santa Fe remind me of the ones I found in the Azera, except here there’s three rows of them. The cabin space has a lot to offer besides comfortable seats though because Hyundai surrounds driver and passengers with top-shelf features. The audio system errs on the side of bass, but it’s otherwise crisp and connects to the current slate of MP3-playing equipment by a variety of means. A panoramic sunroof lets light in for everyone, the second row seats can recline and are also heated, and the rear sunshades can keep the paparazzi away if you find yourself being hounded by TMZ lensmen.
If you do find myself surround by snooping photogs, I can always employ the 3.3-liter V6 engine and attempt to make a getaway. This Lambda II beating heart puts forth 290 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, and it’s an engine that utilizes some technical tricks to eke out solid fuel economy while also providing Hyundai with its first vehicle capable of towing 5,000 pounds. A three-stake variable intake manifold and a variable speed oil pump are just the tip of this technical iceberg. I could tell you more, but my brain starts whistling the intro to Young Folks, my eyes glaze, and I just smile at the person speaking.
The smile stays on my face throughout the day, too. I don’t love the handling but I do enjoy everything else the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe has to offer. It’s priced competitively with a starting price of $28,350 for the front-wheel-drive GLS and it climbs up to $37,750 for the all-wheel-drive Limited. This is what you’d spend were you interested in a similarly equipped Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, or Nissan Pathfinder. All of those vehicles are over two tons too, which is a number Hyundai managed to sneak below.
So is the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe ready to claim a Top Gun spot in the midsize crossover segment? If you have a family and you need a vehicular wingman, the Santa Fe feels the need… the need to please.
[Disclaimer: Hyundai put me up in the lovely Hotel Del Coronado, fed me, and provided delicious drinks once the driving was done. Not only that, but a few of us broke off and went to race go-karts. Guess who won? You have one guess, and the answer is me.]
Images copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker