2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T review: Southwest seasoning

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T

Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport stretches the envelope, while the upcoming (January 2013) Hyundai Santa Fe is – with 3-row seating –  simply stretched.

The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is parked in our garage. Immediately adjacent is my wife’s ’06 Grand Cherokee. A Hemi-powered 4WD Limited, the Jeep is the highlight of an ownership chain that began in 1987 with a bright red Cherokee 5-speed and continued with a ’98 GC Laredo. And with all of the capability the Grand Cherokee – in its seventh season of ownership – still delivers, my wife loved Hyundai’s new Santa Fe Sport in its Marlin Blue metallic. In the political realm that endorsement would be akin to Joe Biden voting for one M. Romney…

If you read (and believe) Hyundai’s propaganda, the new Santa Fe Sport reinvents the family crossover with its “progressive design, efficient powertrains and upscale amenities.” That, we think, may be reaching too far; better to think the new Santa Fe may continue to reinvent Hyundai. Now on its path of self-improvement (think of the Korean carmaker as the Charles Atlas of OEMs) for well over a decade, the ’13 Santa Fe Sport seemingly embodies everything a 21st-Century manufacturer would care to employ: more efficient use of space, lighter weight, an improved ride/handling dynamic, responsive power and responsible efficiency. Notably, it delivers all of the above in a relatively typical package, differentiated by those Hyundais preceding it but fairly normal against those with which it competes.

The all-new Santa Fe comes in two versions. Our test vehicle, the 5-passenger Santa Fe Sport, arrived in Hyundai showrooms this August, while the slightly longer 7-passenger Santa Fe (sans ‘Sport’) debuts in January. The 7-passenger variant will retire the Veracruz tag, whose launch was the first to suggest a credible comparison between a Hyundai product and one (the RX 330) found on a Lexus showroom. Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, with the ’13 Santa Fe Hyundai’s product team may have finally – and fully – closed that argument.

From the outside, especially when still parked in our garage, you’re impressed by just how imposing this compact platform is. On a wheelbase of 106 inches, and stretching just over fifteen feet, its footprint isn’t unlike any number of midsize sedans. Its sheetmetal, utilizing Hyundai’s ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ design mantra, doesn’t ‘skinny up’ the visual, as the Santa Fe Sport’s prominent grille, sculpted flanks and rear upswing aft of the C-Pillar suggest a visual heft far greater than its immediate competition, the RAV4 or Chevy Equinox. Better to position it against the Ford Edge; the Edge shares an identical overall length but is almost 500 pounds heavier and can tow 2,000 fewer pounds when equipped with Ford’s EcoBoost 2.0 liter four.

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

The Santa Fe Sport’s cargo area is both convenient and expansive. Third row coming on Santa Fe.

We liked the overall design, while wishing manufacturers (Honda!) would realize that any number of rear vision cameras can’t minimize the restrictive aspect of the smallish rear window between rear door and hatch.

Inside, Hyundai’s design efforts are fully credible, with convenient controls occupying an instrument panel of unified design. My aforementioned wife (still just the one…) loved the navigation, while we both enjoyed the intuitive ease with which adjustments to audio and ventilation could be made. It’s a ‘this century’ layout even a guy from the last century can embrace. Front seats, covered in perforated leather, are both comfortable and supportive (‘though don’t go autocrossing), while the split rear seats, divided 40/20/40, can be folded from the cargo area. Imagine…

It’s under the Santa Fe hood where the differentiation is its most stark. The Santa Fe Sport receives one of two powertrains, both of which boast gasoline direct injection (GDI). Standard is the Theta II, a 2.4 liter DOHC four delivering 190 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque. With its 6-speed automatic trans it can deliver 22 city, 33 highway and a combined 26 miles-per-gallon with front-wheel drive. The Santa Fe’s sweetspot, however, is occupied by the optional 2.0 liter turbocharged four. With its twin-scroll turbo blowin’ the scene the Santa Fe Sport 2.0T enjoys 264 horsepower and an absolutely sweet 269 lb-ft of torque. Estimated fuel economy is 20/27/22 for the 2.0T with AWD; our mileage, with a spirited combination of stop-go-and-GO, was just over 21. Were fuel efficiency a higher priority, front-wheel drive turbos deliver a 25 combined – and we’d probably get 21.

The Santa Fe’s chassis, featuring MacPherson struts up front and a fully independent multi-link in the rear, provides a predictable menu while delivering a completely unpredictable result. This crossover is planted, with connected steering, composed ride and predictable handling. In bone dry Dallas we didn’t have a chance to test the all-wheel drive capabilities, but can tell you that there was no perceptible torque steer when pulling the gas-powered trigger. Again, we wouldn’t take the Santa Fe Sport autocrossing (for that Hyundai offers its Genesis Coupe or Veloster Turbo), but we’d take it cross-country in a Chevy-inspired heartbeat.

With crossed t’s and dotted i’s, the Santa Fe Sport product team would seem to have done virtually everything to ensure the Santa Fe’s success. We remain slightly puzzled by a window sticker that can stretch to an as-tested $36K (with destination), but then, we’re puzzled by a Ford Edge exceeding $40K or a Cadillac ATS reaching $50,000(!). In short, we’re puzzled – but the frown dissolves with but one push of your right foot and the oh-so-righteous result.