In my 46 years as a licensed – and semi-competent – driver, my vehicle inventory has run the gamut. Beginning with a ’66 Beetle lacking a 4th gear (which is its own kind of governor – don’t ask me why we didn’t repair it) to a necessarily brief period with a high-mileage Audi, an Alfa sedan, Volkswagen Scirocco, 3-Series BMWs, Alfa Spider and Renault Alliance. It’s been a diverse mix fueled by a very real affection for distinctive cars mixed with a very real up-and-down (at least in the good old days – now it’s just ‘down’) economic cycle. And that brings us to the subject of our discussion, the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport with its 2.0 liter, turbocharged powertrain.
While behind the wheel of Alfas, BMWs, VWs or – for that matter – the Renault, if anyone had told me I’d be putting a Korean product on the short list of vehicles I’d enjoy owning I would have said you were crazy – or an unprintable version of same. But a second week spent with Hyundai’s way-competent Santa Fe Sport has me thinking exactly that. And for those of you with ownership histories centered on Accords, Camrys, Nissan’s Altima or Hyundai’s own Sonata, here’s a head-snapping conclusion: your next midsize sedan could very well be this midsize crossover – or something close to it.
Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport, and its 3-row sibling, the Hyundai Santa Fe, offer just enough visual distinctiveness to avoid the Asian generic, while (thankfully) not going so far as Lexus’ NX initiative or the stylistic overkill favored by the talented team at Nissan. In doing a walkaround – and a second walkaround – of the Santa Fe Sport, it strikes me as being very much like Ford’s Edge…with a wedge.
The front end certainly recalls Ford’s midsizer, while in profile an angular character line supplies, well, more character than that offered by the Dearborn team. We wish the side profile didn’t include the upswept D-Pillar, popular on everything from BMW’s X1 to Volvo’s XC60, but in an era of blindspot monitors substituting for real visibility, what do we do? Our Santa Fe Sport’s stance was helped by its 19-inch wheels, equipped with 235/55 Contis. Sufficiently meaty, the 19s seem a valid compromise between the now-ubiquitous18s and (perhaps) the too-aggressive 20s. In total, the Santa Fe Sport offers just enough visual dynamism to be interesting, without the polarization that seems to be squirreling its way into more – if not most – automotive designs.
Inside, the midsize spec reduces the semi-claustrophobic aspects you’ll see on many compact CUVs. Ingress is easy, even for an elderly mom with arthritic knees, and once inside both front and rear seat passengers enjoy full depth cushions, comfortable – and adjustable – backrests, and enough lateral support to keep you posted where you’re posted. Obviously, this isn’t the platform to take Solo II racing, but if your commute includes something other than straight freeways, know that you – and your passengers – will stay as composed as the Sport’s chassis. And if you have something to carry, the space behind the rear seat is both spacious and easy to access, complemented by concealed storage under the rear deck.
Under the hood, Hyundai provides a choice of either a normally aspirated 2.4 liter four cylinder (that does exactly what you’d expect of a base four at a $25K price point), or a 2.0 liter turbocharged four. We much prefer the 2.0T, while recognizing its addition – in the guise of the Sport 2.0T trim – adds another $6K (or so) to your purchase decision. With 265 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque connected to a 6-speed auto and either front-or-all-wheel drive, acceleration is responsive and highway cruising is relaxed; it’s everything you’d hope for in a midsize CUV with family aboard. Our test vehicle, with front-wheel drive, delivered a brief chirp from the front wheels when you tip into the throttle too aggressively, but beyond that the drive was spot-on, helped by mods made for ’15 to both steering and suspension.
Also of note is the Santa Fe Sport’s towing capacity. While many compact and/or midsize crossovers ‘make do’ with enough pull to tow a personal watercraft or a couple of kayaks, add trailer brakes to your Santa Fe Sport and you’re ready to handle up to 3500 pounds. We’d never tow the maximum weight allowed by a manufacturer, but 3500 pounds gives you a comfortable reserve if pulling a camping trailer or (small) power boat.
With all of the above, if opting for the turbo powertrain we’d spec all-wheel drive, even in the sun-drenched Southwest. Power directed to all four wheels is more easily applied evenly; when directed into two the lack of traction may seem more exciting, but is ultimately less effective.
Our test Santa Fe Sport had but one option added to its $31,250 base, but its optional ‘Ultimate’ package is quite the option. For an additional $4,350 the purchaser receives 19-inch alloys, HD headlights and LED taillights, a panoramic sunroof, navigation and a 12-speaker Infinity Logic surround-sound stereo. You’ll also enjoy ventilated front and heated rear seats, rear parking assistance sensors, premium door sill plates, carpeted floor mats and ‘Ultimate’ liftgate badging. Really.
All of the above obviously will add – in varying degrees – to your enjoyment of the vehicle. But it also elevates your Santa Fe Sport from a reasonable $32K (with destination) to almost $37K. And despite the overall competence and quality of Hyundai’s offering, we still think products from Korea – even when assembled in Georgia – should undercut the more established players’ price points. Few carmakers are building a midsize CUV (Ford’s Edge is the most obvious example, Jeep’s new Cherokee could be cross-shopped), but Toyota’s Venza can be purchased – nicely equipped – for well under $40K, and Honda’s spacious CR-V is well-equipped for closer to the Sport’s $32K base. Neither Toyota nor Honda would provide a turbocharged powertrain (the Venza offers an optional V6), but both would provide years of practical, comfortable utility, along with well-established resale.
If I was pulling the financial trigger, I’d get into a 2.0T with as little outlay as possible. It might not have the Ultimate packaging, but would ultimately constitute a better deal. And when comparing this to the Accords, Camrys and Sonatas, know that the small amount of additional money will net you a huge increase in additional utility. You pay your money – and you make your choice. This would be our choice…
Specs and pricing on next page…