Hyundai makes a move upscale with its third-generation Santa Fe, but not in price or status. It remains a relatively modest mid-size crossover, with a starting price—$26,499—held over from the outgoing model. The initial impression is that this new Santa Fe is a lot of crossover for the money; that’s not a new concept from Hyundai, but this transformation seems a step beyond even what this company has done with previously redesigned models.
Expensive-looking styling comes with a pair of new engines. A 2.4-litre 4-cylinder base engine is smaller than the previous entry-level mill, but it makes more power: 190 hp versus 175. The upgrade is a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that makes less horsepower—264, against last year's 3.5-litre six-cylinder's 276—but boasts 269 lb-ft of torque, 21 more than the six-cylinder.
Hyundai's move to turbocharged power was a means to boost efficiency; the 2013 Santa Fe's initial—and quite good—fuel consumption ratings were 10.4/7.4 L/100 km (city/highway) with the turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive.
The company had to make the embarrassing admission that it had “miscalculated” those figures, which were then corrected to 11/8.4 L/100 km (city/highway), numbers that are actually higher than those for the 3.5-litre V6 that the turbo four-cylinder replaces.
Value continues to be the Santa Fe's main message. My tester was a 2.0T SE model, one step down from the range-topping Limited trim. For its $35,299 price, you get a number of the features you’d expect: Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, illuminated vanity mirrors, leather seats, and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift lever.
But things get more interesting the further you delve into the standard features list.
Not only are the front seats heated, but so are the rears and the steering wheel; the driver's seat is adjustable 12 ways; the keyless entry system is the “intelligent” kind that lets you leave the fob in your pocket; the panoramic sunroof quite literally comprises almost the entire roof; the rear windows have roll-up sunshades; there's a rear parking assist system and a complementary backup camera, along with heated exterior mirrors; and there's a wiper de-icer at the base of the windshield.
The turbocharged engine displays a small amount of turbo lag, but that's typical in most small-displacement motors tuned for big-car horsepower. Once the turbo gets things pressurized, power delivery is impressive, and the engine remains smooth and relatively quiet, even when pushed hard.
In most situations, the transmission will refrain from downshifting in gentle acceleration, letting the turbo's torque do the work. That's good. The “bad” happens when you get far enough into the throttle that the transmission does decide to shift down, and you get perhaps more acceleration than you'd actually wanted.
The Santa Fe's “shiftronic” manual shift mode is one of the more responsive ones out there. Use it to downshift to slow the vehicle, though, and you get harsh shifts that are out of place in a drivetrain that otherwise behaves very well. That said, if you shift an automatic transmission manually, ever, you're in the small minority that would notice this foible.
Against the Santa Fe's rated fuel consumption (11 L/100 km in city driving, and 8.4 L/100 km on the highway), my tester averaged between 8.9 and 9.3 L/100 km in highway driving, at prevailing speeds on Ontario's Highways 416 and 401 between Ottawa and Toronto.
The list of things I didn't like about the Santa Fe's drive is a short one, but it includes the brakes, whose pedal is soft and requires more travel than should be necessary to slow the car down. I kept finding myself misjudging how much braking I needed to stop in a given distance, leading to some less-than-smooth stops. No doubt, most drivers will find these brakes to be just fine; this is something I notice as a driver constantly moving from one car to another.
Also, the steering feels numb to me; the Santa Fe handles well enough for what it is, but the amount of road feel delivered to the steering wheel is lacking even compared to other crossovers. That isn't necessarily a bad thing (at worst, it makes driving boring for anyone who cares), but if you want as dramatic a comparison as you're likely to find, drive a Santa Fe back-to-back with a Honda CR-V.
The Santa Fe's electric power steering does allow Hyundai to offer driver-adjustable power assist. It's a nifty feature, but amounts to little more than a gimmick, and simply adjusts how much arm strength is needed to turn the wheel.
Ergonomics / Comfort / Quality
Front seat comfort earned an 'okay' grade from me after a five-hour Ottawa-Toronto road trip. My wife, more sensitive to imperfect seats than I, thought rather less of them. All Santa Fe trims get a power lumbar support for the driver's seat; a move up from the base model adds a four-way adjustment (in/out, up/down) to better suit drivers of different sizes. In my tester, the driver's seat felt loose in its tracks, and moved a small amount any time I shifted positions in it.
I came close to calling the rear seats more comfortable than the fronts, were it not for a bottom cushion that could stand to be an inch or two deeper. Perhaps the shorter cushion is better, given that it's mostly children who'll find themselves riding back there.
As if a heated steering wheel isn't enough of a luxury, the Santa Fe's turns on automatically every time you start the car on a cold morning, provided it was on when the car was last turned off. It also heats up the whole way 'round; more expensive cars with this feature only heat the wheel at the nine- and three-o'clock positions. The joy of a heated steering wheel aside, the wheel rim itself is nicely shaped and comfortable in the hands.
A tricky rear side window design creates significant blind spots. I got around this by adjusting the side mirrors to compensate (as I always do), but I still call this a design flaw. That small side glass and shallow rear window cut into visibility for reversing too. All but the most basic model get a rear parking assist system, but the seemingly simpler solution, a backup camera, only comes with the priciest 2.4-litre model and the top two turbo trims.
Hyundai's interiors have come a long way in a short time. The Santa Fe's overall quality isn't quite up there with most cars that typically come with luxury features, but this is a pleasant place to spend some time after spending $35,000 on a new car.
Functionality / Usability
Cargo space is ample, and the rear seats fold flush with the cargo floor, and nearly flat, to expand carrying capacity. The seats can be lowered via handle on the side of the bottom cushion, or by using the more convenient pulls inside the tailgate. There are a few small storage compartments hidden under the cargo area floor.
The bottom half of the centre dashboard stack is dedicated to heater and air conditioning controls. The arrangement seems a little scattershot at first glance, but it's actually fairly intuitive: front and rear defroster buttons on one side, fresh/recirculate selectors on the other, and the main stuff – fan speed, vent selector and temperature adjustments – in the middle.
I have a hate-hate relationship with Hyundai's stereo auxiliary input interface. In order to connect a music player so that you can control it through the stereo, you have to use a proprietary connector. That in itself isn't so bad (it's about a $50 accessory), but it's only compatible with Apple iPhones and iPods. Any other device—like my Android smartphone—can only be connected with a standard auxiliary cord, using the 3.5 mm auxiliary jack, which means having to fuss with two sets of controls (those on the device, and the stereo), and not being able to charge the device as you go.
Call it a first-world problem, but in most cars, a simple USB jack does it all.
(Hyundai Canada pointed out that a number of Hyundai's most recent models, the Santa Fe included, no longer require that proprietary cable; the lack of non-Apple compatibility still irks me.)
This redesign has definitely moved the Santa Fe forward in every respect, an impressive feat at a time when many carmakers are attempting to improve quality at the same time as they cut production costs, with mixed results.
Typically, I'm not inclined to recommend a feature-laden vehicle when a mechanically-similar version is available at a lower price. However, I make an exception here: the loaded-up 2.0T SE is a screaming deal for the price, as is the $33,899 2.4L Luxury model, which is essentially the same vehicle, feature-wise, but with the base engine.
You can get a mid-sized crossover for less money (the Dodge Journey is the best seller in this category because Dodge practically gives them away), but you won't find a better example of true value in a refined, well-appointed crossover than the Santa Fe.