Remember the Hyundai Veracruz? It was Hyundai’s Lexus RX-ish three-row crossover (though the RX that it looked like never had more than two rows of seats) that was a slow seller. Well, Hyundai figured out a way to increase sales of the Veracruz: name it the Santa Fe. You see, Hyundai discontinued the Veracruz model at the end of its life cycle and instead split the Santa Fe into two models – the Santa Fe Sport (5 passenger, four cylinder only) and Santa Fe (6 or 7 passenger, V6 only). Though the two models share (most of) a name and all sheetmetal from the B-pillars forward, they really do feel quite different from behind the wheel. The non-Sport Santa Fe is just launching, so Hyundai invited us to New York a few days ago to put it through its paces outside the city.
The Santa Fe’s design has dramatically improved in its three generations. In its first generation, it looked like the rear doors were caved in by an unfortunate fender bender. The second generation grew and adopted a cleaner, but more generic design that could have been a Honda or Toyota just as well as it was a Hyundai. With the third generation, it adopts the fashionable “angry” headlights that so many new cars have. The grille is larger, and there are more creases and folds throughout the body. It’s an attractive vehicle, but still doesn’t necessarily scream “Hyundai” the same way Kia’s recent designs seem to have a consistent language across the lineup. Still, I like its look.
There are four models of Santa Fe – Sport, Sport Turbo, GLS, and Limited. The latter two are built on a longer wheelbase, so have unique doors, DLO, and roof. The GLS and Limited also have a longer wheelbase than the Sport models (3.9 inches longer) and a longer overall length (8.5 inches longer). Thanks to the stretch, GLS and Limited models boast interiors that have 38.6 more cubic feet of space than Sport models have. The longer Santa Fes also have a 3.3 liter , 290-horsepower V6 standard, and a 5,000 pound towing capacity standard.
Size-wise, the GLS and Limited are close to the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot; at 13.5 cubic feet, the Hyundai’s cargo area behind the third row is larger than than the 2013 Highlander’s 10.3 cubic feet measure (though slightly smaller than the new 2014 Highlander’s cargo volume) and smaller than the Honda Pilot’s. I and four other journalists were shuttled from our hotel in Manhattan a few blocks to the site of the product meeting in a Santa Fe Limited, which has four captain’s chairs and a two-position third row seat. I was in the left-hand second row behind the driver, and had to move my seat to an uncomfortably snug spot close to the driver to give my colleague behind me in the third row adequate room, but we all did survive the trip. However, the small cargo area had trouble accommodating a fairly minimal amount of luggage, so my backpack stayed on the floor next to me. I’d say that the Santa Fe could hold one large suitcase (on its side) with the third seat in use.
We didn’t have a huge amount of seat time in the cars – probably 6o or 70 miles total, with half as the driver and half as a front-seat passenger/navigator – but the front seats were reasonably comfortable during that time. The Santa Fe GLS model that we drove seemed to have similar seats to the Limited when equipped with that model’s leather seating surfaces (leather is standard on the Limited, but YES Essentials stain-resistant cloth seats are standard in the GLS), but the Limited’s second row boasted heated seats – definitely a nice luxury touch, and one shared with the Elantra Limited, believe it or not. The second row captains chairs are manually adjustable fore and aft, and their seatbacks recline. The seats will also slide forward coupe-style to allow easy entry/exit for the third row, but presumably they will not move when a child seat is anchored to them (since the seatback tilts forward when the seat slides forward for the entry/exit feature), so families using all three rows and child seats will need to keep that in mind. A child-friendly feature included in the Santa Fe Limited are manual rear side window sunshades integrated into the door panels.
On the road, the Santa Fe is very easy to drive. One of our Facebook fans asked if it’s easy to drive and park compared to a minivan. It is – mainly because it’s much smaller than a minivan. That’s bad news from an interior space standpoint, but good news when squeezing into holes in traffic or when trying to fit into a narrow parking space. A rear-view camera is standard on the Limited and included in GLS models equipped with the Leather & Premium Equipment Package, which also throws in navigation and dual-zone automatic climate control, among several other features. The brakes struck me as a bit sensitive at first, but by the third stop, I was accustomed to their modulation and had no other issues. In the Santa Fe Limited, the electric power steering can have its assist adjusted via a button on the steering wheel – sport cuts back assist, comfort adds the most assist, and normal is somewhere in the middle. It seemed gimmicky, but I did prefer the steering in sport mode – not because it increased feedback, only because in my book, it is more reassuring for steering to require some effort.
Now that Hyundai has grown up, it’s no longer offering more standard features at a much lower price than their competitors. Instead, they’re offering more standard equipment at the same price as their competitors. Hyundai defines the Santa Fe’s competitive set as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder; the Nissan’s MSRP is just $300 more than the Hyundai’s. But the Hyundai has several standard features that the Nissan does not. Hyundai also boasts of better fuel economy relative to all of its competitors but the Pathfinder (which gets the benefit of a CVT) at 18 city/25 highway/21 combined for FWD models (minus one MPG for AWD models) and the most powerful V6 (290 horsepower) and lightest curb weight (3,933 pounds) in the class. The Santa Fe GLS starts at $29,195 with destination charge (FWD) and the line tops out at $38,595 for a loaded-to-the-gills Santa Fe Limited AWD with the technology package. The Santa Fe Sport FWD starts at $25,295.
Given the success that Hyundai has enjoyed with the Sonata and Elantra over the past few years since their redesigns, and in looking at the way the Santa Fe is a powerful, well-equipped, reasonably-efficient package, it’s hard not to predict increased sales for the Santa Fe. The only thing that may hurt it in the sales race is that its size is a bit more compact than some of its larger competitors like the CX-9, Explorer, and Traverse, but many folks may appreciate its tidier packaging as a nice tradeoff for the smaller third row and cargo volume.
Hyundai provided train fare, one night in a hotel, two meals, and the vehicles (with gasoline and insurance) for this review.