Anyone can write a world-class review of an interesting car. Something like a McLaren M4-12C or a Ferrari 458 lends itself well to Clarksonian prose, full of overwrought similies and hyperbolic commentary on the driving experience. Writing a great review of an utterly boring, utilitarian car that captures the reader’s attention? Now that takes work.
And then, there’s an even bigger challenge when trying to review something like the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe. It’s a crossover, which means 98% of the readership is pre-disposed to hating it right off the bat. Outside of planet TTAC, a lot of people really care about crossovers. You, the station wagon/hatchback loyalist may not be able to fathom this, but there is a reason the Honda CR-V is one of the best selling vehicles in the country. It just works. Every other automaker in the industry tries different formulas to knock the Comfort Runabout Vehicle (yes, that’s what CR-V stands for) off of its comfortable perch, but nobody has succeeded thus far. Not with fancy tech features (Ford Escape), great handling (Mazda CX-5), great fuel economy (erm…Mazda CX-5) or simply another flavor of vanilla (Toyota RAV4). With this car, Hyundai will be marketing a car that looks and feels nicer than everything else out there.
The old car was bland on the outside and durable on the inside, if we’re being charitable. This generation is a different story, with the most striking difference being the size-XL Tucson styling that works better on the larger crossover. The interior is an incredible leap forward from the previous car. Whereas the old one was durable and simple, with a couple premium touches (like blue back lighting) thrown in for good measure, the new car makes a solid attempt at appearing upscale.
All the switch gear and interior materials are well above the previous car – they’re even better than the bits and pieces used in the Genesis. The layout is similar to the Elantra GT’s dashboard and instrument panel, so this is likely Hyundai’s future interior design direction. With all cars so close in quality, interior and exterior design is an important selling point for new cars – Hyundai has leveraged that with cars like the Elantra and Sonata, but the priorities of buyers in this segment aren’t always so superficial.
All press trips are carefully planned in order to maximize the car’s benefits and minimize its flaws; in this case, we were driving the new Santa Fe in Park City, Utah, with elevations approaching 9,000 feet at some points. The only variants available to test were the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport models with the 2.0T engine and all-wheel drive. Next year, the three-row Santa Fe will arrive, with a longer wheelbase and 6 or 7 passenger seating, as a replacement for the Veracruz. None were on hand to drive.
At altitude, the 2.0T performed admirably, but the lack of any of the base model 2.4L naturally aspirated cars was telling; we’ll wait until we’re back at sea-level to make a final judgement call. Even with our foot to the floor, the 2.0T barely broke a sweat, while the six-speed automatic did its best to minimize its presence. The absence of the agricultural 3.3L V6 in the previous model is a welcome one, though three-row models get a revised 3.3L identical to the unit featured in the Azera. Credit for the improved performance can’t rest entirely with the engine alone. Hyundai managed to trim 266 pounds out of the new car versus last year’s model.
The new Santa Fe’s road manners are similar to the old one. The steering is heavier but not entirely communicative. The Driver Selectable Steering Modes (just like the Elantra GT) increase the steering heft, but doesn’t help with tactile sensation. In this segment, it’s not like most buyers really care, and it’s a marked improvement from the Xanax-laden system in the previous model. Like the old car, the ride isn’t completely sorted; the shocks “jack” up and down a fair bit over uneven pavement (something that will be explored in future Suspension Truth column), lending a bit of a pogo stick feel to the car. Again, it’s much improved over the old car (which, after a couple of years in the Kreindler fleet, had a pretty harsh ride), but not quite class leading. NVH is greatly improved, and it truly is a quiet car, allowing you to enjoy the Infinity sound system that came with our tester. The system sounded great, but the rest of the package, including the navigation screen and the multi-layered menus, were a bit frustrating to use. At one point, it refused to accept the destination address listed in the Hyundai supplied map book – the site of the 2002 Olympic skiing events. Not exactly a shack in the middle of nowhere.
To get all this you’ll have to take the $30,270 Santa Fe Sport AWD and drop another $2450 for the Leather and Premium Package, as well as $2900 for the Technology Package that also adds a panoramic sunroof and a backup camera, among other items. Even at that price, the 2013 Santa Fe is tempting – it’s much more interesting both visually and mechanically than something like a Toyota Venza, is devoid of the annoying MyFord Touch system that plagues upper trim levels of the Blue Oval cars and offers up fuel economy numbers that are at the top of the segment; 2.0T cars can return 21/31 mpg city/highway with front drive and 20/27 with all-wheel drive, while the 2.4L front-driver can return as high as 33 mpg on the highway.
The fly in the ointment here is, you guessed it, the CR-V. For all it lacks in tech features and avant-garde styling and turbocharged engines, the CR-V has three key advantages that are powerful enough to sell people on the product. The cargo floor is extremely low, making it easy to load groceries and strollers into the back. The “one-touch” rear seats are so simple and so efficient that they seem designed with a showroom floor demo in mind. And a back-up camera with multiple angles (including a downward view for looking at poles and solid objects) comes standard on every model. Chances are, many of you are scoffing at the idea of an dated-looking, dated-feeling, low-tech, dull-to-drive Honda reigning supreme over Hyundai’s upscale crossover (or the Escape, or the CX-5), but for people who don’t spend time reading about cars on the internet, the little features that make their day-to-day existence easier – which are plentiful in the CR-V, that end up selling cars in this segment.
Hyundai provided travel, accomodations, flights, meals and a 2013 Santa Fe for the launch event.