On paper, there’s no contest. For the same price as the new Ford Escape, the even newer Hyundai Santa Fe Sport includes a longer warranty, more power, and a much roomier interior. But if such comparisons could be decided from the spec sheets alone, auto reviewers would have to find a new line of work.
You might have noticed some similarities between Hyundai’s and Ford’s most recent designs. Both follow a “more is more” philosophy in their rush to offer the look of 2025 today. With the Santa Fe Sport, oversized facial features and an undersized greenhouse collaborate to visually pump up overhangs already a half-foot longer than the Escape’s (on a nearly identical wheelbase). For those seeking less roided proportions (or two more seats), the Santa Fe Sport will soon be joined by a three-row Santa Fe (sans Sport).
Inside, the Santa Fe Sport has the cleaner, more restrained design of the two, such things being especially relative in this case. There’s plenty of visual sci fi in the center stack, but it doesn’t intrude as deeply into the passenger compartment. Nor is the instrument panel as deep are as tall, contributing to a more open view forward. Hyundai keeps upgrading its materials. The new Santa Fe Sport’s are better than those in the Sonata, if not quite a match for those in the Azera. If Ford has an edge here, it’s a slender one.
The Santa Fe Sport isn’t roomier than the Escape only through its interior design. It simply contains more space inside, about 3.5 more inches for both shoulders and legs. For a family of five people tall enough to see out of the Hyundai’s rear side windows, the choice between the two would be easy. Despite the Hyundai’s plumper posterior, the two are more evenly matched in terms of cargo volume (if the official specs are roughly comparable, which they often aren’t).
Hyundai is rightly proud of the over three hundred pounds the crossover lost with this redesign. The Santa Fe Sport might be considerably larger than the Ford Escape, but it’s no heavier. With 2.0T engines and all-wheel-drive, both weigh a little over 3,700 pounds. Drop the turbo and all-wheel-drive from the SFS, and the 190-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has so little trouble motivating 3,459 pounds that the boosted uplevel engine seems unnecessary…until you drive it, then the 264-horsepower 2.0T’s much stouter (if less even) midrange becomes readily evident. Despite being down 24 horsepower and hitched to a less decisive six-speed automatic transmission, the Escape’s engine feels even more energetic and more responsive.
Turbocharged four-cylinder engines allegedly have a significant fuel economy advantage over V6s. If I had written this review a few weeks ago, I’d have relayed EPA ratings of 20 city and 27 highway for the Santa Fe Sport 2.0T AWD. But, as you might have heard, “procedural errors” in Hyundai’s testing led it to report inflated fuel economy figures. Because the miscalculation involved aerodynamic drag, the subsequent adjustment has had the largest impact on crossovers’ highway ratings. The SFS’s numbers have been shaved from 20/27 to a far less competitive 19/24. The antiquated, 350-pound-heavier, V6-powered 2012 Santa Fe managed 20/26. Suddenly the economy benefits of boost aren’t so apparent. The Escape 2.0T AWD checks in at 21/28.
Science experiment: which most affects handling, size or curb weight? This comparison between equally hefty vehicles suggests size. The Santa Fe Sport might weigh about the same as the Escape, but it feels much bulkier. Not that the Hyundai handles badly. Body motions over wavy pavement and roll in turns are both much better controlled than in the previous Santa Fe. As in the Escape (though here only with AWD), torque vectoring via selective application of the brakes limits understeer. You can even select from three different levels of steering assist. Unfortunately, the three levels are light, lighter, and lightest and all of them are equally numb. The more tightly and precisely suspended Escape has its own dynamic flaws (a crossover-high CoG tends to make some key tradeoffs insurmountable), but it does more than handle curves competently. It makes them fun. In comparison, the Santa Fe Sport isn’t sporty.
When I say the two crossovers are the same price, I’m not employing any procedural missteps to massage the numbers. Equip a 2013 Ford Escape SEL with the 2.0T engine, AWD, leather upholstery, panoramic sunroof, and nav, and the window sticker reads $35,625. Do the same with the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and the sticker reads…$35,625. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool gives the Ford a slight ($190) edge in content, so they remain very close even after adjusting for feature differences. Okay, maybe I’m eliding one minor matter. To get 19-inch rims on an Escape you must spend a few hundred more for the Titanium. But adjust for the extra features that attend the higher trim level and it actually ends up a slightly better value.
“Value” might seem out of place in a comparison between mainstream brand compact crossovers with window stickers in the mid-thirties. (I’m having a hard time coming to grips with this myself.) But the Ford provides much of the driving enjoyment of a BMW X3 for about $10,000 less. On paper, the Santa Fe Sport should perform at least as well, but subjectively it’s a different animal. That fierce face is only skin deep. In how it drives, the Santa Fe Sport aims for the heart of the market, more athletic than a Chevrolet, Honda, or Toyota but unlikely to elicit comparisons to BMWs. The Hyundai’s value appeal is similarly conventional: same price, more car. More fun or more inches, what’s your preference?
Both cars were provided with fuel and insurance by their manufacturers. Hyundai also provided lunch.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.