2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport first drive

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport main

The crossover SUV segment continues to prove a popular one as more and more drivers opt for the comfort and utility these “cute ‘utes” have a knack at providing. Naturally, that growth in popularity sees automakers vying not only for segment supremacy, but for your hard-earned dollars. Hyundai is no different, and the Korean automaker is readying the release of not one, but two new Santa Fes for the 2013 model year.

That’s right, Hyundai will debut two new models for 2013: the two-row 2013 Santa Fe Sport, which should be making its way to dealerships right about now, and a longer three-row Santa Fe early next year. So what’s the difference besides the sporty moniker? Not much other than some minor styling tweaks, interior specs and a naturally longer wheelbase. We spent a considerable amount of time last week in Park City, Utah driving the smaller Sport model, and so, without further adieu, here is what we thought.

The emancipation of sterile styling

As far as dimensions go, the 2013  Hyundai Santa Fe Sport hasn’t changed much. Hyundai says its wants to go after the “post-family” crowd with less need for large passenger carrying capacity, and as such the Santa Fe Sport is neither big nor small. Instead, it camps out in the middle ground of the compact utility vehicle segment with its 106.3-inch wheelbase, which is the same as last year’s iteration. That makes the 2013 Santa Fe Sport larger than other cars in its class like the Toyota RAV4, but smaller than Ford Edge and Chevy Equinox. Of course, families with plenty of birds still in the nest will likely flock to the larger wheelbase version of the 2013 Santa Fe, which Hyundai has rather annoyingly not given a distinguishing name for, opting to simply refer to it only as the Santa Fe or “longer wheelbase Santa Fe.”

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We’re not going to pull any punches: Hyundais, in the past, have looked uninspired and cheap. The designs were drab, dull, boring, or a number of other negative descriptors we’re too lazy to write. Thankfully, things have changed, and Hyundai now designs some of the most eye-catching cars on the road. True to that trend, the Santa Fe is one of the better looking CUVs we have seen this year.

At its face, the Santa Fe Sport greets you with Hyundai’s hexagonal two-tone chrome grill. LED accent headlights offer an added level of style and sophistication, making the Santa Fe instantly recognizable on the road, along with its liberal use of brightwork. On the side of the vehicle, we find an exaggerated character line that runs the length of the greenhouse and continues on to the rear, where it’s met by the Santa Fe’s swooping decklid.

Hyundai has labeled its design concept “Fluidic Precision,” which appears to be the evolution of its previous “Fluidic Sculpture” design language seen on its previous vehicles like the Veloster Turbo, Elantra GT, and Elantra Coupe. Whatever it’s called, we like it. Hyundai has managed to design a dynamic and standout CUV without obnoxiously dipping into the reservoir of eccentricity that many crossover vehicles proudly feature with their superficial stylings. To put it simply: It’s a great looking car that dances between luxury and leisure, stylish and sporty.

Style and comfort done right

Crossover ‘utes need to do more than simply ride high and look good; they need to be offer a level of comfort and utility your average mid-sized sedan can’t. In this regard the 2013 Santa Fe’s interior sets the bar pretty high. Virtually everything within the cabin shines of quality. The materials used inside all feel first-class, and the design is accessible whether you’re piloting or sitting in the rear. Speaking of which, both seating up front and in the back felt top notch, with a high degree of comfort and cushioning that will make even the longest of roadtrips a welcome experience.

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In terms of space, Hyundai has added a 5.2-inch adjustable track which provides greater flexibility for rear-seat wranglers. And with 35.4 cubic feet of storage space and rear seats that uniquely fold on a 40/20/40 split, space in the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport isn’t a luxury; it’s a way of life.

Options and more

Hyundai has been making a case for itself by providing stylish designs coupled with excellent value, and the 2013 Santa Fe Sport also attempts to strike that balance. Standard features include power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering; steering-wheel audio and phone controls; and 17-inch wheels. The standard audio system is an AM/FM/CD player with satellite radio, USB and auxiliary ports, Bluetooth and audio streaming, and six speakers.

Additional option packages will also be available including a Popular Equipment package, which bundles automatic headlights, heated exterior mirrors, heated front seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel to name a few, as well as a Leather and Premium package, which adds further amenities such as a back-up camera, 4.3-inch touchscreen, HD radio, and keyless entry, among others.

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For the technocentric driver, Hyundai offers a Technology Package that includes panoramic sunroof with a sliding fabric sunshade, navigation system with upgraded 8-inch touchscreen, heated steering wheel, and manual rear window shades. The tech package also adds the heart-pounding 12-speaker Infinity audio system.

A 90-day free trial of Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system comes standard. Here, drivers can receive turn-by-turn navigation and Bluetooth streaming for various app through their smartphone. Blue Link actually incorporates some rather nifty features that can be configured through its corresponding iPhone app. Drivers can set up geofencing, which will alert you via text if your car ventures beyond its designated driving zone, speed limits that inhibit the car from traveling beyond certain speeds, as well enable remote engine ignition. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get hands on with any of the features with the loaner Hyundai provided.

A mountain of a performer

Hyundai will offer two powertrains for the 2013 Santa Fe Sport: a base 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine capable of producing 190 horsepower, and a 2.0-liter turbo inline four capable of pumping out 264 horsepower. Both engines are accompanied by a six-speed automatic transmission and can be had in either front wheel or all-wheel drive configurations.

We didn’t have a chance to drive the 2.4-liter, but in spite of its smaller displacement, the turbo is an out and out winner. Here we happily traded away the 2.4-liter’s EPA rated 23/33 mpg for the turbo’s slight drop to 21/32. The real compromises comes when deciding whether to opt for all-wheel drive, which causes fuel economy to dip farther down even further to 20/27 mpg.

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Despite its lower mileage returns and added package price ($1,600), the 2.0-liter turbo handled itself professionally despite Park City, Utah’s lung-sapping altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level. Surprisingly, turbolag was virtually a non-issue, and often had us consulting our vehicle spec sheet just to be sure we had the correct model.

Truthfully speaking, the Santa Fe Sport isn’t as quick off the blocks as we’d hope, but what it lacks in speed it compensates for with agility. Hyundai has thrown in three levels of steering to keep things both comfortable an interesting. The Driver Selectable Steering Modes (DSSM) allow drivers to instantly switch between three different calibration levels: normal, sport, and comfort. Most of our time was spent in sport mode, which reduces power assist by about 10 percent, according to Hyundai, while comfort increases power assist by that same figure, and normal sits between the two. For our money, sport provided the best feedback during our drives, but we imagine most will do just fine in normal.

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It might not be as versed in the sporty ways its moniker would have you believe, but the 2013 Santa Fe Sport offers a surprisingly lively ride, and while you would do best to stick to paved roads in this aggressively handsome compact crossover, the third-generation Santa Fe is surprisingly capable off road too, thanks to the Active Cornering Control AWD — which independently applies braking to the inside rear wheel during arduous cornering. Underpinning the front of 2013 Santa Fe Sport is a MacPherson strut suspension, while a multi-link bar in the rear has been implemented for an improved cabin volume and overall ride comfort.

Finish Line

We can’t predict the future, but we think Hyundai has a hit on its hands. The 2013 Santa Fe Sport makes a compelling case for a segment leading position with its attractive design and comfortable interior. The added dynamism and competence of its handling, coupled with its impressive fuel economy and feature rich options give it a strong starting birth among its top rivals. Of course we’d still prefer a little more pep off the line, but overall we can’t complain with 2.0-liter turbo’s lively character.

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With a base price of $24,450 — and if Hyundai can deliver the same quality in the longer wheelbase Santa Fe — we see the Korean automaker delivering a one-two punch that the competition will take some time to recover from.

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