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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport First Drive

The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport gets fit to fight the competition

What It Is
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is a capable five-passenger family hauler.
Best Thing
The previous Santa Fe was a good, if a little bland, crossover. Hyundai kept the good, ditched the bland.
Worst Thing
The extra good costs a little more.
Snap Judgment
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is invigorated with dramatic new styling, and engine options that make it more capable and modern.


It struck me later, that Utah would be a good place to raise a family. Considering we were driving Hyundai's most candid attempt at attracting families to the brand -- the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport -- this afterthought seemed less than coincidental. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is the first of a two-pronged attack to get parents (and possibly rugrats) to take notice. The five-passenger Sport model we drove will be followed up with the Santa Fe six and seven-passenger configurations in a few months, replacing the Hyundai Veracruz.

But with the smaller Sport model, a few things became instantly clear to us.

Hyundai sent us out to Park City to push its newest CUV up and down the pretty mountain roads. But while soaking in Swiss-Alps like scenery, I was distracted by the other Hyundai Santa Fes along the way. This sometimes happens on press trips -- not surprising with 20 of the same vehicle rolling down a road -- but in this case, it was because the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport's striking styling. The high beltline, three-bar chrome grille, and dramatic swooping lines will make you take notice, something the inoffensive blandness of the previous Santa Fe never quite achieved. The inside gets the full Hyundai makeover too, which means a more modern looking, premium feeling cabin.

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There are also some significant differences between the new and old Santa Fe models beyond looks. As Hyundai planned to attach the "Sport" moniker to the new model, it decided the sporty aspect should carry over to the scales, too. On a diet of high-tensile steel -- Hyundai's very own--engineers were able to pare down the Santa Fe's weight by 266 pounds. That's like pulling the six-foot seven-inch Los Angeles Lakers' basketball player Metta World Peace (nee Ron Artest) out of the Santa Fe. Not bad. And the fitness will continue on to the longer six and seven passenger versions, which are said to be 397 pounds lighter than the Hyundai Veracruz models they will replace. The weight loss -- and the new Hyundai Santa Fe's all-four-cylinder lineup -- were essential for Hyundai to deliver good fuel economy. Even with all-wheel drive, the thirstier turbo engine, aggressive driving and steep inclines to tackle, we managed low to mid-20s mpg numbers, noteworthy in its own right. But is this the winning formula? Is an efficient, attractive Santa Fe Sport enough to compete with the likes of the Ford Edge, Chevy Equinox, Toyota Rav4 and Kia Sorento?

Walkaround

Midsize SUVs offer the room and utility a family on the go might need, but design is often the first casualty. In recent years, the segment has seen many bloated, lethargic looking models roll their way off dealer lots, and the previous Santa Fe -- while competent -- didn't exactly make you want to jump behind the wheel. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport remedies this with fresh, modern looks that should hold up well a few years from now. Newer models like the 2013 Ford Edge had put pressure on Hyundai to deliver a more appealing aesthetic, and a few strokes from the ever-developing fluidic sculpture wand seemed to do the trick. A pronounced three-bar chrome grille, optional 19-inch wheels and a high beltline make the crossover more aggressive and sporty. The new Santa Fe seems to effortlessly evolve the nameplate for the better.

Sitting Down

Of late, Hyundai can't be accused of lacking panache and flair in its designs, and the interiors of a few recent models have caught our eye. Once seated, you notice about ten different materials of contrasting colors and shapes; a variety of plastic materials, nice leather and faux brushed metal and faux wood are abundant in the Santa Fe Sport, but Hyundai manages to pull off a clean, modern cabin despite the array. It all works to create a harmony that feels very current and is markedly more exciting and premium than the CUV it replaces. Buyers will have the choice of fine leather or cloth seats that are stain resistant, using Yes Essentials beading technology that reduces spill cleanup to a simple cloth or paper-towel pat down. Parents with a couple of little ones in tow will especially appreciate this.

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While the interior room is slightly greater than most of the competition, in some cases it seems far beyond the others. Cargo room is abundant with the rear-row up, and with it down, the Santa Fe Sport becomes cavernous. While some automakers opt for a 60-40 split to fold the rear seat, Hyundai kindly -- and almost unnecessarily -- gives you a 40-20-40 split, which means you can decide more precisely how much seating you want, and how much extra cargo space you need. There's even a hidden storage area beneath the cargo hold, that could be handy for storing cans of Fix-a-Flat, a camera bag, purse, or whatever you might keep in your vehicle at all times.

Legroom is more business class than coach if you find yourself tagging along in back for a ride. Kids and friends will approve. While the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport seats five, the longer Santa Fe that will debut in a few months will have seating options for six or seven, depending on what configuration you select. Both models will have a 4.3-inch media screen with back-up camera as standard, while the model we drove had the $2,900 technology package, meaning in addition to the panoramic sunroof, 550-watt sound system, and heated steering wheel, we got navigation with a nice, big 8.0-inch media screen.

Driving

The 2013 Sport model comes with two four-cylinder engine options, one of which can spar with good V-6s. Both engines are paired with a six-speed Hyundai-built automatic transmission, and are available with the Dynamax all-wheel-drive system for buyers who need additional traction. The entry level engine is a 2.4-liter, 190-hp powerplant that should be more than sufficient for most buyers running around town, and delivers and impressive EPA estimated 33 mpg on the highway. Scaling through elevations ranging between 6,000 and 10,000 ft, Hyundai opted to have us drive the 2.0-liter, 264-hp turbo-four-cylinder model, with all-wheel-drive. Both engines have had success in the popular Hyundai Sonata, and regardless of the incline the Santa Fe Sport's 2.0-liter turbo never felt underpowered. On flat surfaces, the punchy turbo engine even had a fair amount of power and speed, and the automatic transmission shifted easily between the gears. The ride was generally smooth, and most remarkable was how whisper-quiet the cabin was. Engineers clearly put some effort here, and even at highway speeds we appreciated the near-muted road and wind noise.

The brakes worked very well and were neither mushy nor grabby. Hyundai says the 2013 Santa Fe Sport has best in-class braking. There are some new features too, including 3 different steering modes: sport; comfort; and normal. In all honesty, we didn't notice a pronounced difference in the modes, and drove in "normal" for the great majority of our drive.

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Summary

Faced with a good, but lackluster, aging model, Hyundai set out to reinvigorate the Santa Fe crossover. The compact crossover segment is shopped by families looking for value, and currently no automaker may be better equipped to deliver a vehicle that buyers feel merit their hard earned dollars. Hyundai has become synonymous with giving buyers more for their money, or offering similar for a whole lot less, and the old Santa Fe delivered that already.

But it wasn't value that was in question, it was appeal. The resulting 2013 Santa Fe Sport delivers the automaker's fresh and modern design, and brings the model up to speed in the segment. In fact, the new Santa Fe Sport, along with the Ford Edge, make the rest of the segment look dated. The all-four-cylinder lineup offers great fuel economy, while offering two engine options for varied needs. Drivers and passengers can appreciate the premium cabin, plentiful room and endless cargo storage options.

The 2013 Santa Fe Sport models we drove were priced at $35,925, and with all of the equipment and packaging, are worth every penny. The 2.0-liter turbo-four-cylinder engine is the one we'd opt for in the Santa Fe, and even with the pricier, punchier engine, buyers can get a well-equipped Santa Fe Sport well under $30k. For families looking for a fresh, modern crossover with plenty of features, room, and utility, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is a good place to start.

Basic Specs

2.4-liter four-cylinder, six-speed automatic, FWD, 190 hp, $24,450, 22 mpg city/ 33 mpg hwy 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, six-speed automatic, FWD, 264 hp, $27,700, 21 mpg city, 31 mpg hwy

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