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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe First Drive

The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe looks to attract families with fresh styling and three-row utility. Will it work?

What It Is
The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe looks to attract families with three-row utility.
Best Thing
It's a big roomy SUV, but it doesn't drive like one.
Worst Thing
It's competitively priced, but doesn't offer the strong value proposition of other Hyundais.
Snap Judgment
Stylish and surprisingly agile, the three-row Hyundai Santa Fe hits all the right marks.


Before the debut of the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, and amid Hyundai's growth and success of the past few years, there was one crucial segment that seems to have been overlooked: families. Until very recently, the Korean automaker's offering for those looking to seat six or seven people was the bulbous, now discontinued Veracruz. It was a large crossover that was a good, get-the-job-done family hauler, but one that overall fell short when compared with the likes of the Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, or Toyota Highlander, among others. But the Veracruz was part of the old guard--born during Hyundai's transition from entry-level to serious contender--and it seems Korea was taking notes during the interim.

Banking on the favorable reputation of the Hyundai Santa Fe, the automaker has now doubled-up on the nameplate, and offers two very distinctive vehicles. Hyundai distinguishes the two by adding a nifty "Sport" moniker to the smaller, five-passenger crossover. The Hyundai Santa Fe (non-Sport), is larger, and offers two seating configurations: a GLS model offers seating for seven, with three standard-rows; while the Limited model replaces the middle-row bench with a set of Captain's Chairs, meaning the middle row has two individual chairs. The GLS model starts at $29,195, while a fully-equipped Limited model we tested was priced at $36,980. The Santa Fe is also a little longer--about eight inches--and generally bigger. Aesthetically the two are very similar, but look closely and there are a few differences. The Santa Fe favors a four-bar grille, to the three-bar one found on the Sport model. The fog lights sit in slightly different places, and the mirrors feature unique designs.

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While aesthetically the changes are minor, under the hood there is a significant difference. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe makes good use of a 3.3-liter, 290-hp V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, while the smaller Santa Fe Sport offers up a pair of four-cylinders (one of which is turbocharged) to choose from. The added size and three-row utility will also cost you a few mpg, but the Santa Fe is competitively efficient. With a day to push Hyundai's newest SUV around San Diego and its surrounds, a few things became abundantly clear.

Walkaround

With its long and wide body, and commanding, authoritative presence, the Hyundai Santa Fe is a true family hauler. But that doesn't mean it's bland; like much of Hyundai's lineup, the Santa Fe is dramatic, modern, and fresh, or as much as a nearly 4,000 pound SUV can be. The hexagonal grille and high-sloping beltline mirror much of the automaker's newest offerings. And while 18-inch wheels are standard, 19-inch alloy wheels are a welcome option and pair nicely with the sporty chrome-tipped dual-exhaust. With generous presence and noteworthy style, we were more than curious about what was going on inside.

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Sitting Down

Open the door to the 2013 Santa Fe and you're greeted by a modern, premium looking cabin. The Santa Fe shares the same center stack, dash, controls and gauges of the Santa Fe Sport, which is a good thing. The seats are comfortable and offer cushioning and support; there are plenty of clever storage spaces, and the cabin generally looks and feels premium. Even the faux-wood plastic inserts are well done. The dash is soft-touch, and with the 8-inch media touchscreen, the cabin feels very fresh. Entry-level models don't come with the media screen, and the first model we drove had the $2,900 technology package added. In addition to the navigation system, the package added an attractive, panoramic sunroof, a 12-speaker Infinity Logic 7 Surround Sound system, and such niceties as a heated steering wheel. While not necessary, the package really makes the car feel more expensive than the $3k extra you'll end up shelling out. The model we drove also had neat features such as an "Info" button that would also use GPS-enabled information to tell you the vehicles longitude, latitude, and elevation. On the navigation map screen, there is also a "speed limit" icon, indicating the speed limit on the road you're driving on, so you'll know exactly how big your speeding ticket will be. We'd love to see Hyundai adopt a head's up display with this information, but until it does, this is the next best thing.

Hopping in back, we briefly sat in the second row captain's chairs, and got a quick impression of the 50-50 split rear bench. While some large SUVs design the third row for parakeets or chinchilla-sized mammals, Hyundai's third row is suitable for human use. Adults needn't be bashful. The cabin feels open and airy, and the panoramic sunroof only helps this cause. Cargo is sufficient, and with the rear bench fully or partially folded, there's more if you need it.

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Driving

The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe saves the biggest surprise for once you actually turn the engine on and get moving. The 3.3-liter, 290-hp V-6 engine is a delight, and offers plenty of power throughout the range; and the engine note is surprisingly sporty and satisfying. And while I enjoyed driving the Sport model, there was noticeable body roll. Here, body roll is seemingly non-existent. What's more, the SUV feels planted, yes, but also surprisingly nimble and agile. There are three steering modes: normal, sport, and comfort, and at lower speeds, the difference is perceptible. The Sport tightens up the wheel, and offers 10 percent less assistance, while the Comfort goes the opposite direction, and adds about 10 percent more assistance over the Normal steering mode. Most drivers will be content keeping it in Normal, but the options are a welcome standard addition.

Summary

Looking to woo families, Hyundai set out to make a more alluring three-row SUV to replace the Veracruz. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe offers the utility families need, but adds modern styling and an attractive, premium-feeling cabin that the Veracruz lacked. The 3.3-liter, 290-hp V-6 engine makes for an excellent pairing, and is unexpectedly responsive and satisfying. With stiff competition such as the new Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Mazda CX-9, Hyundai needed an offering that could contend. The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe arrives to meet the challenge, and merits consideration from anyone shopping the three-row SUV segment.

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Basic Specs

3.3-liter V-6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, FWD, 290-hp, starting $29,195, $36,980 as tested after delivery. 18 mpg city/25 mpg hwy

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