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Priced and equipped with families in mind, the 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe isn't especially exciting to drive or to look at, but it's a very well-executed crossover vehicles with excellent safety scores and some made-in-America credibility. Competing with smaller utes like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, and bigger seven-seaters like the Ford Edge and Toyota Highlander crossovers, it's a "tweener" vehicle that takes great advantage of its size and space, though it no longer offers a third-row seat.
The Santa Fe does no harm with its looks. It's a little older than the rest of the Hyundai lineup, so the Santa Fe's plainly drawn panels and simple front-end treatment don't bear much relation to the extroverted Sonata, Accent and Veloster introduced in the past two years. It's somewhere on a styling curve between the Buick Enclave and the Toyota RAV4, and that's not a bad place to be. It's a bit warmer inside, with a theme that breaks rank from the usual Euro-worshipping and truck-reincarnating. The dash surfaces and seams are curved everywhere at least a little bit, and the gentle flow and contours of the cabin feel welcoming. Hyundai's improved the quality of interior trim over the Santa Fe's life, and added new colors and a sprinkling of buttons on the steering wheel, but has smartly avoided cluttering the cabin.
The new powertrains that made their way into the Santa Fe in 2010 roll on unchanged this year. The 2.4-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder makes 175 horsepower, and has enough guts to move the tall wagon briskly, while turning in 20/28 mpg fuel economy. Still, we'd opt for the much more powerful 276-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 available across the board. It's a strong, smooth performer, just a little shy of the Toyota Highlander or Chevy Equinox V-6 in refinement. Both engines are paired to a six-speed automatic that needs another round of night school: it's indecisive at times, as it tries to optimize gas mileage against leadfoot impulses. Front-wheel drive is the norm, but all-wheel drive is an option on the Santa Fe, and its power can be locked at a 50:50 split, front to back, for the worse weather and road conditions you'll encounter. Steering isn't a Hyundai strong suit, and it's a little vague and wandery here, but ride quality is on the right side of soft, with well-controlled motions, and the Santa Fe's cabin is generally quiet.
By the numbers, the Santa Fe is a few inches longer than the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V, and a few inches shorter than bigger crossovers like the Toyota Highlander. With its third-row seat discontinued a couple of years ago, it's not the all-around flexibility champ that its cousin, the Kia Sorento, might be, but it still offers seating for up to five passengers. The seats have short bottom cushions and some odd contouring, but are still supportive enough for longer drives. The smaller size means two adults max across the back row of seats, unless they're small. The cargo area's expansive for its size.
Though the NHTSA doesn't have all its crash tests completed just yet, the IIHS calls the Santa Fe a Top Safety Pick. Stability control and curtain airbags are standard, and so is Bluetooth, which we consider a safety device. Downhill braking control is added to the stability control programming for this year.The Santa Fe comes very well-equipped even in base editions, which keeps down build complexity and keeps owners satisfied. Even the GLS edition gets standard cruise control; USB port; keyless entry; and power windows, locks and mirrors. Top Limited models get full leather upholstery, a sunroof, and dual-zone climate control, plus 605-watt Infinity surround-sound audio. An optional touchscreen navigation system brings with it a rearview camera and real-time traffic.
- V-6's acceleration
- A good size for families
- Easy in-town maneuverability
- Good cargo space
- Plenty of standard features
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- Steering is vague
- Transmission shifts indecisively
- Plain looks