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The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is two vehicles in one. Hyundai's merged its old Veracruz into the ether, and now, the Santa Fe comes in two flavors–the seven-passenger, three-row family wagon and a more compact five-passenger Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. The two-row Sport is built in Georgia, while the Santa Fe is imported from South Korea.
Between these two models, the Santa Fe cuts across a huge swath of CUVs and mini-utes, everything from the smaller Ford Escape and Honda CR-V, through the bigger five-passenger crossovers like the Ford Edge and Toyota Venza and Chevy Equinox. With the bigger model, which is 8.5 inches longer than the sport, with a wheelbase about four inches longer (and 40 cubic feet more passenger space), the Santa Fe lineup will spread all the way into the three-row realm where vehicles like the Dodge Journey, Kia Sorento, and especially, the Pilot, Highlander, and Explorer claim the vast chunk of sales.
Crossovers are all about room and utility, and neither Santa Fe comes up short. The Santa Fe's front seats are a step up from the most recent Hyundai vintage, with better support built into the bottom cushion. But the second row is where the action is: on some models, the second row slides on a 5.2-inch track for better flexibility, in the same way the seat in the Chevy Equinox moves. The seat also reclines and folds on a 40/20/40 split, making way for longer objects while preserving four seating positions. There's even some storage space below the cargo floor and even some space for a handbag ahead of the shift lever, though that'll block access to the audio ports. For three-row models, shoppers have a choice between the 40/20/40 layout or a six-passenger layout with cozy captain's chairs—and all of these models get Yes Essentials soil-resistant upholstery.The two-row Santa Fe Sport is offered with both a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine producing 190 horsepower, and a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder producing 264 horsepower. The three-row Santa Fe model is powered by a 3.3-liter V-6 producing 290 horsepower--the same smooth new engine used in the Azera. All three engines feature direct-injection technology and six-speed automatic transmissions for better fuel economy and more power. Front- and all-wheel drive configurations will be offered with both engines. In the Sport, there's no doubt which engine's a more convincing trade-off of economy and performance: it's the turbo by far, which drops only a couple of miles per gallon highway while turning in very capable acceleration. There's no choice with the Santa Fe, but its V-6 is fairly muscular--strong enough to pull 5000 pounds behind it without add-ons. As for the rest of the Santa Fe driving experience, it's mainly smoother and more effortless. The automatic sometimes gets caught napping between taps of the throttle, but the powertrains are muted well. The ride's improved greatly and also grown more quiet--bigger bushings in the independent suspension are engineered for the bigger Santa Fe, but also used on the Sport--but we'd just as soon leave the three-mode electric steering in Normal or Sport, because Comfort's just too slow for our comfort.
Hyundai's betting that new styling, along with better performance and a more flexible interior, will vault the Santa Fe into the top tier of those ranks. It's easy to see how its looks will go far. The Santa Fe's a grown-up ute from the outside alone, and its new two-tone interior makes for one sophisticated crossover.. The sharp edges and tight creases wrap around it in interesting new ways, and Hyundai's hexagonal grille gets its best treatment thus far here, bracketed by headlamps and foglamps. The D-pillar's upkick and stance remind us a little of the Escape, but the Santa Fe Sport's shape is more faceted and studied than the Ford's, no more or less handsome. The longer Santa Fe? It's a little less distinctive, but as a minivan replacement, it doesn't need to be flashy. The interior is another bar raised for Hyundai, with some faint GM cues penned in its shield of controls, surrounded by the usual swoops and fluid curves--and trimmed in two-tone materials, an upscale touch that looks better when it's capped in glossy trim than in faux wood.
The Santa Fe and Sport have the usual airbags (including a driver knee airbag) and stability control, and the option of all-wheel drive. Bluetooth is standard and a rearview camera is an option on all but the base model, but blind-spot monitors aren't offered. (They're on the way, Hyundai says.) The shorter-wheelbase Santa Fe Sport earns top 'good' scores in all categories, earning the IIHS Top Safety Pick again for 2013. It's also a top five-star performer according to the federal government. But those agencies haven't yet rated the three-row, longer-wheelbase Santa Fe.With a base price of about $25,000 for the Sport or about $29,000 for the longer version, the 2013 Santa Fe Sport makes the usual Hyundai case for value. It gets 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. A panoramic sunroof, Infinity audio, and an improved navigation system lift the Santa Fe to a higher plateau. Push-button start, automatic climate control, and heated-and-cooled front seats are available on some models.
The Santa Fe duo also gets standard Hyundai's BlueLink telematics system. This OnStar-like system incorporates turn-by-turn navigation and Bluetooth streaming for apps such as Pandora, and works in conjunction with your smartphone and an owner website to set up functions like speed limits and geofencing--setting up limits on where the car can be driven. A BlueLink app for the iPhone will be available, giving consumers the ability to lock and unlock and to start the Santa Fe by remote, too.