The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport puts some distance between itself and its long-wheelbase Santa Fe sibling by subtracting a couple of cylinders from the equation. The big Santa Fe is six-cylinder only; the Sport rolls with four-cylinders, turbocharged or not.
Even with less displacement, the Santa Fe Sport outperforms its Hyundai's old V-6 crossovers, while the longer Santa Fe equals that performance and tops it with better towing capability. Both versions outshine the last Santa Fe and the former Veracruz in ride comfort, too.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter turbo four is another familiar piece, as it's also shared with the Sonata. In this application it makes 264 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque, while topping out in front-drive form at 29 mpg highway. It smoothly conveys abundant power through a fairly wide swath of the powerband; we'd estimate a 0-60 mph time at 7.0 seconds on lighter front-wheel drive models, which weigh in at a lean 3459 pounds.
Long-wheelbase Santa Fes will get the only V-6 in the lineup, a 3.3-liter engine from the Azera sedan, with 290 horsepower, a six-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive, and a base curb weight of about 3900 pounds. Rolling on standard 18-inch wheels (19-inchers are an option), the Santa Fe comes out of the box, ready to tow 5000 pounds, its powertrain made more rugged and retuned for lower-powerband torque.
Both vehicles are connected with a six-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode available off the console-mounted lever. The shift quality's well sorted and the manual mode answers the call quickly, though deep calls for power can catch the gearbox napping. Step into the gas fully from a light throttle, and after a brief pause, the automatic shifts down eagerly, with a mild rebound felt through the drivetrain. You don't have to concentrate on being a smoother driver for the Santa Fe or the Sport to behave smoothly, though--an Active ECO mode will blur over shifts and throttle responses, saving very small amounts of gas at the same time.
We've spent many hours driving the pair--in a turbo Sport and in the long-wheelbase Santa Fe. Either one can be fitted with an optional all-wheel-drive system that uses an open center differential to distribute power from the front wheels to the rears when traction needs arise, and leans on anti-lock control to clamp down on wheelspin. All-wheel-drive models also have torque vectoring control on the rear wheels via the same means; to aid cornering, the inside rear wheel gets some braking applied automatically. All the electronics can be shut off, for times when wheelspin is your ally. Ground clearance is down to 7.3 inches, and the light-duty traction system (on principle, like the one in the Mercedes M-Class) is more an all-weather friend than a trail-blazer.
This year, all Santa Fe crossovers adopt a new suspension design and electric power steering, and a calmer, quieter ride is obvious after just a few miles of driving. The front struts and multiple links in the rear are fitted with bigger bushings and packaged more precisely inside the wheel wells, which Hyundai says frees up more cargo space and helps improve wheel control. The physics don't have to elude you--the silence from the wheel wells is proof enough, and the Sport feels absorbent and mostly controlled over freshly paved interstates and mildly broken back roads. When the gravel path gets really rutted, the Santa Fe Sport doesn't really lose its laid-back attitude, but does let its wheels (17-inchers are standard; 19-inchers are optional) rebound with a slightly firm thump. The longer-wheelbase Santa Fe uses its extra wheelbase to its advantage, damping even the worst surfaces well, even when those 19-inch wheels are specified.
Electric power steering has been a learning curve for all automakers, and Hyundai's path has taken it from the Sonata to the Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport with incremental improvements in feel and design. All these vehicles use a column-mounted motor, but the Santa Fe and Sport have the latest three-mode, driver-selectable steering that bowed on the 2013 Elantra GT. In that hatchback, we were happy to leave the heft-added steering in Normal mode all day. In the Sport, the "sport" setting's increased effort and later onset of assistance helped the car track better on the highway stretches of our test drive, just as the AWD system likely soaked up some of the on-center vagueness we've felt on the Elantra and Sonata. It's a good step forward; we'd leave Comfort's slow, light feel to anyone who thinks the last Santa Fe was a little too daring and sporty.