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2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Performance

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Performance

The 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe is only offered with a V-6, while the Sport model is offered with a four-cylinder–and your choice of whether or not you want that engine turbocharged.

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'd choose one of the Santa Fe's steering modes and let it be; acceleration and ride quality are a cut above the last-generation ute.

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 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.

Long-wheelbase Santa Fes 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.

The base engine on the Santa Fe Sport is Hyundai's 2.4-liter four, with 190 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, straight from duty in the Sonata sedan. With direct injection and a hookup with Hyundai's in-house six-speed automatic, the base Sport earns the best fuel economy ratings of the lineup, up to 33 miles per gallon on the EPA's highway cycle. Our first drive offered only a brief exposure to the normally aspirated four at high altitudes--not an ideal driving experience--so we're holding back those impressions until we can test this model over longer distances under more usual conditions.

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.

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.

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.

All Santa Fe crossovers adopt a new suspension design, 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.

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