Pros: Great optional V6, ample cargo capacity, roomy back seat, strong IIHS crash-test scores.

Cons: Dated styling and interior, mediocre base engine, poor government crash-test scores.

Introduction

The 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe is the rare old-school Hyundai whose oldness we don't mind. Old Hyundais are easy to spot these days because of Hyundai's radical new styling philosophy, which is steadily spreading across the lineup. Basically, if a Hyundai is festooned with aggressive curves and creases, it's from the new school. And if it looks generic and vaguely derivative, it's from the old school. The Santa Fe definitely falls into the latter category. Nonetheless, it's one of our preferred compact crossover SUVs, even at this advanced stage in its life.

Easily our favorite feature of this Hyundai is its optional 3.5-liter V6, a recent addition that almost singlehandedly transforms the Santa Fe into an object of desire. The V6 has the power to compete with the previously undisputed champ, the Toyota RAV4's V6, and it actually gets better fuel economy with all-wheel drive than the base four-cylinder engine. It's one of the best engines in any vehicle at this price point.

Speaking of price, that's another Santa Fe strength. Y-ou can get into a front-wheel-drive GLS V6 model for just over $25,000, and that buys you a bunch of standard equipment as well. Indeed, the only real knock on the Santa Fe is its blandness relative to newer Hyundai designs. We usually prefer Hyundai's latest and greatest, but we wouldn't mind rocking it old school in this case. Don't forget about the well-aged Santa Fe when you're shopping for a new compact crossover.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe is offered in three trim levels: GLS, SE and Limited.

The GLS starts with 17-inch alloy wheels, power accessories, air-conditioning, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, woodgrain interior trim, cruise control, a trip computer, cloth upholstery, heated side mirrors, manually adjustable driver lumbar support and a six-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

The V6-only SE adds 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a rear spoiler, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a compass, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power driver's seat (including power lumbar) and hybrid cloth/leather upholstery.

The Limited tacks on a sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats and a 10-speaker, 605-watt Infinity audio system.

There are no factory options on the GLS other than the V6 engine. The SE is eligible for a Premium package that adds the Limited's sunroof and premium audio system plus a navigation system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen and a rearview camera. The navigation system is optional on the Limited.

The Santa Fe's driver's seat is significantly improved by the optional lumbar adjustment, but the front seats lack lateral support no matter what model you choose. They are mounted high, though, so you definitely get that SUV-style commanding view of the road. Unlike some other Hyundais, the Santa Fe comes standard with a telescopic steering column, so you don't have to pay extra for this handy feature.

The Santa Fe's gauges are almost too simple-we look at them and think "rental car"-but they're certainly easy to read at a glance. The dashboard consists of hard materials that aren't up to Hyundai's latest quality standards. It's also clearly dated in terms of style. Still, the controls are simple to decipher and use.

The Santa Fe's back seat has a nice high bottom cushion and plenty of room for adult passengers. It may not recline or slide like some rivals, but we don't think it really needs to. On the hauling front, there's 34.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat and 78.2 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded-both very strong figures for this class.

Technology

We appreciate that Hyundai has kept the Santa Fe reasonably current in its old age, giving it standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, -a nice touch in an entry-level compact crossover. Otherwise, there's not a lot of tech to talk about beyond the optional navigation system. The nav uses a 6.5-inch touchscreen that's not Hyundai's latest, but it works well enough, and its old-school graphics are in keeping with the rest of the vehicle. We wouldn't recommend spending your money on the nav upgrade unless you get a great price at your local dealer, but this system gets the job done in a predictably no-frills kind of way.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Standard on the Santa Fe GLS and Limited is a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 175 horsepower and 169 lb-ft of torque. This isn't a bad engine, but it's not especially strong or refined, either. The optional 3.5-liter V6 (standard on SE), on the other hand, is a wonderful engine, cranking out 276 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque-enough to put the Santa Fe at the head of its class. The V6 is plenty smooth, too. No matter which engine you choose, the transmission is a satisfying six-speed automatic.

Front-wheel drive is standard on all Santa Fe models, with all-wheel drive optional. Fuel economy starts at 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway for the inline-4 with front-wheel drive, dropping to 20/25 mpg with AWD. The V6 gets 20/26 mpg with either front-wheel drive or AWD.

Safety

The 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front head restraints and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

In government crash-testing, the Santa Fe fared poorly, meriting just a three-star rating out of five, including two stars for side-impact protection. Oddly enough, the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported no issues, awarding the Santa Fe its highest rating of "Good" in all categories.

Driving Impressions

The Santa Fe rides high and takes bumps in stride. I-n other words, it's a bona fide crossover SUV. Handling is predictably soft and a little sloppy, no thanks to the numb steering, but the payoff comes when you roll over a patch of broken pavement and the Santa Fe just shrugs it off. Road noise is noticeable but not excessive. We like the Santa Fe as an urban activity vehicle; it's a good match for crumbling city roads.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sorento - Mechanically similar in many ways, including engine options, the Sorento offers a third-row seat and a considerably newer interior, plus a novel direct-injected inline-4.

Toyota RAV4 - The RAV4 is roughly as old as the Santa Fe, but it keeps on truckin' with its superb optional V6. Still worth a look.

Volkswagen Tiguan - If you think the Tiguan's out of the Santa Fe's pricing league, think again; you can get a nicely equipped Tiguan for about the price of a base Santa Fe V6. We do prefer the Hyundai's V6 to the VW's turbo four, but the Tiguan is an all-around nicer car.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Santa Fe just isn't the same without that V6, so we'd have to have it-but we don't believe in spending big money on an entry-level crossover SUV. The sweet spot for us, then, would be the base GLS V6, which boasts plenty of feature content for around $25,000, -or $26,000-plus if you need AWD.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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