Let's face it: Goldilocks is bit of a diva. Walking in the woods, hungry and alone, she gets all particular about which bowl of someone else's soup she'll eat. At the very least, she's hard to please.
Lots of Choices
There are two distinct Hyundai Santa Fe models to choose from for 2013. There's the Santa Fe Sport, which is the most like the Hyundai Santa Fe we've known and loved for years. It's a 5-passenger crossover SUV (CUV) that's bigger than a Honda CR-V but feels a little less substantial than a Ford Edge. Then there's the version that's simply called Hyundai Santa Fe; this one is a little bigger - more like a mid-size CUV similar to the Toyota Highlander or even the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder. Like the Highlander and all-new Pathfinder, the Santa Fe (non-Sport version) has three rows of seats.
Ever since the Santa Fe's introduction in 2001, it's been a bit odd compared to other crossovers. Even back then, it felt roomier inside than some of its compact competitors, it had a strikingly odd look and it was a little nicer than other compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V.
For 2013, the Santa Fe is, once again, sort of hard to categorize. Shoppers will clearly consider it alongside the Honda CR-V, but even the Santa Fe Sport is bigger, nicer inside and starts at a higher price - roughly $25,000.
There are two engines available with the Santa Fe Sport: a 2.4-liter, gasoline direct-injection (GDI) 4-cylinder and 2.0-liter turbo direct-injection 4-cylinder. The 2.4-liter engine is good for 190 horsepower and gets an estimated 33 mpg on the highway. Plus, both front- and all-wheel-drive versions are offered.
We spent most of our time in an all-wheel-drive turbo model. The turbo engine is good for 264 hp. The turbo model is rated at 20 mpg city and 27 highway. Without trying, our fuel economy was right in mid 20s with combined city and highway driving.
Our time behind the wheel in and around Park City, Utah proved the Santa Fe Sport to be very versatile. With the 2.0-liter engine, power comes on strong and smooth with very little turbo lag. All 269 lb-ft of torque come on at a low 1,750 rpm, so the Santa Fe feels quick even from stop. Acceleration feels brisk, which is even more impressive considering the near-10,000-ft elevation where we drove the Santa Fe.
The long-wheelbase Santa Fe gets Hyundai's 3.3-liter GDI V6 engine, which is also found in the Hyundai Azera.
Ride and Handling
On the highway, the Santa Fe's cabin is quiet and the ride is very smooth - a lot like a luxury SUV. The Santa Fe also handles loose gravel and dirt roads well. Even in low-traction situations, the Santa Fe doesn't feel like a heavy, front-wheel-drive SUV. Rather than just plowing ahead, the Santa Fe's suspension does a nice job of handling weight - it's even possible to get the back of the car to come around slightly. This is not to say the Santa Fe feels like a sports car - it doesn't. Still, the predictable nature of the SUV both on road and off is reassuring.
All 2013 Santa Fe models use a 6-speed automatic transmission with a shift-it-yourself feature.
To help make the Santa Fe feel light on its feet and deliver great handling on road, Hyundai uses Active Cornering technology in all-wheel-drive models. Essentially, the system uses the stability control system and a computer controller to direct power to a specific wheel when cornering. We could feel the effects of the system (better cornering), but could never really tell when it kicked in.
Inside the new Santa Fe is an interior that looks much better and more luxurious than that of the 2012 model. The curvy flowing lines match the exterior look and contribute to the overall feeling that the Santa Fe is a notch or two above small crossovers like the Toyota RAV4. In terms of total execution, the Santa Fe Sport come across a lot like a Toyota Venza, or perhaps even a Lexus - the Santa Fe gets extra points for style. However, a few of the dash-mounted buttons and switches feel like they're of a lower quality than you'd find in a Lexus.
There's no shortage of options with the new Santa Fe. Buyers can opt for a 550-watt Infinity sound system, panoramic sunroof, leather seats, touchscreen navigation and HD radio.
If you're really counting your pennies, you might notice that the Santa Fe is a little pricier than some similar vehicles. The base price for the Santa Fe Sport is $25,275, including destination. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 come in closer to $23,000. However, it's easy to argue that the Santa Fe has a lot more style and is noticeably fresher than the RAV4. But we think the Santa Fe Sport is more like a Toyota Venza given the Hyundai's overall look and feel. At close to $28,000 for the Venza, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe suddenly makes a lot of sense.
Sure, Hyundai's not making it easy to find the perfect family car, but the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is notably better than other, more popular competitors. It has a little something for everyone. It does everything you'd expect from a crossover SUV, and then some. The creased look of the new body, near-luxury interior, generous passenger space and fun-to-drive nature add up a pretty compelling family car.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.