The decision to make numerous revisions to a vehicle are not just governed by emerging trends or shifting buyer interest, but also by engineering breakthroughs and advancements in the materials used. Take Hyundai’s midsize SUV, the Santa Fe, for example: First introduced in 2001, it is now in its third generation and is exchanging blows with the best in the biz as the crossover segment continues to capture consumer interest. With the last overhaul being a full three years past, and American interest in Korean cars at an all-time high, Hyundai has taken the little SUV and given it a thorough makeover.
Both the normal seven-seat Santa Fe and its sportier, smaller five-seat sibling have received redesigned body lines, an overhauled interior, and tech upgrades aplenty, as Hyundai states that within the Sport model alone, “nearly 350 individual parts have been updated, representing about 25% of total Santa Fe Sport parts content.”
So exactly how good is the new Santa Fe Sport? We recently discovered that if you select the all-wheel drive Ultimate edition with a 2.0-liter turbo and opt for an additional tech package, the results are outstanding on every level. This little SUV took us by surprise, both in its appeal and performance, and while it doesn’t check every box on the “must buy” shopping list, we found ourselves returning the keys with a smile of satisfaction. Here is why.
The Santa Fe has grown from an oddly-proportioned duckling into a graceful, adult-sized swan, and due to an already attractive outward appearance, Hyundai didn’t find itself having to re-sculpt too much of it. Nevertheless, the car’s front fascia has been revised with a new grille and headlamps, fresh taillights and exhaust tips out back, rocker panels receive tasteful splashes of accent trim, and new wheel designs in 17- or 19-inch configurations round it out nicely.
Exterior pros and cons
+ The fresh face on the Santa Fe looks dynamite from any angle, 19-inch alloy wheels and rear wing are sharp, and roof rails match the ground effects.
+ LED running lights, headlamp accents, and multi-layered tubed rear lenses are attractive, self adjusting, and bright.
+ Black lower plastic trim pieces get partially covered by unpolished metallic trim pieces, which add dimension and contrast.
– Single-sided square exhaust tips look out of place since the rear lower valance appears to be designed for a split dual-oval layout.
– Small potatoes, but there’s no backseat keyless entry button, so you have to grab a front handle before opening the rear.
The Santa Fe Sport’s 2.0-liter turbo engine is no slouch, and with 240 horsepower at around 6,000 RPM, it almost has V6 top-end capabilities. But where it starts to struggle at higher speeds and requests that you engage a lower gear in order to push the RPM gauge higher, it’s down low where this motor and transmission make the music happen. Torque is most noticeable in the 1,450 to 3,500 RPM range, which equals out to 260 pound-feet of twist and a noticeable kick in the pants after Sport mode remaps the ECU and adjusts shift points. It also has a locking center differential for additional traction, and descent control for wayward wandering.
Hyundai has deliberately made this motor less potent than the old version in order to corral some MPG gains, and while it will surprise some buyers with its noticeable boost and various driving modes, it struggles to stand out. Tuning down performance did score Hyundai extra fuel economy here and there; the vehicle’s 2-ton weight, permanent AWD, and six-speed transmission score it a 4/10 efficiency rating from the EPA, which means a mediocre 19/24 city/highway rating.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Power can be felt almost instantly thanks to a twin-scroll turbo that delivers 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.
+ Eco, Normal, and Sport drive modes all noticeably play with shift points and engine mapping.
+ AWD differential lock, downhill descent control, and active cornering AWD traction controls keep safety a priority.
– A 21 mile per gallon average from the EPA isn’t stellar in a competitive field.
– Six-speed automatic feels direct, but is not nearly as engaging as the engine.
Hyundai has updated a lot of the interior on the Santa Fe, and both the cabin layout and the materials used speak volumes about how far Hyundai has come since it first rolled this vehicle out. While the Sport model foregoes the third row entirely in favor of a dedicated rear stow space with plenty of storage cubbies, it’s the elongated list of standard touches that come on the Ultimate version that make for a convincing argument. Dual-zone automatic climate control, heated/vented front seats, a heated steering wheel, a large panoramic sunroof, and quality materials at every corner make for a very nice ride.
Interior pros and cons
+ Sharply restyled and instinctual, the cabin looks and feels top notch and modern.
+ Heated steering wheel and rear bench, vented/heated front seats, a sunroof the size of Southeast Asia, and Infinity premium audio components are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to standard features on the Ultimate trim.
+ 40/20/40 split reclining and sliding rear seat, undertray storage cubbies in the rear, an automatic liftgate, rear sun shades, driver memory seats, and dual automatic climate control.
– Contrasting interior colors on the vehicle we received didn’t really contrast at all, and the use of faux wood trim didn’t help matters.
Tech and safety
Packed with tech safety and easy-to-use infotainment gadgets, the Santa Fe Sport Ultimate makes yet another argument for its existence by taking an all-encompassing approach to connectivity. We strongly suggest spending the $1,550 and getting the tech package, too. This provides things like fully adaptive cruise control with stop/start, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane departure warnings, an electronic parking brake with auto-hold, dynamic bending headlamps, and high beam assistance with auto leveling adjustments. Hell, even if you don’t feel the need for these additions, the Santa Fe Ultimate comes fully loaded with safety features and functional tech touches, a strong suit considering how inexpensive it is compared to most other loaded vehicles in the segment.
Tech pros and cons
+ Multi-view camera angles with various view selections on an 8-inch infotainment screen that also offers weather, traffic, and Hyundai Blue Link connectivity scores big points for suburban buyers.
+ Tech package offers a lot of cutting-edge tech safety for very little money.
+ Android Auto is already on board, with Apple CarPlay reportedly jumping on this autumn.
– Rear bench could use some USB love, and for as responsive and informative as it is, the driver info display is a bit behind the curve graphically.
The Sport gets its title more for its shorter body lines and missing third row than for its driving ferocity, which sounds about right considering the automaker in question and the segment itself. But don’t let that dissuade you from taking it into some corners in Sport mode and feeling out the traction strengths its AWD system offers. This is a more nimble vehicle than one might expect, and while it could use some stiffer sway bars and less restrictive exhaust to really earn that “Sport,” the average small SUV shopper will find it to be plenty capable and suitable on a daily driving basis.
Hyundai has gone to great lengths to guarantee that Sport mode does exactly what it says it will on paper, and with a twin-scrolling turbo backing things up, getting up to speed borders on being a blast in this SUV. It may not have the torque curve of the turbocharged Mazda CX-9, nor does it see a bump in power from putting premium in its tank, but it feels deliberate, even when its six-speed gearbox is sedate without paddle shifters.
It also has a quiet cabin, and while it offers a ride that might be too sharp for some backseat passengers, we found it to be right on the money for the sporty SUV segment. Braking is good and comes supported by tech assistance in case of a sudden road obstruction, and although we noticed some slop in the corners, the slightly undersized sway bars aren’t a deal breaker either. Unfortunately, Hyundai’s variable cruise control sensors can be a little sensitive at times, so be sure to deactivate cruise if you plan on smoothly switching lanes when a vehicle is closer than the system likes.
Wrap up and review
Many critics put the new Santa Fe below the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, and Toyota Highlander, but that is because they are using the V6 powered full-size three row version as the test mule, and not the smaller, sportier Sport version. This model is more CUV than SUV, and would be more attuned to competing against the CX-5, RAV4, or the CR-V, all of which it trounces in the performance handling and powertrain departments.
While some may be aghast that a Santa Fe Sport can come out to around $40,000 with a tech package attached, it’s important to put things in perspective considering the rest of the market. If you wanted all of these features in another vehicle you would have to spend even more than that. Hyundai continues to crush the car game with its outstanding price tags and unbeatable warranties, and now that it has a firm grasp on what millennial buyers want, we feel it’s only a matter of time until the Korean powerhouse takes the top sport utility vehicle spot away from its Japanese competitors.