On the Road Review: Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Crossover wagons are hot in America right now. Doesn’t matter what size, what shape or what brand — crossover wagons are the “in” category and are essential for the automakers in a market that hasn’t been this robust since 2006.

But why? Why do American drivers want these five-, six-, seven-, even eight-passenger wagons more than sedans, more than pickups, and a lot more than hybrid-powered Jetson cars? Why are Honda and Chevrolet planning to offer crossover wagon versions of their smallest subcompact cars?

Why is the best selling Subaru model a crossover, the Forester? Guess what the best-selling Porsche model is — the Cayenne, a crossover wagon. And don’t even get me started on Jeep, the Chrysler brand that is plainly on fire. Jeep sales in New England were up 51 percent in July, the brand that is all crossovers, all of the time.

Just think about that if you are in business. If your product, your store, or your business sold 51 percent more of anything, wouldn’t you offer more of that product, so sales would continue up, up and up?

That is exactly what the auto industry has been doing. Crossovers are hot because they offer space; greater packing space, greater people space, more versatile gear space for active lifestyles. Crossovers can tow and carry more stuff, even while most of today’s crossover wagons drive just like cars. Crossovers offer greater visibility (for those occupants in them, not trying to see around them) plus crossovers usually have more comfort than conventional sedans. In addition, most crossovers are purchased with AWD — the majority of our current car fleet does not offer AWD. All-wheel drive is not just for the Snowbelt anymore, as the latest traction aids make AWD viable for all driving situations.

Hyundai certainly noted all of these trends in the development of the latest, third generation Santa Fe. Hyundai even went so far as to design two distinct Santa Fe models for this burgeoning segment; the regular midsize, five-passenger Santa Fe Sport competes with big rivals such as the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano, while the larger seven-passenger Santa Fe targets rivals such as the Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot and the top-selling Toyota Highlander. Accomplished class indeed.

The latest Santa Fe does not shrink from the challenge of facing these rivals. In fact, through the end of July, the Santa Fe had virtually matched the Honda Pilot in total year-to-date sales, and only trailed the Highlander in this list of competitors. The newest series of Santa Fe vehicles also had climbed to the number three spot in-house, as only the compact Elantra and midsize Sonata sedans continued to outsell the Santa Fe at Hyundai dealers. Twenty percent sales gains will do that for you.

To accomplish these successes, the Santa Fe needed some new virtues and needed to erase some shortcomings that were evident in the previous edition. These performance gaps were not deal-breakers in the normal sense, but with market advances moving the ball forward all of the time, Hyundai also needed to be cognizant of engineering and features increases that consumers are expecting.

With exterior styling that approximates the Mercedes GL450 wagon, the Santa Fe has a decidedly more premium look and feel to it than before. No, it is not as nice as an Audi inside, but yes the textures and surfaces are way ahead of Toyota and Honda’s plasticky stance on interior design. Simple, efficient buttons and switches populate your view with surprises such as a heated steering wheel and driver selectable steering bonus items that generally are not available from the competition. Push button ignition, standard. Passive door locks, standard. Throw in blind spot detection, braking assist, and downhill assist for the AWD system and you start to get the picture on what the Santa Fe offers.

Of course the top Limited trim ($35,450 starting list, $41,290 as shown) pads the features list with other notable components; heated leather seating, upscale HD audio with satellite radio, dual-zone climate, rear window sunshades, power liftgate and automatic headlamps. There also is Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system, like OnStar, plus second row captain’s chairs with limousine-like legroom.

With the optional Technology Package, $4,850, the Santa Fe complements your ownership wishes with pieces such as heated second row seats, heated and ventilated front seats, rear parking assist, a huge dual-panel sunroof system, Xenon headlamps, a 550-watt Infinity Surround Sound System, plus memory settings and navigation. Hyundai’s 10-year powertrain warranty remains in place, while a five-year roadside assistance plan is now offered, too.

Throw in a strong 290-horsepower 3.3-liter direct injected V-6 engine, and the Santa Fe can make short work of your intended trip as well. Fuel economy is class average; not great, but not bad considering that no rival is offering more power. EPA ratings are 18/24/20-mpg. Drop the AWD and you get a modest mileage increase and save some purchase cash.

What impresses most, however, is the combination of all of the pieces. The ride is better, more compliant. The 19-inch wheel package (smaller sidewalls, larger wheels) exhibits some ride harshness on truly awful roads, yet the Santa Fe’s handling and overall ride composure are notably improved. Doors open and close with a thud — good solid feel, some heft that shows up in a quiet cabin. Rear cargo access is a convenient height. The Santa Fe turned around in a tight circle, tighter than some crossovers that pretend to be quick and agile. That matters, a lot, especially if you tow, go off-road any, or spend a lot of time at the urban jungle — the mall.

I wish the Santa Fe delivered better mileage, but few of us want less power. Wouldn’t a nice turbo-diesel fit this crossover better — as well as a whole lot more of this segment?

Crossovers fit the way many of us live and work; they are versatile cars that work, cars that can do more than a sedan with a fixed back seat and a constrictive trunk.

The new Santa Fe works — very well.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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