In the midsize, five-passenger sport utility class, there are six dominant players. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee is far and away the sales leader (240,696 sold last year), followed by Ford’s Edge, the Toyota 4Runner, Lexus RX350, Nissan’s Murano and Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport. Notably absent in this class is GM. However, a Chevy Blazer (there’s a name from the ’80s) is promised for late this year.
This market caters to a secure, “older” audience — typically adults with no kids at home. Space for rear-seat riders is more important than child-booster seat harnesses, and the cargo compartment needs to hold lots of weekend getaway gear. Ride and handling must generally be compliant; firmness here is not an attribute, yet steering feel and cornering prowess should be predictable. Quiet interiors, richly appointed, must be available on upper trim levels.
So while the Grand Cherokee might seem contrary with its rear drive/full-time four-wheel drive chassis and assortment of engines ranging from spirited to downright spine-bending, and the 4Runner could be an outlier with its off-road oriented roots and higher ride height, each of these SUVs truly matches up well with the other front-drive-based crossovers here based in space, exterior dimensions and target market. Kudos to Hyundai for recognizing the sales opportunity and creating the Santa Fe Sport with room for five but also the 8-inch longer Santa Fe with a third row seat and room for seven occupants.
Like the Ford Edge, the Santa Fe Sport features a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine — an engineering layout that is populating almost every automaker’s lineup in some fashion or another. Lighter than the Edge, the Santa Fe’s motor makes 240 peak horsepower plus a healthy 260 pound/feet of peak torque compared to the Ford’s 245 hp. Throttle tip-in and power delivery are nicely matched to the six-speed automatic, plus an electronic dash button enables the driver to select locking four-wheel drive for extreme mud and snow conditions — which our Hyundai got to experience firsthand.
The turbocharged in-line four is responsive, smooth and quiet — and obviously a trend in the industry, as it is lighter and generally more fuel-efficient than the V-6 engines it regularly replaces. The Jeep, Nissan, Lexus and Toyota all use V-6 engines for base power, with output ranging from 260-295 hp.
Often, readers will complain that their respective vehicle is “terrible in the snow.” Honestly, your vehicle isn’t designed to be bad in inclement weather. However, the tires shod on your fancy wheels are probably not up to the task you are asking them to perform. Doing any shoveling this winter in your Tevas? Cold, wet and slippery, isn’t it. Using “all-season tires” — which are designed to deliver tire life, fuel economy and so-so traction on dirt, snow and ice in Nashville — is the equivalent to wearing Tevas. While our test Hyundai’s locking 4WD mode certainly assisted snowstorm traction, the car also begged for real winter tires.
What the Santa Fe Sport Ultimate didn’t beg for was more gear; it is a well-rounded machine that offers many bells and whistles that the more expensive Lexus doesn’t offer. Those critical “touch-points” that separate your taste and your extroverted Uncle Dick’s recommendations help to define the Hyundai as a premium crossover despite a base front-drive model asking price of $24,950. Yes, our leather clad Ultimate was more expensive, crossing the $40,000 threshold, yet its portfolio of modern safety gear and driving aids, plus concise 8-inch touchscreen aided by simple buttons and knobs, its massive panoramic sunroof, power liftgate and luxurious power seats all combined to make lasting impressions. New this year is a remote-starting app for your cell phone (with Hyundai’s Blue-Link systems), Apple and Android compatibility plus a selectable mode camera system that includes 360-degree images.
Quiet, composed and displaying steady if unexciting handling, the Santa Fe Sport’s fresh styling (there will be some updates later in the year) and sleek profile create inevitable comparisons with more expensive marquees. The turning radius is small, and unfortunately so is the fuel tank, yet the difference in feel and conduct is quite notable from its larger Santa Fe sibling.
With a new subcompact Kona debuting as you read this, Hyundai is starting to flesh out its crossover lineup, and none too soon. So far, each new Hyundai crossover has proven to be a solid, winning design.