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Third time's a charm: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

Hyundai pins hopes on final model in lineup to undergo redesign

HUNTSVILLE, ONT.?There’s no denying that Hyundai’s been on fire recently.

Ever since its ?product renaissance? about five years ago, the Korean juggernaut has managed to surpass even the most stalwart Japanese market leaders by offering dynamic styling and attractive, loaded interiors ? in segments that had traditionally been devoid of either.

Yet, the one market that has remained elusive in Hyundai’s sweep of the most-often-shopped categories is the mid-size crossover.

And now, the Santa Fe returns for its third generation in what Hyundai Canada president Steve Kelleher calls ?the most important vehicle launch since the Elantra.?

Hyundai’s never really been able to capture buyers in this segment the way cousin Kia has with its Sorento. The Santa Fe is the final vehicle in the Hyundai lineup to be fully recreated and a lot of hope is riding on its newly stylish flanks.

Instead of the swoopy, fluidic-sculpture drama of the Elantra, the Santa Fe receives the latest incarnation of Hyundai’s design language, called ?Fluidic Precision? ? featuring crisp, taut lines.

There are two distinct models: the Santa Fe Sport and a long-wheelbase, seven-passenger model, called simply Santa Fe, which will debut early next year.

I drove the Santa Fe Sport in Ontario’s lovely Muskoka region, an event that, oddly enough, the Hyundai folks repeatedly referred to as an ?escape from the city? ? reminding us of one of their biggest competitors, the Ford Escape.

Heading north from Toronto, I set out in the 2.0T-equipped SE AWD Sport ($35,299), which Hyundai predicts will be the volume seller.

The comfortable cabin will look familiar to anyone who’s spent time in any of Hyundai’s other offerings. There’s a modern, geometrically shaped centre stack flanked by angular air vents, with premium soft-touch materials and aluminum and wood trim. Switchgear is intuitive and easy to use, with an optional eight-inch touchscreen display on models equipped with the Technology package.

Overhead, one of the nicest panoramic sunroofs I’ve ever seen lets in plenty of light. Leather seats are cushy and comfortable over a two-hour highway drive. Rear seats recline, and fold flat to provide 2,025 litres of cargo space. Overall, there’s a sense of decent craftsmanship and refinement.

The 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder engine is similar to that found in the Sonata Turbo, but reworked to provide a broader torque range. With 264 hp and 269 lb.-ft. of torque, the 2.0T has slightly more low-end power than the popular V6 it replaces ? but offers 8-per-cent better fuel economy.

Although there were no front-wheel-drive models available for testing, FWD versions equipped with the base 2.4 L engine ($26,499) deliver 7.9 L/100 km combined ? impressive numbers for a mid-size crossover. The tester is rated at 9.1 L/100 km combined fuel economy ? I managed 9.8 over highway and rural driving.

I admired the 2.0T’s wide power band, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Power is doled out in smooth, linear increments, instantly available for quick passing manoeuvres. I later found this a boon when towing a 1,500 kg boat and trailer on the narrow resort roads, where smooth power progression is important in keeping a load settled.

Despite the extra weight added by safety technology and layers of sound-deadening insulation, Hyundai is quick to point out that the new Santa Fe Sport is 120 kg lighter than its predecessor ? thanks to extensive use of high-tensile steel manufactured by Hyundai’s own plant in Korea.

The result is an extremely composed chassis that feels nimble and secure over the broken cottage roads I encountered.

The cabin itself feels very well insulated, although I did notice some excessive wind noise over the side mirrors.

Heading off the tarmac onto some rough gravel cottage roads, the Sport was more than capable as a light off-roader.

Most impressive is the new suspension setup.

Up front is a MacPherson strut, while independent multi-link rear suspension not only reduces intrusion into the cabin space, but proved confident and settled, even over loose gravel.

Thanks to my inability to focus on the route directions, I was repeatedly able to experience the Sport’s tight turning radius ? its ability to perform a quick U-turn was quite admirable for a crossover. The new Active Cornering Control all-wheel-drive system banished any hint of understeer or rear-end looseness on the gravel roads.

Structurally, the Sport feels very well-sorted and settled over a variety of terrain. If there’s a downside to the Santa Fe’s character ? it’s to be found at the helm. The steering can be adjusted through three modes: Comfort, Normal and Sport, via a button found beside the wheel.

?Normal? was disconcertingly darty and while ?Sport? had the most comforting sense of heft and accuracy, overall, there’s a sense of numb disconnection.

Although anyone who’s driven Mazda’s CX-5 can argue it is possible to imbue a crossover with a sense of engaging steering ? let’s be honest here ? for the most part, it’s a moot point in this demographic, which prizes practicality and value.

Although the base 2.4 L engine (190 hp/181 lb.-ft.) can be described as merely adequate, its low fuel consumption will appeal to frugal buyers.

However, the 2.0T engine provides a much livelier driving experience.

The 2.0T AWD is well-equipped to do battle with segment leaders Honda CR-V Touring, Toyota RAV4 Limited and Ford Escape SEL 4×4, with plenty of standard features like leather seating, touchscreen, backup camera, Bluetooth, panoramic sunroof and 19-inch wheels.

Although it may not break any new ground, the Santa Fe Sport is truly a nice overall package.

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

PRICE: $26,499-$38,499

ENGINE: 2.4L GDI, 2.0T GDI

POWER/TORQUE: 190 hp/181 lb. ft., 264 hp/269 lb.-ft.

FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: (estimated) from 9.5 city, 6.0 hwy. to 10.4 city/7.4 hwy

COMPETITION: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox

WHAT’S BEST: Smooth-performing 2.0 L turbo engine.

WHAT’S WORST: Light and uncommunicative steering.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Maximum tow rating of 3,500 lb.

  • Third time's a charm: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

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