CORONADO, Calif. — “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” So said Stuart Smiley, Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live character who knew that, despite assertions to the contrary, he was not a popular guy.
Stuart’s plight was similar to that of a recently discontinued automotive wallﬂower, the Hyundai Veracruz. For reasons not entirely clear, buyers never showered this three-row crossover with love, and, as a result, disappointing sales led the company to pull the plug after the 2012 model year. Filling the void is the redesigned 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, a six- or seven-passenger version of the ﬁve-passenger Santa Fe Sport that went on sale last summer.
Compared to the Veracruz, the new Santa Fe offers more contemporary styling, increased overall power and efﬁciency, greater capability, a host of comfort and convenience features, and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty that helped catapult the Hyundai brand into mainstream prominence.
To get an up-close-and-personal look at Hyundai’s answer to established heavyweights like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, I attended a media event just outside San Diego, where I spent some quality time behind the wheel of a base, front-wheel-drive Santa Fe GLS and a fully loaded, all-wheel drive 2013 Santa Fe Limited. The GLS, priced at $30,280 including destination charges, was equipped with standard amenities such as a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with integrated audio and Bluetooth controls, stain-resistant cloth upholstery, Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system, XM satellite radio, USB and auxiliary input jacks, and more.
With a sticker price of $38,595, my Limited test model headed for luxury territory with perforated leather on the seats, a power tailgate, and an optionalTechnology Package consisting of a panoramic sunroof, touch-screen navigation, an Inﬁnity surround-sound system, a heated steering wheel, and second-row manual sunshades.
Regardless of which trim is selected, the engine will be a 3.3-liter V6. Output measures a healthy 290 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque, with EPA fuel economy ratings of 18 mpg in the city and up to 25 mpg on the highway. All 2013 Santa Fes and Santa Fe Sports are equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission ﬁtted with a manual shift mode, yet only the three-row version boasts a 5,000-lb. towing capacity that matches the Toyota Highlander and redesigned Nissan Frontier.
With those 290 horses onboard, the new Santa Fe leads its primary competitors by a decent margin, and that extra grunt makes itself known to the driver. While acceleration isn’t quite whiplash-inducing, it is more than you’ll need for the daily grind, allowing for dramafree merges into 80-mph highway trafﬁc. Part of the credit goes to the quick reaction of the smooth-shifting automatic transmission and the progressive feel of the throttle. Factor in the quiet and reﬁned nature of the powertrain—as well as stable, predictable handling and a chassis that does a commendable job of absorbing bumps— and you haveamidsize crossover that’s a true pleasure to drive.
Serving to keep the good vibes rolling is an interior that’s home to comfortable and spacious front seats, materials that seem to belie the Santa Fe’s sub-$31,000 base price, and handy features like the power tailgate. For the second row, GLS buyers get a split bench seat that offers comfy spots for outboard passengers, but riders saddled on the center section will likely be wishing for a short trip; the Santa Fe Limited features second-row bucket seats with fold-down armrests. All models are equipped with a two-passenger, reclining third-row bench seat that can be folded ﬂat by simply pulling on a strap. As is typical, you’ll want to reserve that space for kids or adults who, like me, had their growth-spurt days sputter to a halt long before reaching six-feet.
Unfortunately, tight conﬁnes aren’t the third row’s only limitations. Unlike competing models, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe offers relatively little to facilitate convenient access to that rearmost bench. Granted, the second-row seat tilts and slides, but not in one ﬂuid step. Instead, you need to tilt then slide (or vice versa), with the end result being a very narrow gap to squeeze through.
Limited models allow you to climb between the second-row buckets, yet even that is an antiquated approach compared to the redesigned Nissan Pathﬁnder’s fold-and-tumble approach, creating what is essentially a welcome mat to its third row. For times when there are no passengers, the seats can be folded to create 80 cubic feet of cargo space, which is a smidge more than you’ll get with the Pathﬁnder but well short of the 2013Toyota Highlander’s 95.4 cubic feet.
To their credit, designers equipped the Santa Fe with simple, well-labeled, intuitive buttons and dials for the climate control system, the optional Inﬁnity audio package with excellent sound quality, and an eight-inch navigation screen displaying directions based on speci- ﬁed coordinates, a designated highway exit or intersection, or selected areas to avoid.
On the other hand, placement of the rear climate controls left me scratching my noggin. They’re located in the third row, which is odd and inconvenient since it’s the second row that will be used much more often. Also, an available 115-volt outlet, perfect for charging iPads and portable DVD players, is found in the cargo area behind the third-row seat, well out of the reach of kids who, again, will most often be seated in the second row. File this all under “room for improvement.”
Nitpicks aside, the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe makes a bold, positive impression with looks that paint the competition in a dull light by comparison, a reﬁned and comfortable ride, and a powertrain offering signiﬁcantly more power coupled with impressive fuel economy. Mix in one of the lowest base prices in the segment, lots of standard features, and an IIHSTop Safety Pick award for good measure, and you haveafamily hauler that trades“good enough”and“smart enough”for“better”and “best.”