The Hyundai Santa Fe has been in the automaker's lineup for more than a decade, but since 2013 it's taken on a different mission. The name used to be applied to the five-seat crossover SUV from the Korean automaker—but since the 2013 model year, it's been affixed to a three-row crossover that shares some body structure, and not much else, with the newly christened five-seat Santa Fe Sport.
As a three-row, seven-passenger SUV, the Santa Fe has its work cut out for it. Its rivals are some of the most popular family vehicles in America—everything from the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot, to the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, and the distantly related Kia Sorento. We'd even suggest a good minivan, like the Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna, as a good alternative.
Hyundai has put a strong emphasis on looks of late, and that goes for the Santa Fe too, which wears the most grown-up and modern sheet metal in the model's history. The sharp edges and tight creases wrap around it in interesting ways, and Hyundai's hexagonal grille gets sees its best rendition here, bracketed by headlamps and foglamps. The longer Santa Fe is slightly less distinctive, but as a minivan replacement, it doesn't need to be flashy. The interior is another bar raised for Hyundai, with some faint GM cues penned in its shield of controls, surrounded by the usual swoops and fluid curves—and trimmed in two-tone materials, an upscale touch that looks better when it's capped in glossy trim than in faux wood.
The three-row Santa Fe model is powered by a 3.3-liter V-6 producing 290 horsepower, which is the same smooth engine used in the Azera. There's no choice with the Santa Fe, but its V-6 is fairly muscular, and is strong enough to tow 5,000 pounds behind it without add-ons. It features direct injection for better fuel economy, which checks in at 18 mpg city, 25 highway, 21 combined, or 18/24/20 mpg with all-wheel drive.
As for the rest of the Santa Fe driving experience, it's mainly smoother and more effortless. The V-6 is coupled to a 6-speed automatic, which sometimes gets caught napping between taps of the throttle, but the powertrain is muted well. The ride's very smooth and quiet, but we'd just as soon leave the three-mode electric steering in Normal or Sport, because Comfort's just too slow for our comfort.
Crossovers are all about room and utility, and the Santa Fe fits that bill. The front seats are a step up from the most recent Hyundai vintage, with better support built into the bottom cushion. The larger Santa Fe is 8.5 inches longer than the Sport, and inside its cabin, there's a choice between the a six-passenger layout with cozy captain's chairs in row two, or a seven-seat configuration with a middle bench. On the Santa Fe, the second-row seat is a shared piece, too. But with the longer wheelbase comes more rear-seat leg room to go with the very good seat comfort already in place. That's especially true of the Limited's second-row captain's chairs, which have properly placed armrests and an inch or so of head room still in place, even with panoramic roof. Adults will find a couple of inches of knee room to spare--and a warm cushion, if it's fitted with heated second-row seats.
The third-row bench is only for very young passengers, because older people will get cranky at the thought of climbing through the Santa Fe's small passenger opening—even though the seats slide forward, there's still only a foot or so of wedgy space provided to get to the rearmost seat. It's capped at the knees and overhead, too. The Santa Fe's cargo area may be on the small side, at 13.5 cubic feet behind the third row, but it expands to more than 40 cubic feet when the third row is folded flat—accomplished by pulling on straps to fold it down or to raise it in place. From the cargo hold, accessed by a power tailgate, the Santa Fe's second-row seats can be lowered, too, via a lever. There's some shallow storage in a plastic bin beneath the cargo floor, too. Cargo space is a bit shy of the bigger rivals, but the Santa Fe has an available hands-free liftgate system, which only requires the opener to stand near the rear of the vehicle with the proximity key for a few moments before it opens up.
The Santa Fe has the usual airbags (including a driver knee airbag) and stability control. Bluetooth is standard and a rearview camera is an option on all but the base model. Blind-spot monitors and parking sensors were new options for 2014, and the former was made standard as of the 2015 model year. While the IIHS gives the Santa Fe a "Marginal" rating for small-overlap front-impact protection—top "Good" ratings for the rest—federal safety officials haven't rated it at all.
With base prices of about about $31,000, the Santa Fe gets standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering; steering-wheel audio and phone controls; and 17-inch wheels. The standard audio system is an AM/FM/CD player with satellite radio, USB and auxiliary ports, Bluetooth with audio streaming, and six speakers. A panoramic sunroof, Infinity audio, and a navigation system are available, as are keyless ignition, automatic climate control, and heated and cooled front seats are available on some models.
Even with the base GLS model, standard features are numerous on the three-row Santa Fe. Bluetooth connectivity, rear-area climate control and keyless entry are all there; so are steering-wheel audio controls and Blue Link with remote start via its smartphone app. Base models equipped with all-wheel drive also receive an Active Cornering Control feature, as well as a windshield wiper de-icer.
There's also a Popular Equipment Package on the GLS that adds heated front seats, heated mirrors, fog lamps, a power driver's seat and roof rails. Opt for the Leather Package and you'll get all of that, plus side-mirror turn signals, heated second-row seating, power passenger's seat, heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, touchscreen navigation, a reverse camera, and premium audio. There's not currently a rear-sear entertainment option, and there are no signs that there will be anytime soon.
Santa Fe Limited models go to a six-passenger layout with leather upholstery and heated second-row captain's chairs, a power front passenger seat, dual-zone climate control, an electroluminescent gauge cluster, a power liftgate, proximity key, push button start, a 115-volt AC power outlet, and 19-inch alloys, among other features.
The Santa Fe also gets Hyundai's BlueLink telematics system as standard equipment. This OnStar-like system incorporates turn-by-turn navigation and Bluetooth streaming for apps such as Pandora, and works in conjunction with your smartphone and an owner website to set up functions like speed limits and geofencing—setting up boundaries for where the car can be driven. A BlueLink app for the iPhone is available, giving owners the ability to lock and unlock and to start the Santa Fe by remote, too.
The front-drive Santa Fe is rated at 18 mpg city, 25 highway, 21 combined with its 3.3-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic. The penalty for adding all-wheel drive here is fairly minimal; that model is rated at 18/24/20 mpg.