2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, a Hands-On Driving Experience

As I mentioned the other day, I had the opportunity to take a trip with a couple of dozen bloggers out to Park City, Utah over the weekend to check out the new 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe. I described the incredible experience staying at the Montage Deer Valley resort, the awesome treatment from the hotel staff and all of the folks at Hyundai, and some of the great diversions such as trips to Sundance and Utah Olympic Park, as well as my own trail runs.

What I was NOT yet able to describe was the actual drive experience. Hyundai ran this launch in ‘waves’ in order to keep the number of attendees manageable, but as a result that meant some folks had details before the rest. By making everyone wait until a couple of days after the end of the launch event Hyundai figured it would be more fair to all of the attendees. Also, they mentioned that the traditional automotive press would be writing more formal articles whereas the last wave (which included tech bloggers such as Gear Diary) would be more nimble using social media and other ways to blast out quick impressions – so everyone had to wait. Well, now I am free to discuss the drive experience. But first, let me describe some of the overall impressions of the vehicle.


I remember seeing the first Santa Fe, and finding it had more in common with ‘swoopy’ shaped vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4, rather than the more utilitarian Honda CR-V styling that I preferred. In 2006 they launched a new revision with a much more attractive – and larger – shape and look. Newer models look even nicer, and my family started a ‘Santa Fe Hunt’ in the few weeks before my trip, and were surprised at how many we saw – and how cool they looked.

The 2013 model year brings another full redesign, with a more aerodynamic look that has sleek and bold lines rather than curvy shapes from the original. Knowing that sleeker designs mean better aerodynamics and generally improve mileage had me intrigued. The word that kept coming to me was ‘balanced’ – it looked sleek but not ‘sexy’, which is appropriate as it is made for families. But being sleek means it is something you won’t be ashamed to drive if you are clinging to the last vestiges of your pre-family coolness.

There are loads of little things I loved about the exterior: the two-tone body was used to great effect, and it also works to protect the paint; the LED highlights around the headlamps are very distinctive and allowed me to spot it coming several blocks away at night in Park City. The turn signals on the side mirrors are also a great touch – and this array of ‘nice touches’ highlights a vehicle the seems to be successfully playing above its assumed league.

Balance is also struck in terms of size. The Santa Fe is a ‘CUV’, compact but not subcompact – and certainly not huge. It is larger than something like the Ford Escape, but smaller than the Explorer. And most importantly to me it doesn’t look bulky in any way. And that is just from the outside – the real test is the interior … since I don’t ride on the outside!

Interior Size and Comfort

The walk-around video at the end shows a number of the feature and amenities that I won’t detail here. You can watch the video of check the spec sheet or my image gallery. Suffice to say there are loads of cool features.

The first door I opened was on the rear driver-side, and I sat down and had Ali (from Chip Chick) move the driver seat all the way back while I closed my eyes. I figured that if I felt my knees getting crushed then I would have my answer about the back seat. I have two boys, 14 and 15 years old, who are 6’2″ and 6’3″ tall. So rear seat room is a primary concern for me – and the Santa Fe is a place I would have no issue stuffing my kids for a multi-hour road trip without having to stuff myself under the steering wheel to assure they have enough space.

The rear windows have built-in sunscreens, which are great for babies – but my teens said they would absolutely love to have those for themselves to help with blocking sun and darkening the area better for iPod/iPad/PSP/etc.

Making the rear seat even more comfortable are heaters as a standard feature. Again, in this price range (starting ~$25,000) this is an excellent feature that would be very useful in our snowy and cold area. The rear seats split 40/20/40, which is a great way to enhance flexibility: you can have two rear passengers and still drop the center section to feed a longer item between the seats.

Making the folding seats even cooler is the fact that when you open the rear door there are levers on either side to release and fold down the rear seats. Called ‘cargo levers’, these make it possible to open up storage without having to go to the back seat … well, except for the headrests. I will be glad when someone figures out THAT one, as I just put the headrests back in my car after they sat on a shelf for a few months.

The cargo area is fairly typical in size for this class of vehicle, with a couple of notable differences. The spare tire is moved outside and under the rear of the CUV near the bumper, thereby allowing for more usable storage space. The way Hyundai dealt with this was to put a screen at the very edge, then a fold-up storage area under the floor or the cargo area. Since that is the area usually reserved for a spare tire, it is a welcome bit of added cargo storage.

Another great amenity is the amount of power ports throughout the Santa Fe. Aside from the typical front console location, there are ports on either side of the cargo area, and one between the rear seats. In general I was thrilled about the comfort for passengers and available storage and feel that great attention was put into making the riding experience great regardless of where you sat.

Driver/Passenger Amenities and Comfort

The driver and passenger seats are fully heated and adjustable, and offered plenty of room for shorter and taller drivers alike. In our group we had all variety of body types, and everyone reported back that they found the seating comfortable and had no issues getting all of the seats, mirrors, steering wheel, controls and so on under control.

The steering wheel has buttons in every quadrant, from audio to cruise, to Bluetooth phone and more. There wasn’t much you could NOT do from the driver’s seat. The dashboard had dials for speed and RPM, and inside of those it had LCDs with information about coolant temperature, a gas gauge and external temperature sensor. I have to admit that finding some things was more of a pain than others – I was wondering about the outside temperature and didn’t see it anywhere until Ali was asking about the fuel level, and I saw that the temperature was right next to that. It is one of those things that once found you cannot unsee, but due to the low contrast LCD it was hard to spot initially with the info-heavy dash.

I was the passenger initially, and as we were tooling down the road I noticed that I couldn’t see the speedometer. I have no idea if that is intentional or not, but it is the first time I have ever noticed that in a car. The reason is that the speedometer and odometer are housed in tubular protrusions with 45 degree angled openings, making things very visible for the driver, but not so easy for anyone else.

The design of the rest of the cabin is logical and built to maximize efficiency. The audio/navigation system is well laid out and integrated into the steering wheel, but we found that determining what buttons performed which functions was as much a matter of trial and error as anything obvious. For example, getting back to the map display was different from entering and exiting the options or setup menu. Again, with some minor trial and error it all made sense, and is the result of so many integrated systems.

Under the center console there are auxiliary plugs, one standard auto jack, a powered USB connection, and a 3.5mm audio jack. These are inside of curved columns that come down from the console – I liked this design since you can have wires coming out the sides without cluttering the main console area. But it also makes for harsher surfaces that protrude more than your peripheral vision makes you believe – something my trail-battered left knee didn’t enjoy.

Options and Amenities

The Santa Fe’s we all drove were fully loaded with every option, to the point of taking the base $24,450 vehicle to a list price of $35,625. The model was the top-end Sport 2.0T, with the All-Wheel Drive option. One option package ($2450) adds the powered passenger seat, dual zone climate control, recline and slide rear seats with heaters, rear-view camera, turn-signals on side-mirrors, and the powered rear-view mirror. Another package ($2900) adds the 8″ screen, top-end 550W Infinity/Harmon audio system with 12 speakers, panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel, and the rear seat shades. That is it – Hyundai tried to streamline things as much as possible, so as a result you have few choices to make.

It might seem obvious, but these things change the experience. Having an 8″ screen for navigation made life much easier than my typical 4″ Droid 4, and when I needed to turn around due to construction on a tight area the backup camera was amazing on that screen.

As for the 12-speaker top-end 550W Infinity/Harmon audio system, the sound was simply amazing. Mike from Infinity gave us a copy of ‘Grammy Nominees 2012’ to test the system, and certainly going from Adele to Taylor Swift to Maroon 5 to Skrillex worked through the range of the system fairly well. What we noticed was that even cranking the EQ all the way up for all frequencies (generally a bad idea as it tends to distort) and pumping the volume, the sound stayed clear and even during Skrillex we never had the side-view mirrors shaking. That is a sign of tremendous vibration isolation, and made for more pleasant driving.

And I simply cannot possibly say enough about the panoramic sunroof. The entire vehicle felt open to the sky, and the ease of retracting the shade and the front half of the glass (the back is fixed) made it a dream to use. Naturally wind noise is increased with the roof open; and there was some confusion at first as the shade is controllable either through the general roof control or a specific shade control … but overall I would NEVER get this vehicle without including the panoramic sunroof. It is just that awesome.

Going through all of my notes and memories of the experience, it is hard to see the Santa Fe in a ‘middle ground’ configuration – you need to be either all-in or go for the base model. Once you get the more peppy engine and start thinking about adding higher-end audio and navigation, you might as well keep going for the fully loaded version.

The Drive: General Road Experience

As my car-partner Ali from Chip Chick said, ANY car can do smooth roads and easy highways pretty well. But then we went about discussing ways those cars can NOT do well: excessive road noise, vibration, pressure sensitivity from opening windows, and on and on. That said, on the open road and highway the Santa Fe was an absolute DREAM to drive – and it was as much about what was NOT there as what was.

The main ‘highway’ drive we took included smaller roads, patched pavement, new areas, rough and smooth surfaces. Pretty much everything outside of deep city potholes. There are several things that such a variety of surfaces can show: noise, vibration, handling and overall comfort. Missing out on a busy city meant not getting to play around with tight turns, quick start-stops, and so on … but the off-road portion provided plenty of challenges.

As noted, there were smooth and rough and uneven pavement surfaces; but unlike many cars, going over rougher pavement didn’t mean dealing with excessive in-cabin noise. In fact, the loudest thing we had to deal with the entire time was the incredible audio system. Aside from the occasional music tests, we found the cabin quiet enough to have comfortable conversation – even with the windows rolled down (showing my age here … obviously the windows are fully powered without a crank handle in sight!).

The roads we took offered plenty of inclines and downhills, and the opportunities to test control by powering into curves. I don’t consider myself a stellar driver (Ali is a better driver without a doubt), but I never had that ‘out of control’ feeling that you can get with cars that are top-heavy or have sloppy steering. The adaptive controls worked incredibly well and transferring power around and ensuring that all we ever noticed was a smooth ride. It is worth noting that this IS a CUV with a four-cylinder engine, so you need to set your power expectations accordingly.

The Drive: Off-Roading It!

Our off-road experience was exactly what you would want to test a vehicle like this: loosely packed gravely surface, narrow roads, steep hills up and down, and tight curves and blind twists. Making it even more exciting, the narrow roads had no guard rails and steep embankments off the edge – this was a potentially dangerous course! That only made it more thrilling to see how we could push the Santa Fe and how it would respond.

Our course was two parts with a driver change in the middle; Ali took the first section and I took the second. On her turn we were the lead vehicle, so we didn’t need to worry about anyone else and could have the windows down and sunroof open. The road noise was obviously more of an issue as we kicked up dirt and rode over rocky paths. But even after closing the windows to keep down the dust, the noise wasn’t ever a significant issue – enough to be aware of our surroundings, but not so much that it overshadowed in-cabin conversation and music. Even when tearing uphill at near 60MPH with dirt and rocks flying our conversation was at a very comfortable level.

The roads may have seemed treacherous, but at no time did I ever feel we were in danger. I couldn’t tell to what extent the car was managing power between wheels, because it was a smooth ride throughout. The Santa Fe provided plenty of power and acceleration to get up the steep inclines quickly without ever sounding or feeling like it was out of capacity.

The Car Not Taken

Hyundai is actually introducing a second model of 2013 Santa Fe, a long wheelbase version. However it wasn’t ready for us to evaluate and is scheduled for release at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013. We were told about it, and they even brought one over so we could see it, but we were not able to take interior pictures or even open the doors to climb inside.

The major thing with the longer version is that it adds a third row of seats, bringing the seating total to 6 or 7 depending on whether your second row is a bench or captain’s chairs. From the look we did get, it appears that the typical trade-off of cargo versus seating applies; but unlike similar solutions in smaller vehicles in the Santa Fe you get about a foot of floor space between the seats and the rear door. Also, the seats themselves look fairly comfortable with a reasonable amount of legroom. I wouldn’t want to stick my kids back there for an 8-hour trip, but it is good knowing you have the extra space if needed to carry an extra friend or two.

The Drive: Some Nits to Pick

No product is perfect, and that is true of the Santa Fe as well. So let’s look at a few of the things that bothered Ali and me as we drove.

Blind spots: Due to the styling of the car, the rear windows slope up, so you cannot see a car behind you at a 45 degree angle by looking out the rear passenger window. This makes you totally dependent on the side-view mirror. It is definitely something that I found a little disconcerting while driving on the highway, and it would be even more of an issue in the city.

Acceleration: While in general I found the Santa Fe to have adequate power for just about everything, it was later in the day (when we were running the air conditioning, the audio, navigation, and pretty much everything else), when I found the ‘off the line’ power a bit lacking, with uphills showing some degree of hesitation. Considering my personal vehicle is a hybrid subcompact SUV, my standards are not terribly high – so I was somewhat surprised. Once going, there was power to spare.

Mileage and Price: I lump these together because the base model has an attractive price and solid highway mileage ($24.5k and 31MPG), but all roads seem to lead to getting the top-end model. When you start adding packages – some of which are required to get a single feature – you wind up with a vehicle costing $35,625 and getting a combined 22MPG. The price itself isn’t an issue as much as how quickly you get there from the base price. I have more of an issue with the mileage – while Hyundai has done impressive work and presents a package that has better mileage and price than the competition, the hybrid-owning side of me wishes that all of the weight removed and optimized aerodynamics led to even better mileage.

Fuel Capacity: While the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T has a 17.4 gallon tank, Ali and I noticed that we seemed to be tearing through the gas rather quickly. We started with a full tank, but were down to 3/4 by lunch, and after just over 100 miles we were at a half tank. A quick calculation says that we should expect more than 350 miles on a tank. Either our strenuous driving off-roads and pushing things through the elevation changes up and down hills used consumed more gas than expected, or the fuel gauge wasn’t exactly accurate, or the tank wasn’t quite full to start. This is something that with a longer test ride I would watch more closely – because my concern is about the ‘real world’ fuel economy. Not that our driving reflected anything I would be doing on a regular basis.

None of these is a major issue, they were just minor concerns.

Conclusions and Recommendation
The SUV market has become rather crowded with excellent vehicles in a few ranges: subcompacts (Ford Escape), compact (Toyota Rav 4, Ford Edge), mid-size (Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander), and full-size (Cadillac Escalade). The Santa Fe is nominally in the compact range, but over time the ranges have blurred and there are models that cross lines based on options. So the one we drove was clearly bigger than my ‘hybrid sub-compact’ SUV, but smaller than an Explorer. The long wheelbase version seemed more in line with the Mazda CX-9 and other mod-size SUVs.

Amongst all of these choices, Hyundai sought to differentiate themselves by offering loads of features with best-in-class mileage at a lower price than the competition. And they succeeded on all counts.

The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T is a joy to drive on-road and off-road; it provides plenty of power for difficult terrain, yet a comfortable ride on highways and side roads. The balance between road-feel and comfort is excellent: you never feel out of control with all of the active systems engaged, but you also never feel isolated from the road. I found the driving experience to be a blast!

The amenities are also well thought out and logically packaged. I can well remember the days where you would end up with 35 different ‘options’ individually listed when you bought a car, and it was terribly confusing (likely intentional to sell you crap you didn’t want), so I have always appreciated packages (even though it DEFINITELY means getting crap you didn’t want!). The base model is a solid SUV that will meet your needs for under $25,000; but adding one or both of the packages really changes the experience by adding convenience and luxury to the feel of the vehicle. And after driving around gorgeous Park City, Utah with the panoramic sunroof I couldn’t imagine NOT getting one!

If you are shopping for a compact SUV for yourself, as a couple, or with a small family you really need to check out the Santa Fe. The range of models and trims means that if you (like my family) need the third row you are covered; if you are looking for a sporty vehicle to get you to bike trips and beaches you are covered in a way that will likely elicit envy from your CR-V and RAV4 owning friends; or if you find yourself with a couple of small kids and suddenly your sedan is too small to take everything you need on summer vacation you are covered without breaking the bank.

Here is the walk-around from product manager, John Shon:

The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe, a Hands-On Drive Experience

Where to Get More Information: Hyundai’s Santa Fe Site

Price: Base Price $24,450, as-tested model $35,625

What I Like: impressive styling; great on-road and off-road handling; amenities give a luxury feel at a reasonable price; packages make sense and make choices clear; tons of fun.

What Needs Improvement: blind spots raised concerns; mileage and price are ‘best in class’ but I wish they were better; still a 4 cylinder CUV and occasionally reminds you.

Disclosure: Hyundai paid for the entire trip and stay at the Montage

Categories: Autos, Reviews

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