If by chance the BMW X1 (discussed here recently) isn’t your cuppa but you’re still hunting for a small and stylish crossover SUV with all-wheel drive, this just might soak your tea bag: the updated 5-passenger Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. The 190-horsepower model is down 50 ponies from the 4-cylinder Beemer, but it costs $6,300 less to start—just $26,200. Jump up to the turbocharged Santa Fe Sport 2.0T and you gain 74 horsepower (a respectable 264 in all, and 269 lb-ft of torque) for $29,450.
Now you’re only 36 HP less than the hotter X1, the 6-cylinder, but the difference in starting prices has shot up to $9,150. And the more boxes you tick on each option sheet, the greater the price difference gets.
We can hear the outrage already: How dare you equate a Hyundai with a BMW? Oh, but we’re not done yet. The new Santa Fe is arguably as good-looking as the X1 on the outside and possibly nicer inside. In every dimension these two vehicles fall within a few inches of each other—and of the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, etc.—but the Korean is a critical bit roomier than the German, especially in the back seat and the cargo area. More, however, on Santa Fe roominess to come.
Yes, the 4-cylinder X1 has a vanilla-smooth 8-speed automatic transmission while the Santa Fe makes do with a slightly clumsier 6-speed. And, thanks some very sophisticated technology, the BMW may travel a mile or two farther on a gallon of gas. However, in 70/30 highway/city driving we averaged 24.4 MPG in a Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T. (Hyundai has cut weight by switching to new, higher-strength steel and this engine is fed fuel by direct injection, for a bit more efficiency.)
The Santa Fe’s default mode is front-wheel-drive instead of the X1’s RWD, with varying amounts of torque sent to the rear wheels as needed, but it has a classically BMW-style suspension. Depending on slippage, the Santa Fe’s torque also can be automatically adjusted, “vectored,” from side to side.
We wouldn’t be surprised if the BMW was more composed at 110 miles per hour. But that’s on the autobahn; here, the Santa Fe Sport meets or exceeds all expectations for stopping and going, as well as for comfort, quiet and convenience.
Our impress-the-press sample Santa Fe Sport was equipped with most of the optional toys. The “standard features” column on the spec sheet is long and, as usual, lists items that once were found only on really posh cars. However, one standard feature is unique, at least in this category: DSSM, or Driver-Selectable Steering Mode. This changes the steering effort and response from Normal to Sport to Comfort. In daily use the differences are almost unnoticeable—but the steering-wheel heater, part of the $2,900 Technology Package, is very noticeable and, in late winter, welcome.
That’s over on the “added features” side of the sticker, which is where we also find the leather trim and front and rear seat heaters, the dual-zone automatic climate control, the GPS navigation and the rear-view camera, the digital connectivity features, the 12-speaker sound system and a host of other goodies, including window shades. We want for nothing. Well, except better headlights, please.
Now let’s go back to roominess: This Santa Fe Sport has two rows of seats for five people (four comfortably). Not enough? Meet the Santa Fe GLS, with two more seats in a third row. If you didn’t see the GLS next to a Sport, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that it’s 10 inches longer. The stretch Santa Fe has a bigger motor too, a 290-horsepower V-6, and a starting price of $28,350. With a choice of three engines and front-wheel or all-wheel drive in two different sizes and at prices that start in the mid-20s, the Santa Fe has become an unusually versatile vehicle.
Mr. or Ms. Average Driver who has just traded in his or her 10-year-old (average) beater on a 2013 Santa Fe is going to drive home in blissful happiness, marveling at how much cars have improved.