Most stretched versions of cars are costly Euro sedans that bear an “L” designation—A8L, for example, from Audi, or BMW’s 750Li. Such cars are a few inches longer than standard, entirely for the comfort of the well-heeled passengers who are chauffeured around in the back seats.
Hyundai now does the same trick with its Santa Fe crossover utility vehicle, but the extra 8.5 inches (plus slight bulges in width and height and some clever repackaging) are devoted to an entire new set of seats.
No letter L, either; it’s not a limousine—the Santa Fe remains a family car, just for a larger family.
The standard Santa Fe, called the Sport, is a 5-passenger wagon. The Santa Fe shown here, however, can pack seven people in three rows of seats with space for grocery bags behind. (Fold the back seats flat, and the space becomes enormous.) Back in the spring, we held the two-row Sport up against a similar but much more expensive German ute, and the Hyundai came off well. For the full-size Santa Fe, the conclusions are similarly positive.
First, a disclaimer of sorts: If you just got out of prison and still think Hyundai builds low-buck, low-ball cars for people who can’t afford Toyotas or Hondas, sit down. Our comfortably optioned-up Santa Fe LTD AWD stickered at just under $39,000. Real money, but real value too.
With a 6-cylinder engine good for 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque in three-row SUV that’s barely 4,000 pounds, the Santa Fe looks to be the most powerful yet also the lightest vehicle in its class. It is quiet at high speeds and accelerates without thrashing; it’s also rated to tow 5,000 pounds. The longer Santa Fe’s ride soaks up harsh pavement unusually well, but with no sogginess. There were moments when we wanted the 6-speed automatic to change down faster, but it can be shifted manually as well.
Hyundai has tiptoed cunningly here between size, performance and fuel economy. On a 165-mile run where the computer recorded an average speed of exactly 70 miles per hour in warm, dry weather, our Santa Fe went 22.9 miles on each gallon. As speed dropped, efficiency edged up to 23+ MPG. This is astonishingly close to the 24.4 overall MPG we got in the 5-place Santa Fe Sport with the 4-cylinder turbo engine. (Imagine if it were diesel-powered.)
If you’re wondering how automakers squeeze ever more mileage out of cars that are also always larger, more powerful and cushier, it’s because of new lighter, yet stronger materials (steels, mostly) and more and more sophisticated computerized systems that are more and more interconnected.
Here’s one example: Along with efficient, super-high-pressure direct fuel injection and the usual stability and anti-skid nannies, the all-wheel-drive Santa Fe has Active Cornering Control. This uses sensors, software and electro-hydraulic actuators working through a multi-clutch plate to adjust the power and braking applied to each wheel all by itself.
We don’t need to know how it works and we’re not even aware that it’s going on, but this makes the Santa Fe that much safer and more stable in fast corners, on slippery surfaces and on steep downhills . . . and it also contributes incrementally to more efficient gasoline usage.
The list of things we can actually see and touch is quite long in this Santa Fe too, with features that once were found only on really posh cars, from satnav to window shades. However, one item is unique in this price range: Driver-Selectable Steering Mode. The changes in steering response, from Normal to Sport to Comfort, are hard to detect—but the steering-wheel heater, part of the $2,900 Technology Package, isn’t.
With a choice of three engines and front-wheel or all-wheel drive in two different sizes, at prices that start in the mid-20s and with uncountable features, the multi-mode Santa Fe has become an unusually versatile vehicle.
This kind of flexible thinking—not to mention sharp improvements in reliability, drivability, comfort, looks and technology as well as those famous warranties (five years or 60,000 miles transferable on a new vehicle, seven years rust protection, and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain) plus five years of complimentary roadside assistance—has doubled Hyundai sales in America in the past decade.