The NMA Foundation presents Eric Peter’s Car Review, a weekly Saturday feature on the NMA blog.
* * *
What makes Crest better than Colgate?
Pity the copywriter whose job it is to come up with … something.
And the car journalist whose job it is to explain what makes crossover A superior to crossover B.
But, every now and then, they throw you a bone. Something different to hang your hat on.
Like two different wheelbases and seating configurations (five or seven).
The Hyundai Santa Fe is the only crossover that comes more than just one way.
WHAT IT IS
Hyundai’s medium-sized crossover SUV.
It’s available in Sport trim — with two rows of seats and room for five and an available high-performance turbocharged four cylinder engine.
Prices for this version of the SF begin at $24,950 for the base trim front-wheel-drive version with a non-turbocharged 2.4 liter engine. With AWD, the MSRP is $26,500.
With the optional turbo 2.0 engine and FWD, prices start at $31,350 — topping out at $37,200 for an AWD-equipped Ultimate trim.
Or, you can buy the longer wheelbase — and three row — regular Santa Fe.
It has room for seven — and comes standard with a 3.3 liter V6.
Prices for this version of the SF start at $30,850 with FWD and top out at $41,300 for a Limited Ultimate trim with AWD.
Possible cross-shops include the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. But none of them offer a third row seating option and neither the Honda nor the Toyota offer an engine option.
The Santa Fe gets a number of tech updates, including two new flat screens (five inches standard in the Sport; eight inches optional/standard in the long wheelbase SF) with new apps, including Android auto.
Both versions get (or offer) lane departure warning and automatic braking, as well as a 360- degree park-assist camera.
The front and rear clips get a facelift, too.
Pick your size — and your engines.
Peppy — or practical. And both at the same time.
Much more standard — and available — engine than rivals like CR-V and RAV4.
Can tow up to 5,000 lbs. (V6 models) which completely outclasses the four-cylinder-only competition.
Two-row Sport’s available turbo 2.0 engine delivers almost the same gas mileage as much-less-powerful standard 2.4 liter engine.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
V6 Santa Fe is a gas guzzler — best case (with FWD) is 18 city, 25 highway. The AWD version averages about 20 MPG.
The available lane departure warning and automatic braking systems are too pre-emptive; the buzzer and light show can be distracting — which isn’t safe.
UNDER THE HOOD
Many automakers are paring down their engine lineups. For example, the Toyota RAV4 no longer offers anything but a small four (it used to offer an optional V6).
The Honda CR-V is also four-cylinder-only.
The Santa Fe, in contrast, offers three engines.
Standard in the regular wheelbase/five passenger Sport is a 2.4 liter four that produces 185 hp — already, more power than the CR-V’s take-it-or-leave-it 185 hp 2.4 liter engine and the RAV4’s that’s-all-there-is 176 hp 2.5 liter engine.
It’s also more than you get in the base trim Ford Escape, which comes standard with a 168 hp 2.5 liter engine.
Next up (in Sport trims) is a turbo 2.0 four — and it makes 240 hp. This completely outclasses the CR-V and RAV4 — and also beats the Escape with its standard engine and its next-up 178 hp turbo 1.6 liter engine. The Escape offers a 240 hp turbo 2.0 engine but it’s three steps up the trim (and price) ladder.
The long wheelbase/seven-passenger Santa Fe comes standard with a 290 hp 3.3 liter V6. All Santa Fe engines are paired with six-speed automatics, but you can go FWD or AWD with any of them.
You can get a comparably powerful V6 in something like the Chevy Equinox — which is available with a 301 hp, 3.6 liter V-6. But the Equinox — which is larger than the regular wheelbase Sport Santa Fe but not quite as large as the long-wheelbase Santa Fe — does not offer seven passenger seating. To get that, you’ve got to up-size to something even larger, such as a Chevy Traverse (or the Mazda CX-9, which is now a four-cylinder-only ride).
Mileage with the four is mediocre: 21 city, 27 highway with FWD and 20 city, 26 with AWD. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 may not outrun the Hyundai but they can run a lot longer than the Hyundai without stopping for fuel: 26 city/33 for the FWD CR-V.
But the Hyundai’s optional 2.0 engine gives you much more power (and much better performance) with about the same gas mileage as the slow-pokey (and thirsty) 2.4 liter engine: 20 city, 28 highway with FWD and 19 city, 26 highway with AWD.
The turbo’d Santa Fe can scoot to 60 in about 7.4 seconds (FWD; AWD versions take a tenth or two longer), which smokes the CRV and RAV4. Ditto the four-cylinder-powered Equinox, which — like the other two — takes nearly 10 seconds to get to 60.
Only one same-sized competitor runs quicker and gets better gas mileage — the 2.0 turbo’d “Ecoboost” version of the Ford Escape. It can hustle to 60 in the mid-high sixes and manages 22 city, 30 highway (FWD versions).
But, you can’t have that great performance (and gas mileage) and seven seats, too. Because like all the others in this class, there’s no third row.
Unfortunately, the rumor — encouraged by Hyundai at the time of the Santa Fe’s launch — that the punchy (and not too hungry) turbo 2.0 engine would be offered as an option in the three-row SF has not panned out. The bigger Santa Fe comes standard — and is only available with the 3.3 V6.
Which is a pig.
Performance, though, is excellent: zero to 60 in 7.6 seconds. Remember: It is bigger and heavier than the Sport. Also, this version of the Santa Fe can also pull 5,000 lbs. — much more than the 1,500-3,000 lbs. that’s typical of crossovers in this general class.
The V6 is also inherently simpler (and so, likely less problem-prone over its life) than the pressurized turbo fours that are rapidly replacing sixes in vehicles of all types, due to pressure to meet the government’s mandatory MPG minimums.
ON THE ROAD
I test-drove a Sport model with the 2.0 turbo engine — which (slight tuning differences aside) is basically the same excellent engine found in other current Hyundais like the Sonata (and its corporate cousin, the Kia Optima).
The key number to focus on is not horsepower but torque — 260 lbs.-ft., peaking at 1,750 RPM. This is almost 100 lbs.-ft more torque than the four-cylinder RAV4 and more than 100 lbs.-ft stronger than the CR-V’s standard (and only available) four. Plus, both the Toyota’s and the Honda’s torque peaks don’t arrive until 4,100 and 4,400 RPM (respectively).
You have to work those engines to get anything approximating acceleration out of them. While 10 seconds to 60 isn’t awful in general terms, it is slow by modern car standards. The “bar” is around 8 seconds — to give a sense of things.
The only thing in this class that’s competitive in terms of power/acceleration is the also-turbo’d Escape (270 lbs.-ft of torque) but, again, just the one wheelbase — and no third row.
The only area where I’d say Hyundai hit a triple instead of a home-run is transmission-wise. There is nothing objectionable about the standard six-speed automatic that comes with every SF engine.
It doesn’t shift too soon — or too late. I hardly used the driver-selectable manual gear change mode (or the Sport) mode because why bother? The transmission didn’t need any help from me. It knew exactly when to drop down a gear — and when to hold a gear. I never felt the need to over-ride its decisions.
However . . . it’s still an automatic.
And no matter how competently it shifts, how quiet it is — or how fuel efficient — it is not as much fun as working a clutch and stirring gears yourself. If you prefer a manual, you’ve got two possible alternative choices: The VW Tiguan and the just-redesigned Subaru Forester. The Tiguan’s appealing because it comes standard with a 2.0 turbo engine (200 hp) and a six-speed manual. The Soobie is less powerful (170 hp) but also comes with a six-speed manual as standard equipment.
But — once again — neither the Tiggy nor the Soobie offer more than two rows of seats.
The longer wheelbase/three row Santa FE is, however, a lot beefier than the two-row Sport: 3,964 lbs. vs. 3,459 lbs.
Which is why it’s such a pig at the pump.
Then again, so is the V6 Equinox. Even more so: 16 city, 23 highway. You’d do better buying a V8-powered real-deal SUV like the Chevy Tahoe.
AT THE CURB
The seven-passenger SF isn’t quite as big as three-row/seven passenger competitors like the Chevy Traverse, Ford Flex and Mazda CX-9. It is 193.1 inches long overall and rides on a 110.2 inch wheelbase — vs. over 200 inches long for these others (and just about for the Mazda, which is 199.4 inches long) all of which also have several inches more wheelbase (118.9 for the Traverse, 117.9 for the Flex, 115.3 for the just-redesigned CX-9).
But — and here’s a surprise — it turns out the physically smaller on the outside Santa Fe actually has more second row legroom (41.3 inches) than the much larger overall Traverse (36.8 inches) and the CX-9 (39.4) and its cargo capacity (80 cubes) is only slightly less than the Ford Flex ‘s (83 cubes).
Now, the Flex has really generous second row legroom (44.3 inches) and the Traverse has much more cargo room (116.3 cubes) but the SF splits the difference pretty nicely and may be just roomy enough — without being too big — for your needs and wants.
And for those who don’t need that third row, there’s the regular wheelbase SF.
The second row in this one is also very generous — 39.4 inches — and while there’s a bit less cargo capacity (71.5 cubes) these stats still stack up well when compared with the stats of other two-row-only crossovers like the CR-V and RAV4.
And also mid-sized/three-row models like the new CX-9, which has 71.2 cubes behind its third row and exactly the same 39.4 inches of legroom in its second row.
The two-row SF also has considerably more second row legroom than its most direct rival, the Ford Escape — which has just 36.8 inches of second row legroom. That’s 2.6 inches of difference — which is a noticeable difference. The SF also outclasses the CR-V (38.3 inches) and the RAV4 (37.2 inches) and absolutely mauls the VW Tiguan — which has a crumple-you-up 35.8 inches of second row legroom. That’s 3.6 inches of difference — a huge difference.
Ditto the cargo capacity count: The tiny Tiggy has only 56.1 cubes of cargo space.
Of course, utilitarian considerations aren’t most people’s only consideration. Style — and features — matter, too.
On style, I’m reminded of the refrain from that little ditty that plays during the opening credits of the HBO TV series,Weeds:
And they all look just the same…
Which, they pretty much do. It is getting really hard to tell one brand’s CUV from another brand’s CUV. None are disfigured. They’re just . . . derivative. I’d be willing to bet that the up-canted rear quarter glass from a new RAV4 would fit a new Escape, which would fit a CR-V . . . which would fit the new SF.
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration — but not by much.
A coalescing sameness is spreading across the land. You have to squint hard to discern aesthetic differences — and identify one brand vs. another brand from say 50 yards away. Thank the motor gods for those helpful badges they glue to the tailgate. . . .
Overall, the meme is more sportwagony than SUV-ish, if that makes any sense. The SF and its rivals are less box-on-box-like, with swept-back rooflines and rising rear haunches, a visual trick to make them look like they’re about to pounce. (Motorheads did the same thing to their muscle cars back in the ’70s with a set of Gabriel Hi-Jacker air shocks.)
I have no objection to this — other than the distorted (and limited) view to the rear — a consequence of the “fast” roofline and truncated (and also steeply slanted) back glass. The SF has this issue.
They all have this issue.
Inside, it’s modern and slick-looking (as is the case with Escape and the others, too). For instance, the AC vents built into the B pillars and the expansive (optional) panorama glass roof. I also like the side bolsters on either side of the center console — with a semi-hidden storage cubby in between.
You can replace the second row bench with a set of captain’s chairs in the Limited. A heated steering wheel is available, too — and on all trims, including the base Sport.
Unlike The Dude, I cannot abide the new “safety” features — the idiot-proofing features — being added to new cars. On the one hand, we are lectured about the perils of distracted driving. On the other, they keep installing chime and light shows that drive a sane person to distraction.
The SF’s new (and, thankfully, optional) lane departure warning system hits you with a jarring chime whenever your tires tread upon the yellow painted line to your left or the white line to your right.
In theory, you should always be in between the painted lines but in practice, in the real world, the line painters sometimes skew the lines and if you stay in your lane (rather than in between the lines) the system needlessly beeps. Or flashes. It does this again if you cross over the lines without signaling. Which means having to signal like an imbecile even when no one’s around — in order to avoid the chimes and lights.
The automated braking system is similarly over-aggressive. It applies the brakes when it rather than you decide this is needed. It does this when — as an example, a car ahead is turning off the road and has slowed to make the turn. You can tell there’s ample room such that by the time you get anywhere near the turning-off car, it will be gone — and so, no need to brake.
The car disagrees.
If you’re not ready for it — and used to it — it can be… distracting.
You can skip both, though. Thankfully.
The 360 degree park assist camera, on the other hand, is cool.
Even more cool are the available slide and recline rear seats.
The panorama sunroof is fun, too. Your passengers can surf (don’t ask, I won’t tell).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hyundai’s still the only player in this segment that offers you a choice of wheelbases — and engines — in the same vehicle.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos