HUNTSVILLE, ONT. -- The fact Hyundai wants to reach a wider range of potential customers with its products is not news -- so does every other auto manufacturer.
But the way the South Korean automaker has targeted the very large and lucrative SUV/crossover segment is far more interesting: It has split its new, third-generation Santa Fe into two distinct models to offer greater appeal and less compromise.
The first to launch is the five-passenger version, designated the Santa Fe Sport, so named to differentiate it from a longer-wheelbase, seven-passenger V-6-powered model -- which essentially replaces the slow-selling Veracruz -- that will follow early this year. Priced from $26,499, the Santa Fe Sport is powered by one of two available Gasoline Direct Injection four-cylinder engines hooked up to a six-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission.
That's the 30-second synopsis for those who just want the bare facts. For those with a more vested interest in what they drive and how it and they look, prepare to be impressed.
The new five-seater boasts far bolder and crisper sheet metal than the 2012 model, with a more subdued evolution of Hyundai's now-signature Fluidic Sculpture school of design, under which resides a range of new technologies and high-end features. As for the primary difference in dimensions between the U.S.-built Sport and upcoming Korean-built seven-seat Santa Fe, the former rides on a 2,700-millimetre wheelbase with an overall length of 4,689 mm, while the latter features a 2,800-mm wheelbase with an overall length of 4,905 mm.
There are three trim levels for each of the two available engines. The Sport 2.4 FWD, 2.4 Premium FWD/AWD and 2.4 Luxury AWD are powered by a 190-horsepower, 2.4-litre GDI four-cylinder. Taking the Sport designation more literally are the 2.0T Premium FWD/AWD, 2.0T SE AWD and the range-topping 2.0T Limited AWD, each with a robust 264-hp 2.0L turbo four (which runs on regular unleaded!) to provide significant motivation.
Though fuel consumption is an obvious consideration for many buyers -- the new 2.4L GDI engine offers 12-per-cent better fuel economy than its predecessor, says Hyundai -- the V-6-like thrust from the turbo 2.0T makes for a more relaxed and/or entertaining ride.
The 2.0T gives up 12 hp to its 3.5L V-6 predecessor, but it gains an additional 21 pound-feet of torque for a more usable powerband, while providing eight-per-cent better fuel economy (9.8 L/100 km in the city and 6.4 on the highway with the front-wheel drivetrain). Helping the cause is an ActiveECO system that modifies engine and transmission control to smooth out throttle response and, Hyundai says, increase real-world fuel economy by up to seven per cent.
One also needs to consider the diet on which Hyundai engineers put the Sport. Extensive use of ultra-high-strength steel in the vehicle's construction has allowed for a weight reduction of some 120 kilograms.
As with the new Elantra GT, Sport drivers get to play with Hyundai's new Driver Selectable Steering Mode (DSSM) system. With three operating modes -- Comfort, Normal and Sport -- the system allows one to adapt the Sport's steering characteristics to varying driving preferences and road conditions.
Although calling the 2.0T version a performance-oriented crossover might be stretching the point slightly, there's no doubt the new model demonstrates a livelier feel to it compared with its V-6 predecessor. It helps that the 2.0Ts are fitted with lower-profile P235/55R19 tires -- as opposed to the 2.4's P235/65R17s -- to provide noticeably more grip when cornering.
All versions come with a 26-mm hollow front stabilizer bar and a solid rear stabilizer bar to reduce roll. The ride is very secure and, with the DSSM on Sport, handling twistier bits of tarmac is easy, if not actually fun.
An even nicer surprise is the response from the turbo four. It's exceptionally quiet at cruising speeds and, when passing power is called for, it kicks in with an immediate increase in speed and no overt coarseness in operation. The closest thing to a distraction is the moderate wind noise emanating from around the side mirrors.
The Sport's cabin carries the Fluidic Sculpture theme as well, with a swoopy dash layout that includes a very sci-fi centre stack. The primary instrumentation is large and brightly lit, with the secondary controls also large, well-marked and easy to access.
The 2.0T SE, considered by Hyundai as the volume model, comes standard with AWD and adds features including 19-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, an Infinity premium audio system, a rear-view camera and more.
Sliding second-row seats (like in the Chevy Equinox) with a 40/20/40-split folding seatback, allowing for longer objects to be placed in the cargo area while still providing four seat positions, are also available.
Leaving the upcoming seven-passenger Santa Fe to buyers with growing families, the Sport will square off against a whole raft of compact SUVs, notably the newest, freshest models (Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Crosstrek, et al.). Although it's a cutthroat segment, what Hyundai brings to bear in the Sport is a thoroughly attractive design, responsive powertrains and good fuel economy, with a broad price range ($26,499 to $38,499) from which to choose.
Considering how buyers have responded to that recipe with other Hyundai products, the Sport should be a big hit.
-- Postmedia News