You can scrape a basic crossover off the floor of a used car lot or spend a fortune on a fresh one with your favorite luxury badge. So where exactly does this high-end Hyundai Santa Fe fit in, and is it really worth BMW money?
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai had a Santa Fe Sport dropped off at my office with a full tank of fuel and picked it up a week later. I put about 600 miles on it.)
In the balance between driving excitement and comfort, Hyundai went hard the soft way with this one. Nobody’s taking the Santa Fe Sport out for a drive for the sake of it, but I can’t imagine anybody complaining about spending a few hours in these seats, either.
What Is It?
The 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport Ultimate is at the top of the food chain in this automaker’s intermediate baby-medium crossover class. Practically speaking, it’s sized for a small-family-plus-dog or easily swallowing three people’s ski gear.
The Ultimate trim we tested comes with every driver-assist, infotainment and comfort option you’ve ever heard of, except for all-wheel drive, and rings up at $39,410. That’s right around the base price of a BMW X3.
The Sante Fe Sport is almost exactly the same size as an X3, too. It’s also in roughly the same slot as the Ford Edge, a touch smaller than a Chevy Equinox and slightly larger than a Jeep Cherokee.
Don’t confuse the five-seat four-cylinder Santa Fe Sport we’re talking about here with the three-row six-cylinder Santa Fe, which is a full eight inches longer. And while the bigger Hyundai unlocks a 290-horsepower V6, the Santa Fe Sport’s optional 2.0-liter turbo has plenty of juice at 240 HP. But we’ll get to that soon, and I know you’re excited to get there.
Why Does It Matter?
On your way back to your desk from the bathroom (yeah, we can see you through that little selfie camera) look out your office window and you’ll probably see a parking lot full of these high-riding oversized hatchbacks we call “crossovers.” The popularity of this class of car makes each individual entry important to its respective automaker.
Now Hyundai has got to be especially hungry for a bigger piece of this pie, since the Santa Fe and Sante Fe Sport, combined, got absolutely crushed on the sales scoreboard by the Equinox and Cherokee last year and the year before.
This $40,000 Santa Fe Sport Ultimate poses an especially interesting proposition because as great and comfortable as it is, it’s still a Hyundai that forces you to wrestle with the fact that you coulda boughta Bimmer, or at least a cheap, not-well equipped one.
If you really care about badges and bling, that’s going to dog you forever. But after pushing the Sante Fe Sport Ultimate over hundreds of miles of interstate at German car cruising speeds, you might stop caring about how cool you don’t look when you realize how comfortable you are.
The Santa Fe Sport Ultimate’s driver door opens up with a lightness that betrays its economy car heritage, but as soon as your ass disappears into that soft seat you’ll start appreciating just how luxurious the car really is.
The leather is taut enough to look crisp and provide the bolstering you practical crossover-buying geezers need, but supple enough to suck you in and ease your tension while you press the start button and let the dashboard greet you with a welcoming light show.
Pads on the doors and center console are similarly satisfactory. The matte silver trim has a smooth and soft feel to it that seems crafted, not crapped out. The same applies to the lithe door handles and well-positioned controls in the console.
Actually everything you put your hands on offers unfettered reassurance that, yes, this car was nice enough to have spent a sizable chunk of money on.
The infotainment system is excellent and the resolution on the reverse and 360-degree down-view cameras are remarkably clear as well.
Rear heated seats make the back a lot more livable for friends or family members on long rides, as does the glorious swath of sky let in by the Ultimate’s panoramic sunroof.
I feel like a four-cylinder engine should be able to move a 3,600-pound two-wheel drive car around a city with greater efficiency than 20 mpg, but that’s not the case here. We didn’t see particularly impressive fuel economy on the highway, either. Our front-drive test vehicle turned out about 24 mpg at high but socially acceptable cruising speeds, moving up to about 28 when we dropped to a notch below the speed limit.
On a 300-mile run from Simi Valley, California to Mammoth Lakes the car wanted to be fed fuel so often that I thought about picking up a jerry can to preempt running dry. At about 17-gallons the Santa Fe Sport’s gas tank isn’t freakishly small, but the gauge sure did race toward the “E” at a rate that got a little alarming once we left the sprawling suburbs for UFO country.
You’ve got to look at the word “driving” a little more loosely when you’re shaking down a car like the Santa Fe Sport.
This vehicle is a means to move you from one place to another with as little pain and inconvenience to the occupants as possible. And it does so with grace and poise as long as you do your tenth-grade driving instructor proud and move the wheel and pedals deliberately.
Really, it’s only as boring to drive as the terrain you’re traveling through. So our ride into the Sierra Nevadas was just lovely thanks to the Santa Fe Sport’s abundance of forward and skyward visibility.
All you suckers stuck in traffic are totally screwed, though. Kidding. Plodding along anywhere in this thing is fine and easy. Remarkably easy. It almost–drives its–OH GOD WAKE UP AND WATCH THE ROAD!
The 2.0-liter turbo’s claimed 240-hp and 260 lb-ft of torque felt adequate for moving the car around and down the highway at 60, 70 and 80 mph pretty effortlessly. The six-speed automatic seems to know what it’s doing and I bet most Sante Fe Sport buyers will never even realize they can manually shift the car with that little “+/-” slot in the shifter gate. Those people aren’t missing anything anyway.
Everything works, operations are smooth, and the Sante Fe Sport will not get in the way of everyday driving with any weird ticks or bad behavior.
Any conversation about a boosted, front-drive peoplemover that’s not set up for spirited driving usually comes back to complaints about turbo lag, torque steer under maximal acceleration and how a car the size of a Santa Fe Sport mauls its all-season tires into sloppy pudding after just two consecutive turns taken too hot.
The car doesn’t scream at low RPMs, but it doesn’t slouch around long enough for you to scratch your head before it takes off. As for torque steer, the car can get a little out of shape if you boot the throttle and try to turn simultaneously. But the hardest any actual person will push a Santa Fe Sport is up an onramp and through a yellow light. In both of those scenarios, the car performs just fine.
Acceleration is far from exhilarating but it’s not lethargic enough to be frustrating. “Sport Mode” doesn’t seem to do much beyond the light on the dashboard, but the car’s transmission is reasonably willing to give you extra RPMs when you mat the gas pedal. Once you’ve got some momentum, I bet the Sante Fe Sport could hypothetically boost itself significantly beyond the speed limit and I might even guess it’d feel surprisingly composed at small aircraft takeoff speeds.
Let’s put it this way: the Sante Fe Sport is smooth enough to let you fall asleep with your right foot down, and if you do, I think you’ll be surprised at how fast you’ll be going when the wobbles wake you up.
The car’s balance and behavior in bad traction was solid, too. Even without all-wheel drive, snow tires or chains the Santa Fe Sport trucked over icy patches and a few inches of fresh powder without transferring any substantial squiggliness to the steering wheel.
Who’s It For?
The Santa Fe Sport Ultimate is worth looking at if you’d take luxury over driving engagement and predictability over personality. This isn’t a car for people who are into cars because cars. It’s for moderately compact families who want comfort and convenience and the piece of mind that comes with the confidence Hyundai’s generous warranties and respectable reliability record.
If you’re mature enough to realize branding is bullshit and you want a safe, comfortable car that you can forget about when you’re not driving it, or when you are driving it for that matter, your Santa Fe Sport is waiting.
Why buy a Hyundai when you could have a comparable BMW for the same price?
Well the Hyundai’s warranty and inevitably lower running cost should be big factors, but frankly, I preferred the Santa Fe Sport’s seats and infotainment interface to any X-Series car I’ve been in.
Jalopnik’s new-car purchasing expert Tom McParland offered even insight on the situation, and explains that it’s rare for somebody to pay MSRP on something like a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. In a cursory glance through some dealer listings, we were able to find plenty of extremely well-equipped examples with MSRPs approaching our test car’s posted between $27,000 and $30,000. You’d getting a lot of luxury and here for that price.
If you get a Santa Fe Sport your parents will be proud of you for making a safe, sensible decision for once. Your grandma will think you’re a real bigshot when she checks out those heated rear seats. Your kids will just spill Cherrios on them like they would in any other car, and your youthful need for speed will whither just a little bit more every time you get behind the wheel. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
The Sante Fe Sport makes no pretenses about turning you on, but it does not suck to drive. It’s very comfortable, easy to operate and flies a thousand feet below the radar.
Just make sure you get a good deal on one and keep a Miata or a motorcycle stashed somewhere to keep your sanity intact.