Sizing Up Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport

If you’re like me, wandering through the hundreds of models and trim levels available in the automotive marketplace sometimes feels like meandering through a maze.

So it’s no surprise that once in a while you come across something different that’s, well, a-mazing.

Then you look a little closer and come across the Santa Fe Sport, smaller than the 7-passenger Santa Fe but larger than the compact Tucson. It begs the question of where it fits in the showroom.

The Sport’s biggest drawback might be that it gets lost in marketing as the baby sibling to the full-size Santa Fe. Many buyers might be quite comfortable in a nicely refined Santa Fe Sport, which can comfortably accommodate four adults (five in a pinch) along with their luggage.

Our test vehicle was a 2015 Santa Fe Sport AWD. It’s 8.4 inches shorter than the regular Santa Fe and 11.4 inches longer than the Tucson.

The Sport is available in base or 2.0T trims. The base is powered with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine (190 horsepower, 181 lb.-ft. of torque). Our 2.0T had the optional 2-liter turbo that produces 264 HP and 269 lb.-ft.

In normal driving, we found the turbocharged engine quite refined and happily mated to the six-speed automatic transmission that serves both engines.

In several passing situations, the engine-transmission combo seemed to search for the right gear for an instant, and then took off with excellent real-world performance.

EPA ratings for the 2.0T are 18 miles per gallon in city driving, 24 on the highway, and 21 overall.

Our first tank of gas averaged 23.9 mpg. After refueling for the New Hampshire trip, the onboard computer claimed we’d averaged 31.2 mpg for 120 miles of easy driving. That seemed overly optimistic, but it was an eye-opener and a nice surprise, even when gas was $2.34 per gallon.

Compact SUVs are a hot market item and they make driving easier with their higher seating positions.

The leather-covered, heated (and ventilated) front seats were quite comfortable. Rear seats (also heated) had a big center armrest and were just right for two adult passengers.

Inside the cabin, the leather and vinyl surfaces were attractive, and there were lots of well-marked buttons. In fact, if there had been a tuning knob for the audio system, I’d have been totally impressed.

The Blue Link telematics work well with the eight-inch touch screen that’s part of the navigation system and was as user-friendly as any on the market.

Hyundai came up with a slick gauge layout with two big dials (speedometer and the unnecessary tachometer). In the middle of the speedometer was a raised circle that displayed the outside temperature. Around that temperature readout was a circle of dotted lines that was the gas gauge. Unfortunately, it’s in light gray and not well lit so you may overlook it. I did until Mrs. G, as is her wont on trips, quietly inquired, “Do we have enough gas to get home?”

It would have been close.

Inside the tachometer was the same setup. Here, the center readout was the gear (P, R, N, D) unless you flip the shift lever to manual mode. Then the display shows the gear number (1-6). A circular water temperature gauge matches the fuel gauge.

On the road, the Sport had a sure feel. Hyundai (remember it rhymes with Sunday) says it’s done some serious tweaking with the electric power-steering response, and it shows. The Santa Fe Sport was a joy on winding roads.

The HID headlights were welcome now that the days are getting shorter and nighttime driving is unavoidable.

You can count me among those who say these small crossovers “all look the same” in their basic shape.

That also means that rear visibility isn’t the best, so the Sport’s standard rearview camera was most welcome in our test vehicle. Hyundai has an added twist on the blind-spot monitoring system. In addition to the traditional “two-cars” symbol that lights in the outside mirrors, there’s an audible alert if you try to change lanes with a car close behind in that lane. Of course, it’s based on distance so the buzzer also goes off when you change lanes while barely creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Base price was $33,875 (including destination). A $4,350 Ultimate Package added 19-inch alloy wheels, panoramic sunroof, HID headlights and LED taillights, navigation with eight-inch touch screen, memory seats, upgraded audio system, the ventilated front and heated rear seats, rear parking sensors, and heated steering wheel.

Toss in carpets ($125) and you get a $38,350 bottom line.

That puts our test vehicle into a fully equipped near-premium category.

What’s amazing isn’t so much where Hyundai is today but how far it’s come in the past 30 years, building cars that reflect the five-year, 60,000-mile new vehicle warranty and 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

This turned out to be a “The more you drive it, the more you like it” vehicle.

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport AWD 2.0T

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $33,875/$38,350. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 18 city, 24 highway, 21 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 23.9. Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger crossover.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 264. Torque: 269 lb.-ft. Overall length: 184.6 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 66.5 in. (with racks). Width: 74 in. Curb weight: 3,706 lbs.

THE GOOD

Build quality, warranty, handling, and suspension.

THE BAD

Rear visibility, some gauges hard to read.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A nice “tweener” bridging the compact and midsize segments. ALSO CONSIDER Audi Q3, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4.

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