With the departure of its three-row Veracruz following the 2012 model year, Hyundai needed a three-row crossover to compete against the likes of the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota Highlander. After all, the recent introduction of the two-row, five-passenger Santa Fe Sport, built in West Point, Georgia, and offering a 6A with your choice of two I-4s -- a 2.4L making 190 hp and a 2.0L turbo dishing out 264 hp -- wasn't going to cut it for an American family bursting at the seams. Enter the Santa Fe (sans "Sport"), which, while bearing a striking resemblance to its smaller sibling, hails from Ulsan, Korea, and utilizes a 3.3-liter, 290-hp direct-injection V-6 paired to a six-speed automatic. Perhaps more important: It offers seating for up to seven and a cargo capacity of 80.0 cubic feet with the back two rows folded flat (13.5 with them up).

At the test track, our 4291-pound, six-passenger (second-row captain's chairs in place of the GLS' bench) Santa Fe Limited AWD tester scampered from 0 to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.8 at 89.1 mph. For context, our long-term 4517-pound Nissan Pathfinder 4WD Platinum needed 7.5 seconds to hit 60 mph and 15.7 seconds at 90.9 mph to eclipse the quarter, while a recently tested 5125-pound Dodge Durango Citadel 4WD required 8.0 and 16.1 at 86.9 seconds, respectively. Thus, within its segment, the Santa Fe resides on the lighter, quicker side of the spectrum.

During its stay at our El Segundo headquarters, the Santa Fe received plenty of admiration from our staff. Most editors found the interior to be serene, even eerily so. In fact, we were hard-pressed to notice a discernible difference in cabin quietness from the upmarket Acura MDX. Further, we lauded the refinement of the 3.3-liter direct-injected V-6, the model's impressive content, and its overall value. (Our loaded AWD Limited cost $38,990, $5405 less than our LT Pathfinder.) We also liked the interior's space, quality, and ease of use. That said, we also had complaints: a lack of low-end grunt (252 lb-ft of torque at a rather high 5200 rpm), a 6A that was stubborn to drop gears, clumsy and vague handling when driven aggressively, and second-row captain's chairs that developed worrisome squeaks and rattles after just days of evaluation.

Some notes from our team:

Testing director Kim Reynolds: "A bit of wind noise around the A-pillar, but it's a windy day out here. Directional stability was affected, too. Otherwise, it's quiet and basically smooth-riding. Maybe a coarser feel than I expected. All in all, I'm a bit let down after running the figure-eight test, where it seemed a very, very nice automobile. On the figure eight, I was impressed as heck -- the SF felt solid, all of a piece, with solid brake feel (but not bitey in traffic), smooth turn-in, linear steering, and sensible roll and pitch. Stability control (though it says off) does intervene noticeably, but it's OK -- it doesn't stall you as some do. But on the road, it felt clumsy at times and vague and more like an assembly of parts than a unified whole."

Senior features editor Jonny Lieberman: "An impressive step forward from the five-passenger Santa Fe we sampled last year. Great power from the 3.3-liter V-6, though the transmission tuning left it constantly on the hump for a higher gear. I guess that's fine for the mall parking lot, but it's no bueno on the road. Very smooth ride when on good-quality pavement. Doesn't handle broken tarmac quite so well. Handling is another story -- vague, too much body movement, and really just not much fun to hustle. There are at least three other seven-passenger SUVs I can think of that do a better job on the road than the Santa Fe: the Mazda CX-9, Dodge Durango, and Nissan Pathfinder."

Editor-in-chief Ed Loh: "Better drive than the Kia Sorento SX-L. More natural feel to the steering and suspension. Engine note is well-tuned; smooth and purposeful without being buzzy. Matches the power delivery. It's quite comfortable in the cabin, generally handsome and well-designed, with lots of the latest features. There isn't a bad row in the Hyundai. Third row is comfy with just enough headroom. Second row is quite nice, too. Good seat cushion comfort. Amazing sunroof -- absolutely massive. Instrument panel is colorful but cluttered, and sport steering button is an interesting addition. Wonder why they would bother, especially when there is not a huge difference between Sport and Normal."

Associate editor Benson Kong: "An eerily quiet, six-passenger CUV, even if the captain's chairs in the second row were shaking a lot by the end of the evaluation. Everything works on a component level. The V-6 is a smooth runner. The six-speed auto transmits little shift shock. The ride is pleasant as long as the chassis isn't being asked for much. But putting everything together, the chinks in the armor appear. The V-6 likes revs and belts well in the midrange and up high, but not down low. The 6A can be stingy with downshifts. The body motions are slow and initially controlled, but trying to link successive turns can be frustrating as the vehicle-to-driver communication isn't clear enough. And when it bottoms out, it bottoms hard. The interior presentation and colors are pretty modern, but I can see the design being polarizing. Seating is comfortable and the leather may actually be too nice. Lots of storage space at the bottom of the center stack, though the pillars do obstruct access. Unsurprisingly, Hyundai leads well with its infotainment system: The interface is easy to use and there's a lot of substance that's pretty intuitive to access. While it's no Google Maps, the graphics look up to date. What it needs: higher seating position in the third row so knees aren't tucked into face, more low-end torque, more downshifts on demand, and better durability."

Technical director Frank Markus: "Great materials, fit and finish, but a bit of wind rush at A-pillars. Feels big and heavy like the Sorento SX-L did. I don't think the ride is as good as the Sorento's; I'm feeling more gut jiggle in this one. Captain's chairs are quite comfortable and third row feels about the same as the Kia's in terms of room/comfort, but riders get temp, fan, and mode control back here -- nice. No Pandora integration, but streams song info to screen via Bluetooth or USB cable. Eco Driving screen is stingy with the "eco rewards" points (I never got any, even after some determined hypermiling), and with Active Eco button depressed, the accelerator response is REALLY languid. When driving around normally, the steering seemed to communicate the friction limits pretty effectively, and felt nicely linear. Vehicle really calls in the VDC nannies quickly -- much more so than in the Kia. Off-road course was fun, and demonstrated that TCL and ESP can be switched off, plus, Hill-Descent Control maintained 5 mph nicely."

The all-new Santa Fe (aka the second-gen Veracruz) is without a doubt a competitive player in the hotly contested midsize three-row CUV segment. Alas, its few shortcomings keep it from reaching top-of-class status. Note to Hyundai: Address the above complaints and the Santa Fe will have the moves and performance to be an All-Star.


2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD
BASE PRICE $35,955
PRICE AS TESTED $38,990
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.3L/290-hp/252-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4291 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 110.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 193.1 x 74.2 x 66.5 in
0-60 MPH 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.8 sec @ 89.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 125 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.74 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.4 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 18/24 mpg
ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY 187/160 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.01 lb/mile