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The starter Santa Fe XL is $29,999. (Hyundai)
The starter Santa Fe XL is $29,999. (Hyundai)

Brand Strategy

Canadians love crossover SUVs Add to ...

It’s fair to say Hyundai has a hit on its hands in the 2013 Santa Fe Sport, but can lightning strike twice – especially when this wickedly competitive South Korean auto maker faces such stiff competition?

So far this year, sales of the remade, five-passenger Santa Fe Sport are up 17.4 per cent over last year’s model. That puts this Hyundai in the No. 8 spot among all light trucks for sale in Canada, and ahead of the reinvented 2013 Toyota RAV4 (sales in 2013 up just 4.4 per cent) and the perennially best-selling Honda CR-V (sales down 36.9 per cent).

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Yes, Hyundai has become a force here, though let’s just mention that the Ford Escape (up 12.8 per cent) and Dodge Journey (down 1.9 per cent) are still outselling the Santa Fe. The year is young, mind you.

So what of the latest version of the Santa Fe, the intermediate model with a longer wheelbase? It’s called the Santa Fe XL; naturally it has fold-flat third-row seating and it’s fair to say Hyundai Canada types think they have a second hit on their hands. They just might have a point, though not entirely for the reasons they toss into the hopper for a spin with reporters in San Diego to test-drive the company’s latest.

You see, the Hyundai people are going to tell you that their Lambda engine is a V-6 gem that, at 290 horsepower, out-muscles the competition: V-6 Toyota Highlander, 270 hp; V-6 Honda Pilot, 250 hp; V-6 Pathfinder, 260 hp; V-6 Mazda CX-9, 273 hp. Yes, the V-6 Ford Explorer also rates at 290 hp, but the Santa Fe XL gets better fuel economy (11.6 litres/ 100 city and 7.8 highway/9.9 litres combined versus 12.2 city/8.2 highway/10.4 combined for the Explorer – and from Ford, the car company twisting itself in knots to tell us all how fuel efficient its new models really are.

For the record, the Nissan Pathfinder has them all whipped for fuel efficiency (10.5 city/7.7 highway/9.2 combined). Really, if there is one among this bunch that should scare Hyundai, it’s the reinvented Pathfinder. It’s equally clever in how it puts three rows of seating to work. No, the Nissan perhaps is more so thanks to that EZ Flex Seating System with its 14 cm of second-row seat travel to ease the gymnastics of climbing back there. The Santa Fe XL does not have such easy third-row entry, though the third row in both is a 50/50-split-folding design. As I have said before, praise the cargo flexibility and pass the kids to the rear.

On the other hand, I am a well-documented skeptic when it comes to continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). The Pathfinder’s is a good one, but I prefer the V-6 autobox in the Santa Fe. Note, too, that the aging Highlander and Pilot both come with five-speed automatics. Behind the times, for sure.

This is the point where the savvy shopper stops and says, “Hold on. Before you spout another word, tell me how much. How much is that Hyundai in the showroom window?”

The starter Santa Fe XL is $29,999 and for that you get the V-6 (the only engine choice), heated front seats, Bluetooth, heated side mirrors, the full suite of driving nannies, power seats/mirrors/door locks, 2,268-kilogram towing capacity and on and on. It’s front-drive, yes, but not a stripper.

Of course, you can keep loading up, adding features and options, all-wheel drive and so on and that will get you to $39,199. You can pay more to get less from Hyundai’s competitors here:

  • $42,849 for a Ford Explorer XLT with the 202A package and a moonroof;
  • $40,075 for a Toyota Highlander with the sport package with a sunroof;
  • $43,190 for a Honda Pilot EX-L;
  • $40,798 for a Nissan Pathfinder SL with the Premium Package;
  • $46,680 for a Chevrolet Traverse 2LT with a Leather Package and sunroof.

In every instance, Hyundai’s product planners are quick to point out that their less-expensive long-wheelbase Santa Fe has one, two, five or more things not part of the competition.

At the low end, the Hyundai fits right in with the base FWD Pathfinder ($29,998) and the FWD starter Explorer ($29,999). The entry Highlander is nearly $2,000 more ($31,680), the Pilot base model is out of sight at $33,995 and Mazda’s CX-9 is in the middle at $33,995.

Here, then, is the basic Hyundai formula: deliver more for less in a vehicle that covers all the bases in terms of the basics. Those would be fuel economy, safety (the 2013 Santa Fe is a Top Safety Pick of the U.S. Insurance Institute for High Safety), performance (remember those power numbers) and reliability.

On the latter, the Hyundai brand is ranked above average in J.D. Power and Associates latest Vehicle Dependability Study. That’s good, of course.

But the Santa Fe, in particular, is not ranked among the top three in its class for the VDS (Ford’s Explorer and the five-passenger Nissan Murano are tops, with the Highlander a runner-up). And note that the Highlander is the top-ranked intermediate crossover SUV at Consumer Reports, too. The Santa Fe has no reliability ranking there. Yet. More data is needed before CR commits to predicting reliability.

The point I’d make here is that two of the big guns from Japan – Toyota and Honda – have solid entries in this horse race, but both are aging and both are asking consumers to pay a price premium for something that hasn’t been thoroughly renewed in years. Yes, the Highlander, Pilot and CX-9 top the CR charts for predicted reliability, but that’s not the only factor in play.

Take exterior design. The Santa Fe is fresh and interesting to the eye and, believe me, that is intentional.

Hyundai’s last Santa Fe, the second-generation version, won over plenty of fans for its value, reliability and features, but in a Maritz study of purchase reasons, exterior styling ranked way down the list – the No. 18 reason, in fact. A new study says exterior looks are now the No. 5 reason for buying this latest Santa Fe.

The takeaway here is that Hyundai feels grown up and confident enough to go all-in with a new intermediate crossover SUV that is distinct. The compact-sized short-wheelbase Santa Fe soldiers on, but now with the Santa Fe XL, Hyundai is taking direct aim at rivals that until now haven’t really had to worry about a serious threat from – well, I’d like to call Hyundai an “upstart,” but that’s no longer apropos.

Hyundai is the real deal, so is the long-wheelbase Santa Fe XL and if the Toyotas and Hondas and General Motors and Fords aren’t paying attention, they will find themselves getting run over.


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