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Cato: Santa Fe a class leader - but not in sales

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe


Overall Rating
This Hyundai is a class leader, though sales don’t reflect the fact.
Looks Rating
This is an interesting, bold look for a two-box design. Not earth-shattering, but nice enough and more compelling that the more rounded designs in this segment.
Interior Rating
The materials lead the segment and the layout is sensible. There’s no lack of room and cargo space, either.
Ride Rating
The power is there, but the steering lacks precision.
Safety Rating
Top Safety pick.
Green Rating
A big V-6 and all-wheel-drive equal mediocre fuel economy.

Why, you might ask, has the Hyundai Santa Fe XL been a disappointment? Why, indeed?

Why, for instance, does the Nissan Pathfinder out-sell the XL 2-1? Both have fold-flat third-row seating and strong, fuel-efficient V-6 engines. In fact, the Hyundai is notably more powerful – 290 horsepower versus the Pathfinder's 260. The XL's V-6 also out-muscles the V-6 engines in the Toyota Highlander (270 hp), Honda Pilot (250 hp), Mazda CX-9 (273 hp).

Game and set for Hyundai. Not so fast on the match. In fairness, Ford's Explorer also rates at 290 hp, but the Santa Fe XL uses less gas (11.6/7.8/9.9 litres/100 km for city/highway/combined versus 12.2/8.2/10.4 for the Explorer. Of course, the Pathfinder has them all whipped for fuel efficiency: 10.5/7.7/9.2).

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But the tale of the pump does not explain why, through three-quarters of 2013, Nissan Canada sold 5,377 Pathfinders to Hyundai's 2,291 Santa Fe XLs. It's hard to imagine flexible seating is a game-breaker, either.

That is, the Pathfinder's clever "EZ Flex Seating System" is a step ahead of the XL's approach to third-row entry. The Pathfinder's 14 cm of second row seat travel makes the gymnastics of twisting, bending and climbing waaay back an unlikely boon for chiropractors. Both have a third row with a 50/50 split-folding design. Edge Nissan, but really? This is Nissan's ace in the hole?

Hyundai certainly has it over Nissan when it comes to gearboxes. Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT) is good for what it is – and it's helpful for fuel efficiency – but the feel is more like a lawnmower or a snowmobile, not a car. The six-speed autobox in the Santa Fe is modern, with nicely timed and managed shifts. The aging Highlander and Pilot both come with five-speed automatics.

Then there is the little matter of dollars and cents. The starter Santa Fe XL lists for $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 and 2,268 kg towing capacity. It's front-drive, yes, but not a stripper.

You can keep loading up, adding features and options and all-wheel-drive – and that will get you to $43,199 for a luxuriously dressed XL with saddle leather interior. You will pay more but get less from Hyundai's competitors – usually $2,000-$4,000 more on uniformly equipped rigs.

Hyundai, on paper, has clearly delivered on its promise to give buyers more for less in a reliable package. Hyundai scores well in most third-party quality studies, though Consumer Reports ranks most of Hyundai's rivals higher with a caveat: V-6 Santa Fe models are not ranked because of insufficient data.

Except the Pathfinder, which is ranked dead last among mid-size SUVs. So again I ask, why the big sales edge to the Nissan? It's not a matter of winning quality, is it? And let the record show, the Honda and Toyota entries are not only aging, but more expensive.

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So is design an issue? How could it be? The Santa Fe has a fresh, interesting exterior look and it's racier than Nissan's. But is styling a deal-breaker or maker? According to a Maritz study of purchase reasons, exterior design is ranked No. 5 among the reasons consumers opted for the latest Santa Fe. The design is a winner, then.

Perhaps this is a brand thing. That is, Hyundai says the No. 1 group of Santa Fe XL buyers are mid-40s professional couples with two-to-four kids and a household income of $137,000. A second target group is comprised of retirees with grandchildren whose income is not as large – $85,000-$100,000 – but who have significant assets and a desire to stay busy with family and friends.

These wealthy, educated buyers may be a stretch for the Hyundai brand – a brand that despite good results in third-party research for years remains a work in progress. You need numbers? In research from BrandZ, the Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Ford brands are all significantly more valuable – in Toyota's case, six times more valuable, while the Ford brand is worth about twice as much.

So it's a brand issue. These other brands are just plain stronger. It's certainly not a matter of features.

The Santa Fe XL, for instance, is available with rear window sunshades to prevent the sun from beating on the head of a kid in a child seat. You can get the XL with heated rear seats, a huge panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel and hill descent control for crawling down an off-road pitch. Cabin materials are first-rate and the exterior has just enough creases and corners to catch your eye.

The XL and the Pathfinder are nearly a flip of the coin – with the Hyundai's six-speed autobox the deal-maker.

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Tech Specs

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited with saddle interior

Type: mid-size SUV

Base price: $43,199 ($1,760 freight)

Engine: 3.3-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 290/252 lb-ft

Transmissions: six-speed automatic

Drive: all-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.7 city/8.0 highway

Alternatives: Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango

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