It surprises me after the decade of fuel price volatility we’ve experienced in America that big, 6- and 7-passenger SUVs remain so popular. But, being that they are so popular, I get a lot of them to test. After a recent test of a 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe in Limited trim, I’m also surprised to say it’s one of the tightest-built chassis I’ve experienced in the class.
The feeling of quality in the Santa Fe was more immediately evident than it was in the similarly-colored Azera I tested earlier in the year. Door pulls felt still a bit light, but solid. The doors didn’t carry any undue weight, but shut with a reassuringly muted impact that spoke the language of quality, as does the vehicle’s hushed attitude about freeway cruising. Even the windshield wipers sounded quieter than I thought they would when I accidentally turned them on while the windshield was dry.
The interior door panels had nary a hard plastic piece to be felt and were home to well-designed switches for the windows and locks. The motors behind them sounded authoritative, though again not unduly heavy. Panel alignment on the two-tone dashboard was impeccable, and stitching on the leather wheel and seats was likewise flawless.
Finally, all the controls felt solid, not cheap, like they’ll last forever. Again, nothing felt heavy or hard to push/turn/pull, but things like the HVAC selection tools were simple to use and, more importantly to our discussion here, well put-together. Nary a chintzy-looking and -feeling door handle or HVAC knob to be found — a Fiat 500 Sport, it ain’t.
Where my test Azera earlier in the year begged comparison with a Lexus ES350 I had tested just weeks prior, the Santa Fe Limited begged comparison to the Lexus RX350 I also tested earlier this year. Sure, the Santa Fe’s got more seats in it, but it runs a close race to the Lexus in terms of quality of workmanship. The only real flaw I noticed: One of the second-row seats’ leather was a big saggy-looking in the middle of the back panel. A simple pull-and-tuck at the nearest Hyundai dealer probably could have fixed that, though.
The Koreans often get ragged on about their suspension and chassis tuning not being up to snuff — and in truth, I thought the Azera lacked the refinement of the Lexus ES350 in that regard. Not so with the Santa Fe. I liked its feeling of solidity and its attention to detail in the chassis department, and I bet many a Lexus owner would be surprised at how nice the Santa Fe in Limited trim can be on the backroads, where it felt reasonably nimble for its size and absorbed bumps better than the performance-oriented (and thus harder-riding) Lexus RX350 F-SPORT we tested. Not just that, but Lexus fans might be surprised how well screwed-together everything seems, from the extra-long panoramic sunroof right down to the seat belt latches. Overall, there’s a feeling of lightness to the Santa Fe’s parts, but the hardware attached to those parts seems well-made. The hood felt light, for example, but shut from a narrow angle with a quality “click” noise rather than a metallic thud. The brake pedal didn’t reach up and slap you in the face with its firm response threatening to plant your passengers on the windshield if the weren’t buckled in — a problem I tend to have with Lexus cars during the first couple of days because their brakes are so touchy-feely — but was at the same time positive and up to the task when impatient or uncaring (or both) drivers pulled out in front of me and required a hard stab at the left pedal.
So it has a satisfying door-shutting sound and can haul more people than the Lexus RX350. The question remains: Could you afford it? Certainly easier than you could afford an SUV from any luxury marque with which the Santa Fe might compete, were it not for the Hyundai badge. More details on that next time.
Disclosure: Hyundai provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.