“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
That single declarative statement succinctly defined the stakes established in HBO’s Game of Thrones and the series of books from which the show is adapted. Unlike nearly all entries in the fantasy genre, George RR Martin’s magnum opus shied away from the hero’s journey to tell a far more realistic tale of power hungry factions vying for power amidst the backdrop of an apocalyptic threat. Obviously, the automotive industry is not entirely characterized by swift wins or losses or even immediate consequences for poor decision making. There are winners and losers in every vehicle segment, but they coexist with a plethora of thoroughly average vehicles as well. The 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is one such vehicle. Depending on your priorities, it’s either an extraordinarily middling and outdated crossover or a competent and user friendly cargo carrier.
I recently had the chance to experience the Santa Fe Sport due to my neighbor’s misfortune, as his 2017 Honda Accord Sport was t-boned by a very inept driver several weeks ago. In this case I can personally attest to the driving skill of this particular human because his dashcam caught the whole thing. And I’d love to share the video with you all but I’d rather not risk the ire of his insurance company. Anyway, the necessity of the rental car meant that he had to temporarily give up his Sport for a “Sport.” With the two row Santa Fe Sport, Hyundai decided to enroll in Nissan’s Academy for Dishonest Names, as the sport moniker simply denotes a smaller variant. Like the Rogue Sport, there is nothing inherently athletic about the Hyundai, it was just the smaller vehicle in the Santa Fe lineup.
And what does smaller get you, at least in this case? A two row crossover with a total length of 185 inches. That’s three inches shorter than a Ford Edge and a whopping seven inches shorter than a Nissan Murano. Width is also an issue in the Santa Fe lineup: this model and the larger, three row Sante Fe XL are 74 inches wide, which is one inch short of the Nissan and two inches short of the Ford. Width is the most compelling reason to choose a midsize over a compact crossover. They’re the vehicles that can comfortably seat four people while simultaneously swallowing all their gear without a problem. And that width also pays dividends with the ride and handling. More on that later.
For now let’s focus on the interior. This is where the Sante Fe Sport makes the best case for itself, as all the materials are above and beyond what you’d normally expect for a base mid size crossover. Everything felt substantial. While the center console lid is not actually hand stitched or made from real leather, it nonetheless felt as close to the real thing as one would expect from a mainstream automaker. It also opens and closes with heft, a trait that competitors often fail to replicate, and one that goes a long way towards making the vehicle feel premium, even when it isn’t.
The console can absolutely swallow a quart of milk and probably comes just short of being able to accommodate a full gallon. It also contained a removable tray that I forgot to photograph. Unfortunately, there are no power outlets or USB charging ports in here, as they’re underneath the center stack.
The center stack and dash were outfitted with solid materials as well. Hyundai adorned the tan portions with some type of textured felt-like inserts, which ended up feeling better than the usual injection molded plastic that other automakers put in their respective vehicles. The aforementioned plastic felt good too. Many automakers resort to using scratchy plastics in those areas but in this case Hyundai opted for something a bit better. The fake wood is…fake wood. Apparently I am not capable of determining which mainstream automaker employs the real thing in their vehicles, as last year a Mazda representative chided me for wondering if the wood in a CX-5 was authentic or not. Oh well. Anyway, the enclosed storage space above the CD slot had enough room for phones or keys and such and also contained a removable rubber floor liner, a nice addition that Hyundai could have deleted without anyone noticing.
The audio system, which looks like a simple non-touch unit, can actually be manipulated with your fingers, and screen transitions are quick. The fonts for all the important stuff are large and easy to read, as are the physical buttons that govern them. I did not try and pair my phone so I cannot comment on its connectivity prowess. But I did listen to some music, which sounded good once I adjusted the bass, treble, and mid settings from their highest settings.
Like the audio controls, the buttons and dials that control the HVAC system are logically laid out and easy to use. The system itself is not digital but it does have a cool, lighted row of indicators that let you know where you stand in regards to the minimum and maximum heating and cooling capabilities of the system. The A/C was excellent.
It’s worth noting that once you get to the halfway point, the indicators turn red to indicate heat, which is a nice touch that is not found in vehicles from rival automakers.
Below the center stack is an additional storage area that also has a removable rubber floor. The centralized location of the USB, AUX, and dual 12V power outlets is nice but I prefer a setup that utilizes the center console for the USB connection to the audio system, as it allows you to conceal whatever it is you’ve got hooked up to the infotainment.
The interior gets a demerit for the button blanks, but with the quality of everything else in the Hyundai, it’s something I’m willing to overlook. It’s only a Zone of Sadness™ if the rest of the interior is depressing, and that is not the case with the Santa Fe Sport.
The cockpit contained backlit gauges and a nice screen that had better resolution than the system in dad’s 2016 Volkswagen Passat S. It was easy to navigate once I figured out the steering wheel controls, which were not ideally placed.
Beyond the dash and center stack, the drivers armrest and window switches also felt good.
Hyundai didn’t skimp on the second row either. Once nice touch was this Santa Fe badge, which was affixed to all four doors. Every door sill also featured a Santa Fe inscription, which is pretty rare for any mainstream vehicle, let alone a base model mid size crossover.
Hyundai also chose to buck the segment by placing its rear HVAC ducts on the B-pillars instead of the usual spot at the end of the center console. That location enables a rear passenger to more easily direct air to their face or chest region, which easier to accomplish when compared to the units that often sit close to the floor.
Hyundai also included a rear 12V power outlet for the rear passengers.
Overall, the seats felt pretty good. And I was able to adjust the seat and steering wheel in a way that properly accommodated my 5′ 6″ frame. But the rear visibility is terrible.
One final note on the interior: There were no squeaks or rattles whatsoever in this 38,000 mile rental, which I think is a pretty noteworthy achievement. The Japanese used to have a monopoly on high quality interiors but that has not been the case for several years.
Fortunately the Hyundai’s poor visibility is negated a bit by the integrated blind spot mirror and the rear view camera.
Unfortunately, the lack of an integrated mirror for the passenger mirror is notable. My 2013 Ford Focus has dual integrated mirrors and is easier to see out of, yet the passenger unit still feels necessary, especially at night. Proper adjustment might solve the issue but it is still an oversight that needed to be shared.
The area reserved for pulling the hatch upward also deserves criticism for its shallowness. There is far too little space to rest your fingers. Confident upward pulls are not possible here, unless you use the bottom lip of the hatch once it’s opened a little. That method will result in you touching whatever has accumulated on that section though, which in this case was a boatload of pollen, which is pretty common in New York this time of year. For an allergy sufferer like myself, this was unacceptable.
Less acceptable was the experience behind the wheel. I’ll cover the positive aspects first: The transmission shifts were crisp and gears changes were handled well once the car got moving. The brakes grab confidently as soon as you put your foot down and feel extremely linear. This concludes the section where I discuss anything good about driving the Santa Fe Sport.
The base Santa Fe Sport comes standard with Hyundai’s 2.4 liter four cylinder. With an output of 185 horsepower and 178 Ib-ft of torque, the 2.4 cannot sufficiently propel the Hyundai from a stop in any capacity whatsoever. The base curb weight is a little over 3600 pounds for this variant, which is about three hundred pounds more than your average midsize sedan, and newer entries in that segment come standard with powertrains that are more powerful than the one in the Santa Fe Sport. And the vast majority of compact crossovers have been equipped with engines that are just as powerful as the Hyundai.
From a stop the Santa Fe feels like a very poorly calibrated CVT paired to a turbocharger that suffers from extreme lag. It’s like the engine stares at your foot for about five seconds before finally realizing that you want to accelerate. The crossover can eventually get up to speed, and once it’s moving it feels okay, but the road to get there is terrible. Unfortunately, the Santa Fe Sport does not offer driving dynamics that can make up for the inadequate engine. Road imperfections quickly overwhelm the crossover to the point where you’ll wonder if Hyundai outfitted the Hyundai with a torsion beam suspension. And the utility doesn’t let you forget about potholes or abnormal road textures because road and wind noise are inextricably tied to the Santa Fe experience. My enjoyment of Better Than Ezra’s “Good” was severely diminished when the Sport encountered some grooved pavement and decided to let me know via loud howls and unsettling body roll. Not good at all.
You’d think after all that I’d condemn the Hyundai without hesitation, but I refuse to do so, because this crossover is perfect for new drivers in need of a cheap, reliable crossover that can haul all their stuff. It’s got a solid interior that doesn’t punish you for being price conscious. Slow acceleration? No problem. Risk taking drivers should start off with slow cars until they become acquainted to driving. And a punishing driving experience over rough roads will properly communicate to younger drivers that adverse road conditions will always require their attention.
Depreciation can be your friend. And in the case of the Santa Fe Sport it’s your best bud. There were three other Santa Fe Sport models at the small Enterprise lot where my neighbor returned his rental, and that tells you all you need to know about why these are priced so low. A comparable Edge or Murano is more expensive because they offer superior driving dynamics, but they may also provide complacency for amateur motorists.
When automakers play the game of cars, they create the vehicles that customers want, or they don’t. And there is absolutely a middle ground. The Hyundai Santa Fe Sport is the quintessential compromise vehicle. But that isn’t a bad thing, at least for a certain group of buyers. It’s a vehicle that will remind people of the halcyon days of 2010, when buying a car-based utility vehicle meant giving up the overall refinement and driving dynamics of a sedan. Hyundai’s elimination of the Sport for the 2019 model year might signal the end of the cheap, late model crossover, but for now the Santa Fe Sport represents a great value for those who just want a basic but cargo friendly piece of transportation.
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