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Test Drive: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe

Turns out the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe is two cars in one.

First there was the Santa Fe Sport that replaced the popular outgoing model last year and has been just as much of a success as its forebear. It has two rows of seats and is available with a choice of four-cylinder engines, one with and one without a turbo.

But now there is also an extended wheelbase three-row version that’s simply called the Santa Fe and fills the slot in Hyundai’s lineup vacated by the better forgotten Veracruz, one of the automaker’s rare duds.

This one is not likely to be one of those.

Unlike the Sport, the Santa Fe is powered exclusively by a 290 hp V6 and comes in seven or six-passenger models, the latter with snazzy second row captain’s chairs that slide fore and aft to dish out the ample legroom on tap as needed. Adults can fit in the cheap seats way out back, but the tallest ones will want to call shotgun on long trips.

The interior design on the high end of recent Hyundais, and not unlike that of its top-shelf Azera sedan: soft-touch dash; decent-looking faux-wood trim; excellent ergonomics throughout. The cabin is also very quiet, with little road or wind noise making its way in to wake the kids.

A six-speed automatic transmission is the only one available, so sorry if you are one of the three people shopping for a manual in this class, and good luck finding one somewhere else. Front-wheel-drive is standard at a starting price of $29,455, while AWD is a $1,750 option.

Either way, the Santa Fe comes with a trailer prep package and can tow up to 5,000 pounds worth of weekend fun. That’s par for the course in the growing full-size, faux-SUV segment. Unladen, it steps off nicely and gets up to speed in a hurry, with plenty of power left in reserve for passing on the highway. The sound of the V6 is delightfully refined and its fuel economy about average at 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway for front-wheel-drive versions, and all-wheel-drive robbing one highway mpg.

Although Hyundai has been making very competitive cars in recent years, I’ve always found their steering and suspensions to come up a little short compared to the best in class. Not so with the Santa Fe. Hyundai finally figured how to tune its electronic power assist steering to give it a natural feel, and even offers settings of increasing resistance for Comfort, Normal and Sport, which could be labeled Parking Lot, School Zone and Mountain Road.

The ride quality is the real standout, however, offering a fine mix of comfort and body control. All told, the Santa Fe is one of, if not the most composed vehicles of its kind. If the chassis engineer were here right now looking for input, I’d have absolutely nothing to talk to him or her about, although it has been sunny here the past few days, no?

If anything is missing from this car, it’s the latest in high tech driver aids. There is no blind spot alert, adaptive cruise control, self-parking feature, or anything like that. What you do get is Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics system, which offers collision notification and roadside assistance free for three years, and a host of other functions that include vehicle tracking, turn-by-turn directions, restaurant reviews, etc., for an annual fee. A solid infotainment/navigation system is bundled with several different options packages available in both the base GLS and Limited trim levels.

Aside from this lack of electronic razzle dazzle, which most buyers are happy to live without, I can see no substantive reason why you would need to venture beyond your Hyundai dealer if you wanted to trade up from your Sonata into something like this. I could nitpick, and the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander are all fine cars, but none jumps out as a must-have over the Santa Fe. It likely may be the other way around.

That’s a good thing for Hyundai, because it isn’t shying away from the fight. The price of this car is right in the mix. This is no bargain basement play like when the first Santa Fe hit the road in 2001, or the Veracruz that followed.

It doesn’t need to be.

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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe

Base price: $29,455

Type: Six or seven-passenger, front or all-wheel-drive five-door crossover

Engine: 3.3L V6

Power: 290 hp, 252 lb-ft torque

Transmission: six-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/25 hwy (FWD), 18 city/24 hwy (AWD)