Renovated With or Without Family Room

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Automakers, logo designers and plastic surgeons all adhere to an unshakable credo: make it bigger.

Today, even as some Americans find nano-scaled joy in the Mini or tiny plug-in cars, others -- especially those struggling to install child seats -- would gladly stick with the car they're currently driving, if only it were bigger.

Cute-and-cuddly crossover utilities, especially, seem the "Toy Story" dolls of automobiles, outgrown and cast aside as buyers age and start their families.

But Hyundai hasn't had the right crossover for families, be they the Cleavers or the Kardashians. The brand's smallest plaything has been the Tucson. The Santa Fe was roomier, but clearly not big enough: a paltry 16 percent of buyers of the old Santa Fe were raising children, compared with up to 53 percent for its midsize competitors.

Consider that rectified this year, as Hyundai spins off a second Santa Fe that pulls more chairs to the family table.

The redesigned Santa Fe Sport stays roughly the same five-passenger size as before. It's also much improved, shedding roughly 270 pounds and gaining a handsome Sonata-style interior and a pair of direct-injection 4-cylinder engines.

And for the population exploders there is a new, enlarged Santa Fe: 8.5 inches longer, with a 3.9-inch longer wheelbase. With a V-6 and three rows of seats, the Santa Fe is distinctly different from the Sport. It has also become one of the better all-around mid-to-large crossover utilities.

Consider them two lengths of sausage, sharing a name and much the same skin and interior fillings (though the Sport is made in Georgia while the bigger version is imported from South Korea). Compared with creating an entirely separate midsize model, Hyundai's two-wheelbase strategy seems shrewd, reducing costs and trimming the margin for error in styling, naming, manufacturing and marketing. (Consider how the Commander worked out for Jeep; sales of that awkwardly stretched Grand Cherokee evaporated over five years before the plug was pulled in 2010.)

This larger Santa Fe looks and drives smaller than it is, outhandling and outaccelerating lummoxes like the Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder. Though the Hyundai has less interior volume than those big-box specials, it swallows as many riders and lots of stuff. And its third row is surprisingly adequate, even for adults on short trips.

Throw in carlike performance and comfort, a 290-horsepower V-6 and lavish features, and the Hyundai becomes a smart package for families who need three-row versatility but don't want a minivan or a truckish road-hogging S.U.V.

Buyers choose between two versions of the plus-size, three-row Santa Fe: a six-seat Limited with a pair of captain's chairs in the second row or a GLS with a second-row bench and seating for seven. (For either model, the split third row folds flat.)

So how big is Hyundai's strapping baby?

At 193.1 inches bumper to bumper, the Santa Fe stretches past the Toyota Highlander and the Pilot. It's only about 4 inches shy of the Pathfinder and Ford Explorer.

But the Hyundai pulls a neat visual trick. At a casual glance, you'd swear the Santa Fe was a size smaller than any of them. The Hyundai is the narrowest vehicle in its class -- roughly 4 to 5 inches slimmer than the Pilot and Explorer -- and its roofline slants lower as well.

Yet the Santa Fe's efficient packaging delivers roomy interior dimensions that, in some cases, actually exceed bulkier rivals: the Hyundai has more third-row legroom than the Nissan. In this class, only the Santa Fe and Pathfinder exceed 40 inches of second-row legroom, on par with especially spacious midsize sedans.

At 3,933 pounds, the Hyundai is the only sub-two-ton vehicle in its group, weighing about 400 pounds less than the Toyota and 600 less than the Ford.

Drivers should instantly notice, and appreciate, the Hyundai's slender proportions and comparatively lighter weight. For one, the Hyundai can turn around in a two-foot-tighter circle than the Nissan, Ford or Toyota.

Pointed south from Monterey, Calif., to Los Angeles, my Santa Fe Limited carved a serene, soft-riding path. Cranking 290 horsepower from a direct-injected 3.3-liter V-6 -- matching the Explorer for the most powerful standard 6-cylinder in the class -- the Hyundai offers surprising hustle. Mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic transmission, this V-6 likes to rev and sounds healthy doing it. With the optional trailer prep package, the Santa Fe can tow 5,000 pounds, matching the class's best.

In fact, this engine, which also makes haste in the big Hyundai Azera and Kia Cadenza sedans, may be the most distinguished in the Hyundai-Kia portfolio. (Yes, Hyundai's 5-liter V-8 makes 429 horsepower in the roughly $60,000 Equus, but that engine and that car are niche players, at least for now.)

Despite that modest curb weight, the Hyundai's fuel economy is only adequate, at 18 miles per gallon in town and 25 on the highway, for the front-drive version and 18/24 with optional all-wheel drive. Those numbers roughly match the competition's.

Burnishing the brand's reputation for high-value interior design -- the days when Hyundai cabins seemed barely first-world seem so long ago -- the Santa Fe nails the optional navigation system and deftly balances simplicity with style. Materials, colors, shapes and textures please both the eyes and the hands.

Naturally, Hyundai plumps the Santa Fe with standard goodies, especially in the Limited: 19-inch alloy wheels and keyless entry with push-button start; downhill brake control and hill-start assist; power leather seats with heaters in the first and second rows; a power liftgate and driver's knee air bag; a color touch screen with backup camera and BlueLink telematics system. For $2,900, the Technology package adds an excellent navigation system, 550-watt Infinity audio, panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel and side-window shades.

As for the regular-inseam version, the Santa Fe Sport starts at $25,555 with a 190-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Adding $3,250 delivers a 2-liter turbo 4 that makes 264 horses.

One thing goes missing from either Santa Fe: The strong lines and unmistakable personality of say, the Explorer or Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Hyundai's P.T.A.-approved shape is attractive enough, with its upward sweep and tasteful chrome detailing, but it makes barely a ripple -- a bit of a letdown after the go-for-it waves of the Sonata, Elantra and even Accent models.

Nor does the Hyundai strike the manly, outdoorsy pose of models like the Pathfinder. Yet the Hyundai is the kind of pleasant, unpretentious company that families like to have around.

That companionship will set you back $29,455 to start for the three-row Santa Fe. From a $33,945 base price, my front-drive Limited model reached $36,980. Hyundai figures that undercuts a comparable Toyota, Nissan or Honda by $1,500 to $1,900.

It's taken Hyundai more than a decade to get the Santa Fe right, from humble beginnings as a weird, warty side show among compact S.U.V.'s.

Now Hyundai is offering a brother act. The Santa Fe Sport trains its sights on best-selling compacts like the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4. And as a muscular, legitimate midsize crossover, the Santa Fe gives both families and Hyundai plenty of room to grow.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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