Turbocharged Santa Fe functional and fun to drive

May 6—Korean carmaker Hyundai has covered the bases with a range of family-friendly crossovers designed to satisfy a wide variety of customer needs.

From the diminutive and value-minded Venue to the fun-to-drive Kona and the stylish three-row Palisade, Hyundai has offerings to fit a wide variety of people-hauling needs and household budgets.

Tucked right there in the happy middle is the Santa Fe, which entered the 2023 model year largely unchanged from the previous model year. Given that the model name first arrived on our shores nearly a quarter-century ago (where does the time go, right?), it represents one of the brand's longer-running segment players.

The compact crossover is available in five trim levels — SE, SEL, XRT, Limited and Calligraphy — all of which feature an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard front-wheel-drive system with all-wheel-drive offered as an option. SE, SEL and XRT-trimmed samples are powered by a normally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-four engine rated for 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque. Limited and Calligraphy-trimmed models get a brawnier turbocharged version of the same engine, in this case huffing up 281 horses and 311 lb-ft of torque.

For those seeking to maximize fuel economy, the Santa Fe also can be had in gas-electric hybrid and plug-in hybrid form.

Pricing starts just shy of the 29-grand mark for an FWD SE-trimmed Santa Fe, which includes a set of 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, an eight-inch infotainment touch-screen interface, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone app, a pair of USB ports up front and in the back row, and a lengthy list of safety-sensing systems like lane-departure warning, forward collision mitigation and adaptive cruise control.

Creature comforts (and prices) rise as one moves up the trim levels, progressively adding heated seating, keyless entry and ignition, heated side-view mirrors, a panoramic sunroof, 360-degree surround-view exterior camera array, a digital gauge cluster with blind-spot camera display, Harman Kardon premium sound, leather upholstery, rain-sensing wipers, automated parking, fancier exterior bling, and bigger alloy wheels.

As is usually the case, our test vehicle arrived with all the chopped nuts and sprinkles on the manufacturer's menu. Dressed in top-drawer Calligraphy trim and riding on an AWD system, its list of standard kit included the more-powerful turbo-four engine, a set of 20-inch alloys, stitched leather upholstery, a simulated suede headliner, and a heads-up display.

So adorned, this particular Santa Fe delivered a definite upscale look and feel. That being said, though, the as-tested $45,255 asking price had an upscale feel, as well. Still, when one considers that the average new car today costs right around that sum, the Calligraphy-trimmed Santa Fe makes a compelling argument for itself when compared to similarly well-dressed competing models like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.

Largely unchanged since its last full redesign in 2019, the Santa Fe remains one of the better-looking entries in the compact crossover segment. The tidy exterior dimensions, gaping honeycomb grille and attractively designed rear end help it stand out in a crowded field of me-too family haulers.

The roomy interior allows for adult-sized accommodations both up front and in the 60/40 split-folding and reclining second-row bench. Instrumentation and controls are logically laid out and easy to use. Infotainment display selections, climate control and driving modes (for slippery or mild off-road conditions) are all controlled by clearly marked buttons and knobs on the broad center console. Our only complaint concerned the lack of a second cup holder and the push-button shifter's tendency to take its time moving from "reverse" to "drive."

The engine delivers power in a smooth and seamless manner with little in the way of turbo lag. Sixty mph arrives in a reportedly brisk six seconds, making this one of the quicker choices in this particular segment. It's a reasonably frugal gas-sipper, as well, with an EPA estimate of 24 mpg in combined driving. Handling, meanwhile, is precise and predictable, but not particularly sporty. The roomy cargo hold will swallow up 36.4 cubic feet of stuff behind the rear seats, or 72.1 cubic feet with those seat backs stowed. Properly equipped, a turbocharged Santa Fe can tow up to 3,500 pounds.

JOHN COLE reviews automobiles for The Times-Tribune. When he's not driving cars he's driving the pen behind Times-Tribune editorial cartoons. Contact him at johncoletoons@gmail.com.