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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Ltd AWD: A lot of crossover for the money

by: HYUNDAI MOTOR AMERICAN - The redesigned 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe now includes a third row of seats.Automotive writers rarely have the chance to compare similar but differently priced vehicles back to back. Usually we test a car one week, a van the next and a truck or SUV the week after that. But by chance, I was able to test a pair of midsize crossovers with three rows of seats within a two-week period.

The first one, a 2014 Acura MDX, is a popular luxury crossover with room for seven passengers. The next, a 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe with seating for six, is almost a less expensive copy. Both were extensively redesigned from previous models.

The MDX and Santa Fe have many things in common. They are about the same size, look similar on the outside, and are only offered with a single V6 engine. And although their base models come with front-wheel-drive, the two I tested both featured optional all-wheel-drive systems.

Both were fully-loaded models, meaning they were the most expensive versions available. Even so, the Acura cost around $20,000 more than the Hyundai. That's obviously a lot of money. Enough to buy the cheapest car Hyundai has to offer, in fact. So it has to be asked, is the MDX really that much better than the Santa Fe?

The answer depends on what you're looking for in such a vehicle. Because it is a genuine luxury crossover, the Acura was more refined, more sophisticated and drove better than the Santa Fe. If that's the feel you are looking for, the MDX is the one you want.

Many people will think it looks better, too. Aside from the grill and taillights, the Acura and Santa Fe look a lot like almost every other midsize crossover out their. Frankly, with the exception of Audis and Mercedes, the flanks and rooflines of most crossovers are pretty generic these days. But the MDX grill is much more substantial looking that the one of the Santa Fee, and the Acrua's taillights are more stylish, too.

The greatest differences are in the interiors, however. The styling, materials, and fit and finish in the Acura reflect its higher price. It features a lot more leather and a lot less plastic than the Hyundai. The dash in the MDX was also cleaner, thanks to a second display screen that replaced the buttons needed to handle a lot of the entertainment and climate control systems. The only exception was the front leather bucket seats, which were actually more comfortable in the Santa Fe.

On the other hand, the Hyundai did everything well during its test week. It was quiet and capable on the road, handled changing weather conditions with ease, and even felt more nimble than the solid-riding Acura.

Perhaps surprisingly, the engines were almost exactly equal in both vehicles. The Acura comes standard with a 3.5-liter V6 that delivers 290 horsepower and 267 pound feet of torque. The Hyundai features a 3.3-liter V6 with an equal 290 horsepower and slightly lower 252 pound feet of torque. They felt almost equal on the road, with the Hyundai's engine only being a little nosier under hard acceleration. Fuel economy was almost even, too, with the EPA rating the MDX at 21 average miles per gallon and the Santa Fe just one mile less.

Both are mated to six-speed automatic transmissions. While both were responsive, the one in the Hyundai hesitated slightly before downshifting when speeding up to pass. Then it abruptly dropped down a gear (or maybe two), causing it to feel jerky.

One cure was to leave the Santa Fe in the Eco mode, where downshifts were more moderate. Eco modes are designed to save fuel by reducing the throttle response. They usually take all the fun out of driving. But the Santa Fe actually felt pretty normal in Eco mode, so that's where it stayed most of the time.

Other differences include the suspensions. The MDX can be adjusted between Comfort, Normal and Sport, allowing drivers to find the one that meets their tastes. The suspension in the Santa Fe well balanced between soft and firm, however. Shortcomings only showed up when going over speed bumps or hitting deep potholes, which caused loud thumps from the undercarriage.

Getting to the third row of seats differed in the two vehicles. In the Acura, the touch of a button slides the second bench row forward almost six inches. In the Hyundai, passengers twist their way between two bucket seats with folding arm rests. That's why the MDX carries seven passengers and the Santa Fe only carries six.

Truth be told, the MDX had some options that aren't available in the Santa Fe, including a rear seat DVD system to keep children entertained on long trips. If you don't order the option packages that include them, the price difference drops a bit, but it's still a significant gap.

Many buyers will undoubtedly consider the $38,750 list price of the fully-loaded Santa Fe to be very reasonable, considering everything it comes with. And they would be right. Like its corporate sibling Kia, Hyundai has gotten very good at the value game in recent years. Unless you're actually comparing the Santa Fe back to back with the MDX, it's hard to even notice where it falls short of genuine luxury crossover standards.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: Sante Fe Limited.

• Manufacturer: Hyundai.

• Class: Midsize crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Motor: 3.3-liter V6 (290 hp, 252 ft-lbs).

• Fuel Economy: 18/25/21 (FWD); 18/24/20 (AWD).

• Price: Starting at around $33,350 ($38,750 as tested).