With updated crossover, Hyundai bobbled shot at being a class leader
When it first came out as a 2013 model, the current generation of the Hyundai Santa Fe was a breath of fresh air compared to most of its competitors: a big crossover with three rows of seats that felt like a much smaller vehicle from behind the wheel.
A tight turning radius, a dashboard design shared with a smaller vehicle (the five-passenger Santa Fe Sport), and responsive steering all contributed to this positive impression.
For 2017, the Santa Fe received some important updates. Its safety improved, with a newly available automatic emergency braking system and improved crash-test scores – now among the best in its class rather than among the worst.
Other new features include Android Auto smartphone integration; an available surround-view camera system that displays all sides of the car while parking; and a lane-departure warning. Some styling revisions, such as a restyled grille, cap off the changes.
But Hyundai also meddled with some of the Santa Fe’s endearing qualities. The formerly responsive steering is now as slow and numb as the competition, and the once-smooth ride quality is now stiffer and bouncier.
Those fresh issues are coupled with existing drawbacks that the 2017 update didn’t remedy: There’s a little less room for passengers or cargo than several key competitors. Seating capacity tops out at seven rather than eight. And gas mileage, at 20 mpg in mixed driving with the tested all-wheel-drive system, is a few miles per gallon behind the class leaders.
Hyundai also was stingy with giving out its highly rated new automatic emergency braking system. Though this safety feature is widely available on some competitors, you need the “Ultimate” trim of the Santa Fe, and then need to pay an extra $2,100 for the “Ultimate Tech Package.” So equipped, the Santa Fe is a respectable value in its class at $44,295.
All Santa Fes are a pretty good value from the money, starting with the base $31,695 SE – but that particular item is reserved for only the fully loaded model.
The Santa Fe’s well-designed interior, tight turning radius and respectable value still give it appeal in the large crossover class, but it’s no longer near the very top of its segment.
That’s a pity, as the ingredients were there to make this vehicle a more formidable competitor: retaining the previously excellent driving dynamics, and making emergency automatic braking more widely available.
But as it is, it’s the Honda Pilot that’s a leader for buyers seeking the most room and smoothest ride – for those who aren’t willing to consider an even more practical minivan, at least, such as the excellent Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey. Meanwhile, the redesigned Mazda CX-9 is the class’s best balance of interior room, fuel economy and sporty driving dynamics.
Lexus adds value to midsize luxury sedan
With a luxury car, value is bound to be relative – and so is the case with the Lexus GS, a midsize sedan in the heart of the lineup for Toyota’s premium brand. But buyers shopping in this class are increasingly treated to the value option of a four-cylinder engine, and for 2016, Lexus followed suit.
While the four-cylinder has long been a staple of popular economy cars, family sedans and small crossovers, luxury buyers have typically demanded the power and refinement of a bigger engine.
But demands for improved gas mileage have prompted efforts to improve the small turbocharged engine. Lexus now has as a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder standard on four models – including the GS, where it pushes EPA fuel economy ratings from 22 mpg in mixed driving for the available V6 up to 26 mpg for the four-cylinder.
When you floor the accelerator, you do hear clearly that the whirring engine isn’t Lexus’ ultra-smooth V6. And although the four-cylinder GS 200t model isn’t slow, it’s not as quick as the V6 GS 350.
But in suburban or interstate driving conditions, the quiet, peppy four-cylinder behaves well – and not only saves gas, but reduces the GS’s base price by more than $4,000 (to $47,285).
It also undercuts comparably equipped competitors such as the Audi A6, BMW 528i and Mercedes-Benz E300 – which are also powered by four-cylinder engines. Regardless of engine, the GS also impresses for a classy interior design, excellent fit and finish, comfortable seats, and composed ride and handling.