* Model: Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
* Exterior color: Cabo Bronze
* Interior color: Black/Saddle
* Engine: four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbo
* Horsepower: 264
* Transmission: six-speed automatic
* Fuel economy: 27 mpg highway, 23 mpg city
* Dealer: Pye Hyundai (Dalton, Ga.)
* Price (as tested): $35,295
In the latest USA Today/Cars.com comparison test of three-row-seat SUVs, the first-place winner was the 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited.
That's not the final word on which vehicle is No. 1 in the segment -- the market will ultimately sort that out -- but it's a good place to start if you're shopping for a family hauler and put a premium on style, leading-edge technology and over-all bang for the buck.
This week we take a look at the smaller sibling of the seven-passenger Santa Fe, the five-seat Santa Fe Sport which is eight inches shorter, a few thousand dollars cheaper, gets better gas mileage and should be the Goldilocks' choice -- not too big, not too little -- for most families of four or fewer.
Ben Upshaw, a sales associate at Pye Hyundai in Dalton, Ga., handed me the keys to a 2013 Santa Fe Sport with a powerful 2.0-liter turbo-charged engine. After a few minutes in the mid-size crossover, I see what all the fuss is about. It is made down the road in West Point, Ga., and our tester was just as sporty and taut as a BMW X5 costing thousands more.
STYLING AND COMFORT
In the ultra-competitive mid-size SUV segment, the Santa Fe Sport must display a lot of virtues simply to stay in the game, and first impressions are often made with sheet metal. Our test car is coated in Cabo Bronze paint, a dark metallic color that changes hues depending on the light. Paired with saddle (brown) interior, our test Santa Fe Sport has an upscale vibe that looks more expensive than its $35,295 MSRP.
The new Santa Fe body style debuted in 2013 and features a bold, five-bar grille, several sweet character lines on the side panels and up-swept side-rear windows that add to an attractive profile but pinch rear visibility a bit. Our test vehicle was equipped with a wide-angle rear-view camera, which compensates for the tight sight lines.
Nineteen-inch silver alloy wheels shod with Continental all-season rubber give the Santa Fe Sport an aggressive stance.
The interior of our tester had been upgraded with a $2,450 leather and premium equipment package that included the aforementioned leather seating surfaces, sliding and reclining second-row seats (which are also heated) and dual climate controls with an air ionizer.
A $2,900 tech package adds a panoramic sunroof (that dramatically spans almost the entire first and second rows of seats), navigation and a 12-speaker audio system. In another upscale flourish, the rear windows have draw-down shades to help your reclining second-row occupants with their mid-day naps. The tech package also includes ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel (features you almost never see on vehicles south of $40,000).
In typical Hyundai fashion, even base models have lots of unexpected standard amenities such as remote keyless entry, LED headlight accents and a rear spoiler.
Our test vehicle's 2.0-liter turbo-charged engine makes 264 horsepower, just perfect if your aim is to drive a sporty machine but you don't need to do any heavy towing. The base engine in the Santa Fe Sport is a 190-horsepower, 2.4-liter power-plant that gets the job done, but doesn't have the heart-pounding torque of the turbo.
In an afternoon test drive around the Dalton bypass, the Santa Fe Sport was more than willing to get up and go. It's not often that an SUV beckons you to hop in and have fun, but the Santa Fe Sport, with it's well-bolstered seats and three driving modes, seems to enjoy carving up a freeway. The bigger, three-row Santa Fe comes with a smooth 290-horsepower V-8.
The Santa Fe Sport is a value-packed SUV, just right for small- to medium-sized families. Opting for the 2.0-liter turbo model transforms a transportation appliance into a fun machine.
With the turbo, expect 27 miles per gallon highway and 23 miles per gallon city. As with all Hyundais the Santa Fe Sport comes with a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty that is the gold standard of the auto industry.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.