CORONADO, CA – The U.S. market suddenly is awash in new or almost-new 3-row cross/utility vehicles.

There’s General Motors’ refreshed trio, the Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave; Ford’s new-ish Explorer; the all-new Nissan Pathfinder; and Kia’s updated Sorento.

Early next year, a third-generation Toyota Highlander arrives.

Hyundai is jumping into the fray, too, with a new 3-row variant of its traditional 2-row Santa Fe, on sale now at U.S. dealers. The Korean brand’s defunct Veracruz offered three rows but trailed badly as rivals easily racked up annual sales of 100,000 units or more.

Hyundai smartly wants to capitalize on the Santa Fe’s name recognition in marketing a larger version to buyers needing more functionality. Sales of the new 2-row Santa Fe, now known as the Sport model to distinguish the two, are up 26.2% in the seven months since its September 2012 introduction, so the strategy is paying dividends.

As with the 2-row version, WardsAuto finds the new 3-row Santa Fe’s strength is its interior design, as well as abundant standard features. However, it is short on space relative to the competition.

While the long-wheelbase Santa Fe is 8.5 ins. (21.6 cm) longer than its 2-row Sport brother, it is shorter than the Pathfinder and Explorer, which means less room for people and cargo. The 3-row Santa Fe’s 146.6 cu.-ft. (4.2 cu.-m) of interior passenger volume exceeds only a few competitors, namely the aging Highlander and Mazda CX-9. Cargo space also falls shy of most competitors.

The smaller footprint of the 3-row Santa Fe also doesn’t equal class-leading fuel economy.

The Santa Fe uses Hyundai’s 3.3L direct-injected V-6 from the Azera large car, making 290 hp and mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. While the Hyundai CUV matches the 21 mpg (11.2 L/100 km) combined fuel economy of the 250-hp, 3.5L port-injected V-6 Honda Pilot, it can’t best the Pathfinder, which is rated at 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) with its 260-hp 3.5L port-injected V-6 mated to a continuously variable transmission.

The Pathfinder’s strong suit is city driving, with a 2-mpg (0.9 km/L) advantage over the Santa Fe.

Upgrades to the Santa Fe’s 3.3L from the Azera application, to accommodate for towing, include piston-cooling jets; friction-reducing chromium-nitrate coatings on sliding engine surfaces, including tappets; a 3-stage variable intake manifold; variable output oil pump; and lightweight fiber-reinforced resin parts, such as cylinder covers, Hyundai says.

With its hefty output, the 3-row Santa Fe never lacks for power during test drives here through the hills of greater San Diego. Like many Hyundais, its 6-speed automatic upshifts quickly for optimal fuel efficiency, so torque is wanting during acceleration up steeper inclines.

Real-world fuel economy averages 19.8 mpg (11.9 L/100 km) in an all-wheel-drive Santa Fe GLS, at an average speed of 30 mph (48 km/h). The model is the 7-passenger grade of the Santa Fe and is estimated to achieve 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) combined. The 6-passenger, front-wheel-drive Santa Fe Limited, on a largely downhill and flat route, achieves 24.0 mpg (9.8 L/100 km), also at an average speed of 30 mph.

The Santa Fe handles well on the copious curvy roads here, although the husky vehicle is more suited for suburban routes than tearing up rural canyons. The electric power steering feels appropriately heavy, but there’s little noticeable difference in the Normal, Comfort and Sport steering modes, especially at mid or high speeds. The same has been true for other Hyundai models.

The Santa Fe really shines inside, with high-quality materials used throughout, including low-gloss plastics and a knit headliner. The vehicle recently was named among the 2013 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors.

Multiple areas show stellar attention to detail, including seat leather perforated in a tiny square pattern, chrome-trimmed seatbelt returns, cross-hatch-patterned instrument-panel plastic and curved front door handles. Screws in damped grab bars are disguised cleverly in places where shiny metal normally would stick out. Doors close with a reassuring “thud,” and the center stack is ergonomically perfect, its large buttons and knobs within easy reach of the driver and front passenger.

Although total passenger volume in the 3-row Santa Fe is on the low end of the competitive set, Hyundai does have one of the roomier second and third rows in the segment. That’s important if Hyundai is to woo more families, a demographic it has struggled to attract. After all, no children want to be squished in back while their parents live in the lap of luxury up front.

Exiting the third row needs some improvement. Getting in is easy enough, but unlike the Pathfinder, the Santa Fe lacks a wide opening provided by second-row seats that fold and slide far forward. The Santa Fe’s second-row seats collapse easily via levers, folding nearly flat, while third-row seats fold totally flat.

As with many Hyundais, standard features are plentiful. The auto maker’s BlueLink telematics system is standard on all 3-row Santa Fes, as is Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio access and illuminated vanity mirrors.

The FWD 7-passenger GLS begins at $28,350, not including $845 destination and handling.

Hyundai calculates it has a $2,045 advantage over the FWD ’13 Highlander, which, as one of the segment’s older models, lacks a lot of the Santa Fe’s standard content. Compared with the newer Pathfinder, there is a $300 advantage, although Hyundai claims the gap grows wider pitting the Santa Fe Limited against the Pathfinder’s SL grade.

The new 3-row Santa Fe represents the kind of sharp improvement over an older model that is consistently seen from Hyundai.

The gap in interior space and fuel economy is not egregious, as there are many pluses to the Santa Fe. But for buyers seeking maximum capacity, a visit to a Nissan or Ford dealer should be in order.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'13 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited
Vehicle type 7-passenger, front-wheel-drive cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.3L DI DOHC 24-valve V-6
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 252 lb.-ft. (342 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92 x 83.8
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 110.2 ins. (280 cm)
Overall length 193.1 ins. (490 cm)
Overall width 74.2 ins. (188 cm)
Overall height 66.5 ins. (169 cm)/66.9 ins. (170 cm) w/ roof rack
Curb weight 3,904 lbs. (1,771 kg)
Base price $33,100 ($36,980 as tested, includes $845 destination charge)
Fuel economy 18/25 mpg (13.1-9.4 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Ford Explorer, Chevy Traverse, GMC Acadia, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Buick Enclave, Nissan Pathfinder, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9
Pros Cons
High-quality interior materials Not as spacious as competitors
290 hp DI V-6 Pathfinder V-6 more fuel-efficient
Lots of standard features Hyundai pricing escalating