Mountain Wheels: Further-transformed Hyundai Santa Fe is a pleasant pick |

Mountain Wheels: Further-transformed Hyundai Santa Fe is a pleasant pick

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

Talk about a transformation of the biggest kind. Once ungainly, bobbly and toy-like — albeit back in those days that many people still associate with Korean cars, principally the ones you cannot convince that anything has changed since 1998 — the Hyundai Santa Fe is really one very well-rendered, comfortable and attractive SUV. Just like in politics, some people are not going to listen to what you have to say, ever.

Too bad for them, as the 2017 Santa Fe Sport I recently drove, equipped with AWD and a 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, was an especially accomplished vehicle.

This model year's updates have also given it much of the same blacked-out sex appeal as a Durango or a Ford Edge or Lincoln MKX — black chrome wheels, dark rear glass, oversized exhaust port (albeit just two of them on one side, as that turbo engine really isn't blowing out that much exhaust), plus darkened roof rails and low-gloss trim on the louver blade-styled front grille. The aesthetic mix makes the car impactful, imposing and quite stunning. Yes, a Hyundai Santa Fe. Really.

That refashioned front fascia and new headlights is just part of the 2017 updates, which also include 17- to 19-inch alloy wheel choices, available fog lamps and some new silver trim along the rocker panels.

Inside, the refinements are more incremental, but there's still a bunch: The standard seven-inch touchscreen navigation and control system can be bumped up to an eight-inch version, you can get a power-adjustable passenger seat and the rearview camera comes standard.

Spend a bit more and you can opt for a multi-view rear camera (with a virtual above-the-car 360-degree view mode), the electronic parking brake and safety systems including lane-departure warning, auto-stop with pedestrian detection and a smart cruise control.

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The top-of-the-line Santa Fe Sport had most of these systems in place and came to just under $41,000, all totaled.

Hyundai boasts of consistent fuel savings gains for the six variants of the Sport model, with highway mileage as high as 28 MPG depending on the engine choice. The more powerful 2.0-liter turbo I drove got me about 24.5 MPG over a week of driving, consistent with its EPA ratings.

Sport's standard option is a 2.4-liter four cylinder that produces 185 HP; the more fulsome three-row Santa Fe model gets a 3.3-liter V-6 with 290 HP. The six-speed automatic is standard across the board, and if you add all-wheel drive to the mix, Hyundai also throws in a windshield wiper deicer and the active cornering control, for effortless brake-assisted turns. Steering is electric and can be user-adjusted for normal, Eco or sport-optimized driving.

That contributes to an overall experience on the road that's confident, poised and solid, with loads of quick-to-kick-in turbo power to keep you satisfied on the passes or ahead of traffic on a flatlander freeway.

Despite the absence of a third row of seats in the standard-sized Santa Fe, you'll still find rear seat goodies such as seat heat controls on the doors, manual sunshades, very deep and sporty seating and even good light and visibility, thanks to the small third-row windows and a positively gigantic sunroof.

As usual, there's a long laundry list of premium bits that you'd normally associate with a much more expensive Japanese or German SUV; some of my favorites included an Infinity sound system with QuantumLogic surround sound and the very cool hands-free smart liftgate, which automatically opens the rear hatch without any fiddling or foot-sweeping motions.

Yes, the plastic can still occasionally be a little obvious, in spots such as the under-the-center-armrest box, for instance, but the combined and conjoined effect of design and layout in the cabin is very classy indeed, albeit a little button-heavy. I had choices for heated steering wheel, AWD differential lock, lane-keep and hill-descent assist and more, plus an automatic power-sliding driver's seat and two 12-volt power outlets, located inside an open-arched tray under the center stack.

Hyundai Santa Fe seating is still built exactly for my stocky frame, so I continue to congratulate them for that; I also like the Transformers-inspired door switchgear, the angular sweep around the cup holders and the arched air vents.

You've come a long way, baby. Keep it up.

2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

MSRP: $38,250; as tested, $40,820

Powertrain: 240-HP turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures (combined/city/highway): 21/19/24