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2015 Hyundai Santa Fe
The polished, fun-to-drive 2015 Santa Fe SUV offers a lot for the money.

Prices: $30,150-$36,000

Many folks just flat out need larger vehicles, so sales of crossover vehicles and SUVs such as the Santa Fe are on the upswing, with lower gas prices and no shortage of petroleum in sight.

The 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe SUV shouldn't be confused with the shorter, smaller Santa Fe Sport crossover, which comes with a standard or turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

Rather, the Santa Fe SUV is roomier and has a stout, smooth V-6 and third-row seat that allows seven-passenger seating--or room for up to six with second-row "captain's chairs."

The stiff, uncomfortable third seat is hard to reach and is for shorter folks, preferably kids. It doesn't allow much cargo room when in place, but its 50/50 split seatbacks flip forward, sit very flat and allow good cargo room. 

List prices start at $30,150 for a front-drive version and go to an even $36,000 for the top-line Limited all-wheel drive (AWD) model, which I tested. In between is a mix of front and AWD models, with AWD versions starting at $31,900.

Standard for the $36,00 AWD Limited are a pushbutton start, power heated front seats, leather seating surfaces, dual-zone automatic climate control, backseat heating and air conditioning controls and vents, 4.3-inch color touchscreen audio with rearview camera, good sound system and a Bluetooth hands-free system.

All doors opened wide, although it took a little extra effort to slide into the quiet interior. The electroluminescent gauges were easy to read in bright sunlight. While small, the dashboard controls were clearly marked and logically arranged. Occupants sit high.

Front console cupholders were conveniently placed, and the console's center storage bin was deep, although the glove compartment was almost fully occupied by the thick owner's manual. All doors had storage pockets and beverage holders.

The hands-free power cargo hatch came in handy when I was loading the cargo area with my hands full.

My test SUV had an enticing  $4,650 "Ultimate" option package. It includes a large panoramic sunroof, navigation system with an 8-inch touch screen, 12-speaker upscale sound system, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel and rear seats, rear parking assistance sensors and a 115-volt power outlet.

If you can afford it, that package seems worth the money.

The high-revving  3.3-liter V-6  has direct injection and dual continuously variable valve timing. It generates 290 horsepower and makes short work out of quick passing on highways. It's hooked to a smooth, efficient six-speed automatic transmission. High-speed turnpike cruising is a breeze.

My test vehicle delivered an estimated 17 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on highways, although those estimates seemed a little conservative.

The Santa Fe is known for its alert handling, which has been improved for 2015 with different suspension tuning and revised steering. Also new are standard daytime running lights, a driver's blind spot mirror and an auto up/down front passenger power window. 

The electric power steering system uses a new 32-bit microprocessor that provides a more refined steering feel. It has Hyundai's Driver Selectable Steering Mode, which has a retuned "Sport" setting that takes advantage of the updated microprocessor and provides firmer steering.

Suspension enhancements include wheel bearing and lower control arm bushing stiffness. Revised rear suspension geometry and bushings increase lateral stiffness.

All this helps make for an SUV with a supple suspension that handles much like a large sporty sedan. Helping keep things extra stable for my test SUV were 19-inch wheels, a vehicle stability management system and traction control. However, some bad roads brought out slight body side shake.

Safety features include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution for surer stops, lots of air bags and an optional blind spot detection system (standard on the Limited).

The hood glides up on hydraulic struts, eliminating the need for an awkward prop rod. Fluid filler areas are easily reached, although most Santa Fe SUV owners likely will just check the engine oil level--if they check anything at all. But forget about getting a peek at the engine because it's covered by one of the largest plastic covers I've ever seen.

I initially thought "Santa Fe" was an unusual name for a South Korean vehicle, but as one famous writer once put it, "What's in a name?" Somehow, "Santa Fe" fits this Hyundai.