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Wheels: A Crossover-Utility Gem at Its Best on the Open Road

The primary mission of crossover-utility vehicles is to haul people and stuff. Exceptional acceleration and handling are not their usual attributes.

So when you find a crossover-utility that can carry seven people and enough of their belongings for a weekend trip — and deliver impressive highway performance and decent fuel economy — you’ve found a gem.

The Hyundai Santa Fe, the original version of which was introduced in the U.S. automotive market in 2001, is such a jewel. The 2014 Santa Fe Limited, the front-wheel-drive model that is the subject of this week’s column, is the near-perfect family hauler.

The caveat is needed because the Santa Fe Limited on the highway has a different personality from its decidedly less enjoyable persona in congested urban traffic. In fairness, that is true of most vehicles. City traffic takes the joy out of driving almost everything.

But the urban-joy deficit seems more pronounced in the current Santa Fe because it has expanded from a true compact to more of a full-size vehicle to accommodate more people and stuff. That growth means the new Santa Fe — that is, the more family-friendly, long-wheelbase model driven for this column — is less city-friendly, with an overall body length of 16.1 feet and a factory weight of 3,933 pounds.

You don’t feel the weight and size of that body on the highway, largely because there often is more room to maneuver. Also, the long-wheelbase Santa Fe comes standard with a quite capable 3.3-liter, direct-injection gasoline V-6 engine (290 horsepower, 352 pound-feet of torque). That is enough to keep you safely out of the way of highway motorists who have lapsed into Walter Mitty fantasies of racetrack competition.

But in the city, the long-wheelbase Santa Fe becomes something of an albatross — too long to easily move through tight traffic or to slip into urban parking spaces, and too heavy to deliver that wonderful lightness of being that takes the stress out of being in heavy traffic.

A more city-friendly version of the Hyundai Santa Fe is the smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, which the company markets as its short-wheelbase model. In truth, the Sport is closer in likeness to the original compact Santa Fe that won consumer kudos.

It has an overall body length of 15.5 feet and an estimated factory weight of 3,100 pounds. It also comes with a smaller engine — a 2.4-liter, gasoline four-cylinder model (190 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque).

The Sport can handle five people and their belongings and might make more sense for small families, or for empty-nesters no longer freighted with the responsibility of hauling the gang around.

Both the Santa Fe Sport and Limited share two things that are fast becoming trademarks of the Hyundai brand — outstanding quality and value. The Limited offers a case in point. It sits at the top of the Santa Fe line, which also includes the long-wheelbase GLS.

Step inside the Limited. You are welcomed by perforated-leather-covered seats that can be cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. The cabin is well-crafted and tastefully designed, albeit cheapened by some splashes of too-obvious polyurethane forestry. But the overall place is attractive, comfortable and ergonomically smart.

And there is the matter of advanced safety technology — blind-side detection, rear cross-traffic monitoring, downhill brake control, hill-start assist control, and vehicle stability management — all of which Hyundai makes available at a price considerably below that of the competition.

I don’t know how Hyundai does it — how it offers so much for so incredibly little. I suspect that there is some Wal-Mart in the South Korean automaker’s corporate DNA, including how it treats suppliers, employees and unions.

But I’m not sure any of that matters in the retail world. I’ve never seen an empty Wal-Mart on a weekend or during holiday shopping seasons. And, by latest count, Hyundai is still selling every Santa Fe it can build.