On Autos: Three crossovers split difference between compact, midsize classes

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The 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport offers a thoroughly competent experience at reasonable prices. (Brady Holt/The Current)
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When choosing between two size classes of vehicle, there are generally two main factors to consider. First, there’s the obvious: Larger vehicles tend to have more space, providing additional room for passengers and cargo.

But another consideration is that bigger cars tend to be more stylish and luxurious. While there’s no inherent correlation, automakers often assume that car buyers want the largest vehicle they can afford — and, accordingly, make their bigger models fancier.

However, living in the city, it often makes sense to think smaller. Three recently tested crossovers slot between the compact and midsize classes, offering many of the advantages of a larger vehicle but without as much extra bulk. They’re the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, long a player in this segment, along with two newly redesigned 2018 models: the GMC Terrain and Volkswagen Tiguan.

The 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport has a well-built and ergonomically sensible dashboard. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Santa Fe Sport, priced from $25,845, has been on the market since 2013 with only fairly minor changes. But the tested 2018 model still holds its own against newer competitors. Handsome exterior styling has aged well, looking neither overdone nor deadly dull. The interior, while not opulent, is ergonomically sensible and solidly built.

This sense of competence continues on the road. The Santa Fe Sport doesn’t blow you away, but if you drive it back-to-back with a best-selling compact crossover like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, you’ll immediately spot the Hyundai’s extra sense of solidity. It feels like a heavier, more substantial vehicle — which it is. The Santa Fe Sport also boasts a city-friendly turning circle, tighter than even many smaller vehicles at less than 36 feet.

There’s also an available 240-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which helps the Santa Fe Sport accelerate more quickly and with less fuss than the smaller engines found in most compact models.

The 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, shown, shouldn’t be confused with the larger seven-passenger Santa Fe. (Brady Holt/The Current)

However, the Hyundai shows its age in terms of fuel efficiency and safety technology. The most-efficient Santa Fe Sport — featuring front-wheel-drive and a non-turbocharged four-cylinder engine — has an EPA rating of just 24 mpg in mixed driving. That’s the same as larger, more powerful midsize models like the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. The tested turbocharged Ultimate with all-wheel-drive falls to 21 mpg.

Meanwhile, although Hyundai added an effective emergency automatic braking system for the 2017 model, it still makes this technology exclusive to Santa Fe Sports priced at $38,145 and up. It’s standard equipment on every RAV4 and most CR-V trims. So is lane-keeping automatic steering, which this Hyundai doesn’t offer at any price.

For its unpretentious competence, its spacious interior and its tight turning circle, the Santa Fe Sport is an appealing option. But especially if you want the latest safety features, a competitor might prove the better option. (By the way, don’t confuse the Santa Fe Sport with the Santa Fe — a much longer version of this crossover that offers seating for seven passengers instead of five.)

If a luxurious experience matters more than maximum cargo space, the redesigned 2018 GMC Terrain is another possible choice. The Terrain is sized like a RAV4 or CR-V on the outside and trails those models’ cargo volume. But like the Santa Fe Sport, it offers a quieter ride, a more substantial feel and an optional engine with extra power.

The 2018 GMC Terrain, shown, is a more creatively styled version of the Chevrolet Equinox compact crossover. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Terrain is a mechanical twin to the Chevrolet Equinox, which impressed for its comfort and refinement during a weeklong test earlier this year. A brief test of the Terrain revealed similar driving impressions, along with more distinctive exterior styling — a mix of chunky cues and swoopy curves. Notable on the inside is a push-button gear selector, which some critics have blasted as unnecessarily cumbersome; the Equinox has a traditional shifter.

The Equinox and Terrain are more fuel-efficient than the Santa Fe Sport but share another of its weak points: Here, too, the best safety features are reserved for top-trim luxury versions. Terrain prices start at $25,990.

The redesigned 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan is roomier, more affordable and less sporty than the old model. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Another new entry to this market segment is the Volkswagen Tiguan, redesigned and reinvented for the 2018 model year. While the first-generation Tiguan was half a size smaller than a CR-V and focused on luxury and performance, the new model is half a size larger and instead prioritizes a spacious interior. Notably, it fits in a small third-row seat to boost seating capacity to seven.

Unlike the Santa Fe Sport or Terrain, the Tiguan doesn’t look or feel particularly fancy. Nor is it offered with a powerful engine, coming only with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 184 horsepower. But at least based on a brief preview drive, the new Tiguan continues to deliver more responsive handling than the compact norm — along with the chance to squeeze in two additional passengers.

The biggest weak point is gas mileage; the Tiguan is rated for 24 mpg with front-wheel-drive and just 23 mpg with all-wheel-drive. That’s down a whopping 6 mpg from the CR-V, which also has similar interior volume if not a third row. Tiguan prices start at $26,245.