Hyundai Santa Fe – good things in a new, bigger package

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The first evidence that Korean upstart Hyundai had turned the corner of automotive respectability and reached parity with the world-class Japanese automakers was the introduction of the latest-generation Sonata in the spring of 2005.

“Fear the Koreans” should be the mantra at Toyota and Honda.

OK, laugh if you must. But mark our words Hyundai just keeps putting out better and better products at prices that generally undercut the competition and with ridiculously long warranties. But don’t take our word for it. Check out the latest J.D. Power and Associates quality studies. Hyundai has moved up the various quality charts faster than the express elevator at Sears Tower.

And drive the 2006 Sonata in either 4-or 6-cylinder version. It will convince you that Hyundai, while perhaps still not at the level of sophistication enjoyed by the Japanese, is darn close. Close enough for the average driver who doesn’t jump into a variety of new cars every month for in-depth comparisons.

Here’s an even better idea — drive the all-new Santa Fe crossover. We predict you will be as amazed as we were after driving this newest Hyundai creation on the rugged country roads and mountains of North Carolina during the recent Hyundai intro drive event.

The 2007 Santa Fe is not a replacement for the original Santa Fe, introduced in 2000, but an all-new crossover. The Tucson, introduced as a 2005 model, takes the place of the old Santa Fe on Hyundai’s size chart.

The new Santa Fe is seven inches longer, one inch wider and rides on a 3.1-inch longer wheelbase than its predecessor. It’s designed to do battle with the bigger offerings from Toyota and Honda, namely the larger RAV4 and the all-new CR-V, which reached showrooms in September.

It is also aimed directly at the all-new Mazda CX-7.

Perhaps to show buyers just how big it is it can be ordered with a third-row seat. We didn’t drive a third-seat model, but it’s got to be one tight fit in back even with the crossover’s bigger footprint. It’s a ploy to sell to families with three or four kids, not for owners who regularly carry more than four adult passengers.

Starting with handsome middle-of-the-road styling, the Santa Fe has a lot of good things to offer. Thankfully gone are the bulging front fenders and the ungainly side panel curves.

The new model is a blending of the newest stuff now in showrooms with styling cues from the RAV4 and the new Acura RDX. The rear has suggestions of the Volkswagen Touareg. The nose is a bit more pronounced than we like, but the overall shape is appealing.

Designers did their best work on the interior, smoothing out the dashboard to create a modern, flowing look. Backlit gauges and cool blue lighting hit all the right notes with us. The top trim level comes with scrumptious-looking leather seating and top quality faux wood (really good plastic is hard to find) and aluminum trim.

The three-hour driving experience left us amazed again at the speed Hyundai keeps moving forward as new products are introduced. The Santa Fe’s unibody underpinnings yield a solid overall feel, predictable handling and crisp steering response in proof of the company’s commitment to competitive excellence.

Sweeping through the mountain curves didn’t leave us with the feeling we were in a sports car. But it did show the confident stance the Santa Fe will display in a family’s everyday driving.

The previous Santa Fe came with two V-6 engine choices. Neither of those engines — a 2.7-liter developing 170 horsepower and a 3.5-liter making 200 horsepower — were particularly energetic.

Engines have been upgraded in the new version, and a new 3-3-liter developing 242 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque is a must have. While no speed demon — its 0-to-60 time has been measured at 8.7 seconds — it gives the Santa Fe just the right amount of urgency to provide a satisfying driving experience whether carrying one passenger or five people and cargo.

We were not as impressed with the base 2.7-liter, a carryover from the previous Santa Fe, now outfitted with variable valve timing and a 15-horsepower boost to 185. It will do the job for most families and it can be mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. It’s a bit noisy under hard acceleration, but we see little reason to settle for the smaller engine.

The smaller V-6 is standard in the base GLS package. But there’s only a $1,500 price difference — $22,145 vs. $23,645 — between the two-wheel drive GLS with the base V-6 mated to a 4-speed automatic and the mid-level SE with the 3.3-liter engine and a 5-speed automatic. The extra cash also brings 18-inch wheels and steering wheel controls so the money is really well spent.

Gas mileage is not much of a factor when debating a move up. The 2.7-liter is rated at 19 mpg city and 25 highway, the 3.3-liter at 19 city and 24 highway.

If you want the ultimate Santa Fe, the upscale Limited starts at $25,945. All three trim levels can be outfitted with all-wheel drive for $2,000.

And all Santa Fe trim levels come with a lot of standard equipment including power windows and locks, keyless entry, an audio system with MP3 capability, air conditioning and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Space is an issue with families — the more space the more stuff you can haul on the weekend or on the family vacation — and the new Hyundai stacks up well against what we think will be its chief competition, the Toyota RAV4.

The Santa Fe has 78 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats compared to 73 in the RAV, and 34 cubic feet behind the second-row seat compared to 37 in the Toyota.
Just to compare, another player in that segment, the Chevrolet Equinox, has 69 and 35 cubic feet.

Some say the new-age compact and mid-sized crossover sport utilities are the station wagons of the 21st Century, as close to the perfect family vehicle as you can buy. If that’s the case, the new offering from Hyundai fits the bill giving the family a stylish vehicle to impress the neighbors, gratifying performance, decent gas mileage, predicable handling, a full compliment of safety features and plenty of room for a family of four to stretch out.

A bargain price and the usual 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranties make the Santa Fe even more interesting. Essentials:

Base price: $20,945; as driven, $25,945
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6
Horsepower: 242 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 226 pound-feet @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Cargo volume behind seats: 34.2 cubic feet
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 184.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,793 pounds
Fuel capacity: 19.8 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 24 highway, 19 city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-7

The Good:
• Hyundai quality has reached the point where the long-term warranties are not as necessary, but it’s still nice to have that security.
• We could recommend this new crossover to our Uncle Joe and look him in the eye a year later.

The Bad:
• Overall refinement still lags behind the top vehicles in the segment.
• Navigation won’t be available for at least another year.

The Ugly:
• Hyundai is competing in a tough segment and success even with a good product is not assured; that and a relatively useless third row seat could drive buyers away.