Seven year’s after introducing the Santa Fe, Hyundai is moving on up, to borrow a phrase from a popular television series.
Hyundai was faced with a dilemma when it introduced its Tucson compact SUV and so it was back to the drawing board for the 2007 Santa Fe. Since its introduction in 2000, the Santa Fe has sold over 52,000 units, making it a sales success. The newest Alabama-built model has grown in size and stature; it is almost seven inches longer and now offers a third row seating option. This puts some needed breathing space between it and the Tucson.
The former four-cylinder option has gone in favour of a pair of aluminum V6 engines including a revised 2.7L model producing 185 HP and a new 242 hp, 3.3L engine, which replaces the previous of the 3.5L V6. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the smaller engine with a 4-speed automatic being optional. An all-new 5-speed automatic is the only choice for the larger motor.
Optional with the 3.3L engine is an electronically controlled variable All-Wheel-Drive System, with a lock mode that fixes the torque split at an even 50/50 front to back. The ability to lock the transfer case really helps when the going gets sticky and is a valuable addition for off-road aficionados. Off-road in a Santa Fe? More about that later. Front wheel drive is still the standard configuration for the Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe comes in three different trim levels – the GL with the base 2.7L engine (the 3.3L is optional) and a list of amenities that includes power windows, locks and heated mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, a six speaker CD/MP3 player, and 16-inch alloy wheels. The GL Premium earns 18-inch wheels, the 3.3L engine and offers optional leather. Moving up to the GLS adds dual zone climate control, standard leather seating, heated front seats and a power driver’s seat. The aforementioned third row seating option is only available on the GL premium and GLS models.
Standard safety equipment on models includes Electronic Stability Control (which includes traction control), 4-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, active headrests, and six air bags (two front, two side seat-mounted and two drop down side curtain air bags that protect the riders in all three rows of seats). You’ll also find LATCH child seat anchors for the second row of seating. One very cool feature is the ability to slide the front seat headrests forward to comfortably support your head, regardless of the rake angle of the seats.
The styling of the Santa Fe has to be considered a departure from the outgoing model even if there are some minor similarities. The incoming model features a swept-back Euro style front end and integrated grille. It is a classier look that also places it closer to the rest of the lineup. The rear end has a familiar Teutonic appearance. One of the few throwbacks to the original vehicle is the oversized, offset rear hatch handle – which looks a bit out of place. That aside the overall effect is handsome and shows that Hyundai has finally shaken the corporate culture that was responsible for its stogy looking vehicles of yester year.
On hand for the media launch of the new Santa Fe was Joel Piaskowski, Hyundai’s chief designer at the company’s Irvine, California studio. He explained that an effective design polarizes the onlooker and creates its own emotional response. The new look achieves Piaskowski’s goal.
The new interior is more refined and much less quirky than the outgoing model. It’s also far more functional, the fit and finish is exceptionally good and the materials used throughout now have a rich feel. Both the standard cloth and optional leather seats in the test models were nicely contoured, which puts the lateral, lumbar and thigh support where it’s needed. On a daylong drive they delivered above-average comfort. The attention to detail is also evident throughout. For example, the centre stack is angled towards the driver making it easier to use the climate and audio controls, and the inclusion of a radio station adjustment to steering wheel-mounted audio controls, rights a previous wrong.
The 50/50-split/folding third row seats are for occasional use – expect anyone over 5 feet-8 inches tall to complain loudly about the cramped confines and the agility needed to climb back there. And, with the third row seats in the upright position, there is practically no cargo space – a fairly common problem on even larger 3rd row configured SUVs. The other anomaly is the complete lack of tie-down spots on the roof rack, leaving no way to secure a load up there. With the 60/40-split middle row and third row folded flat the Santa Fe swallows 79.4 cubic feet of cargo, which more or less equals the cargo room in other compact SUV’s.
On the road, the Santa Fe provides a comfortable yet firm ride and there is little body roll through corners. Even the rougher sections of pavement failed to upset the vehicle’s composure, which speaks to the suspension tuning and the rigidity of the all-new platform. The resulting feedback gives the Santa Fe a tight and responsive feeling.
The new powertrain combination of the 3.3L engine and 5-speed automatic transmission with manually adjustable Shiftronic feature is surprisingly quick and smooth. The transmission always picks the right gear for the situation and the shifts are so smooth enough they slip by unnoticed. Having five speeds also helps keep the engine noise to a minimum. Expect the 2.7L model to deliver slightly less performance and a little more noise when pushed hard.
To prove that the new Santa Fe is just as adept in the dirt, Hyundai laid out a somewhat groomed autocross trail. Across grassy hills, over smooth rocks, through sandy stretches, up and down exaggerated sand moguls the Santa Fe refused to get stuck. On the second trip through the moguls, my co-driver forgot to activate the transfer case lock. While there was more wheel spin, the Santa Fe rolled through without drama.
The new Santa Fe fulfills Hyundai’s goal of redefining its image – the company is rapidly earning an enviable reputation for quality, reliability and value. The newest Hyundai looks, feels and drives like a vehicle far beyond its price point. This year, Hyundai picked up Best New Family Car under $35,000 (the Sonata) and Best New Family Car over $35,000 (the Azera) at AJAC’s annual Car of the Year Awards. Expect the Santa Fe to be recognized at the next awards ceremony.