The small sport-utility-vehicle category is a tough-as-nails arena with every player looking for the edge. That’s certainly the case with Hyundai, which has readied a whole new Santa Fe for battle.
The original, launched for 2001, caught many by surprise with its array of standard and optional features, combined with a standout design and pencil-sharp price-point. The fact that more than 440,000 of these Koreanmade models found homes proves that Hyundai was right on the money with the Santa Fe. Now a second-generation version has reached dealer showrooms and not a moment too soon.
The latest trend in entry-level sport-utility vehicles is providing seven-passenger seating, and for good reason. Hyundai’s own research shows that 40 percent of all sport-ute shoppers want the ability, no matter how occasional, to bring along more than five people on their outings.
With the company’s recently reconstituted Tucson already performing well in the compact five-passenger sport segment, the logical step was to create a larger and more lavishly appointed model that makes room for three rows of seats.
The new California-designed and Alabama-built Santa Fe is therefore seven inches longer, two inches taller and about 1.5 inches wider than the outgoing model. The result, of course, is more cargo and passenger capacity, especially with the optional 50/50 split-folding third seat for two. Although it might appear cramped in back, Hyundai claims there’s more rear legroom in the Santa Fe than even some of its pricier competitors, including the Acura MDX, Volvo XC90 and Honda Pilot. When not in use, either or both sides of the split bench can be folded flat into the floor for increased stowage space.
All this is built on a unique Santa Fe platform that’s more rigid, the result of which, according to Hyundai is improved ride and handling characteristics. Less road noise entering the cabin at highway speeds is also a claimed side benefit. Then there’s the allnew suspension that reduces the turning radius by one foot.
Curiously, the new Santa Fe appears similar to the latest Toyota RAV4, introduced for 2006, the new-for ’07 Mitsubishi Outlander and the Suzuki XL7. Although sized differently, all three feature prominent front fascias (combination grille/bumper/headlight pieces) with their lower portions designed to offer maximum ground clearance when hopping over bumps or negotiating rutted back roads.
Mechanically, though, the Santa Fe takes its own route. It’s the only one of the group to offer a five-speed manual transmission. This gearbox is found connected to the base 185-horsepower (up 15 from last year) 2.7-liter V6. A fourspeed automatic is optional.
Although smaller than last year’s optional 3.5-liter V6, a new 3.3-liter unit makes 42 more horses (for a total of 242) with the assistance of variable valve timing that extends the rev range — and maximum power — without sacrificing low-speed grunt. A fivespeed automatic transmission is your only pick with the 3.3.
Front-wheel drive is standard with either engine, but buyers might be tempted to purchase the all-wheel-drive system featuring a driver-selectable “lock” mode with a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles for maximum traction.
All Santa Fe models — GLS, SE and Limited — arrive with air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, 112-watt audio system and power locks, windows and heated outside mirrors. Also standard are six airbags, including side-impact and side-curtain protection, plus stability and traction control.
Moving up to the SE adds the 3.3-liter V6/five-speed automatic combo and larger 18-inch wheels, while the Limited brings you all that plus an upgrade to dual-zone climate control and heated front seats (including an eight-way power driver’s chair).
Factor in a $21,000 bargainbasement base price as well as Hyundai’s five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and it’s apparent that while new dimension and size has been added to the Santa Fe, the value quotient hasn’t changed.