Wednesday, November 08, 2006

New Hyundai Santa Fe SUV brings everything together

The Santa Fe is most endearing not for fancy features or a peppy engine or eye-catching looks — it has those — but for the way everything comes together smoothly. The main test vehicle, a $26,000 high-end Limited with front-wheel drive, grew in esteem daily as it proved ever-easier to drive, ever-more convenient, increasingly impressive for its quiet interior. A short drive in a $30,000 Limited with all-wheel drive did nothing to erode the positive impression.

What stood out during the test drive:

• Styling. Though it looks like a previous-generation Toyota RAV4 on steroids, or something distantly related to the Subaru Tribeca, the overall effect is handsome, if less than crisply original. Quite a few motorists in pricey vehicles did the ol' swivel-head stare as the Santa Fe toodled by.

Best part: The stylish appearance doesn't impose stupid compromises, such as reduced visibility because some design guy thought the back window looked better smaller.

• Powertrain. The optional 3.3-liter V-6 is punchy around town but begins to sag a bit at fast engine speed, as when accelerating flat-out. That's a minor quibble and will go unnoticed by many, perhaps most, owners.

The five-speed automatic that's standard with the 3.3-liter engine shifts crisply most of the time.

The 2.7-liter V-6 that comes with the base model, GLS, wasn't tested. A five-speed manual is standard with that engine; a four-speed automatic is optional.

• Interior. Santa Fe is another of the growing number of smallish SUVs that boast a third-row seat, well-advised or not. As expected, it's a tight fit for adults and should be considered a kids-only area. The third row has limited headroom. And when it's up, it's frighteningly close to the back glass and tailgate.

There are no safety standards governing injury to third-row passengers in a rear-end crash, so you're gambling on the good faith and sound engineering of the car companies when you choose a three-row SUV of modest size. Rear-end crashes aren't common but often are severe, as when a drunk or distracted driver slams you from behind at a stoplight without slowing.

The second row is wide enough for three-across child-seat hooks (the so-called Latch connectors) but is tight on knee room when the front seat is pushed back to accommodate a tall adult. The second row reclines for comfort, something you don't necessarily get in bigger, higher-price SUVs.

The seats, upholstered in leather in the test trucks, were firm to the point of rigid. Some will find them uncomfortably hard. Others will like their robust support. The leather is quite attractive, comfort aside.

The trim in the Limited test vehicles was good-looking, partly owing to the restrained use of fake wood. No phony lumber at all would be better, but if you gotta have some, Hyundai's figured out about how much to have and where to put it.

The higher-price test vehicle was the one that had a third row. Getting to it should have been a cinch because of the simple second-row folding and tipping mechanism on the passenger's side, and the relatively generous aisle it opens to the far-back seat. But the latches on the second row were stiff and hard to work.

• Details. The conventionally operating tailgate swings up, which is easier and more convenient than some rivals' side-swinging gates. The raised gate also provides some protection in bad weather that a side-opening gate can't. Hyundai says it didn't move the handle to the middle because there was no need to, and it's a nice carryover link to the previous model, which also had the handle on the right even though the gate opened upwards and not to the side. Fine, unless you're left-handed and that right-side handle forces you into an awkward reach.

No hooks for grocery and shopping bags. Seems inexcusable in an SUV.

Annoying display on the XM radio. It showed the artist and title only at the beginning of each new song, then reverted to telling you the channel name and number. That's the least-useful info, and Hyundai says you can't reprogram the display. You can display the artist and title briefly by pushing a button, but who needs that distraction when driving?

There's very useful space under the cargo floor if you don't get the third-row seat. It lets you hide valuables and even stash a head restraint or two that you'd remove from the second row for tighter fit of a child seat.

The small-to-midsize SUV market will tyrannize you with its overwhelming number of choices.

The '07 Santa Fe adds to that, another nice SUV of reasonable size, good looks, sufficient power and adequate convenience.

Maybe the rise in car purchases is coming from SUV shoppers who can't decide, throw up their hands and buy a sedan.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe

What is it? Remake of the brand's popular small, four-door utility vehicle, available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). Larger, more powerful than its predecessor. Manufactured at Montgomery, Ala., but South Korean parts make up 65% of the vehicle's value. Hyundai says it is beginning to build more components in the USA, and the level of U.S. components will grow.

How soon? On sale since June.

How much? Base GLS FWD starts at $21,595, including $650 destination charge. GLS 4WD starts at $23,595. Limited 4WD with all factory options is $33,650. Expect to pay close to full window sticker price, online car-shopping sites say.

Who'll buy? Median age, 45; median annual household income, $70,000; 80% are married; 56% are college grads; 55% are women, Hyundai says.

How many? 90,000 a year, Hyundai forecasts.

What's the drivetrain? Standard: 2.7-liter V-6 rated 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 183 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; traction-control system.

Optional: 3.3-liter V-6 rated 242 hp at 6,000 rpm, 226 lbs-ft. at 4,500 rpm; five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode; traction control. 4WD system is in FWD until wheels spin, then sends up to 50% of power to the rear. Can be locked into 4WD via dashboard switch, ensuring power at front and rear for challenging conditions.

What's the safety gear? Expected bags and belts, plus anti-lock brakes, stability-control system, front-seat-mounted side-impact air bags, head-curtain bags.

What's the rest? Standard features include air conditioning; power steering, brakes, windows, locks, mirrors; AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible stereo (but lacks jack for auxiliary MP3 device); rear-window and mirror defrosters; rear wiper; remote-control locks; cruise control.

What's the warranty? Bumper-to-bumper: five years/60,000 miles. Powertrain: 10 years/100,000 miles. Free roadside assistance: five years/unlimited miles.

How big? Slightly bigger than a Toyota RAV4. Santa Fe is 184.1 inches long, 74.4 inches wide, 67.9 inches tall on a 106.3-inch wheelbase.

Cargo space is listed as 10 cubic feet behind optional third-row seat, 34.2 cubic feet behind second row when third row is folded, 78.2 cubic feet when second and third rows are folded.

Passenger space is listed as 108.3 cubic feet without third row, 142.3 cubic feet with third row.

Weight ranges from 3,727 to 4,121 pounds, depending on model and equipment. Turning circle diameter is listed as 35.8 feet, curb-to-curb. Rated to carry 1,269 pounds of people, cargo and accessories. Rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds.

How thirsty? 2.7-liter V-6 FWD is rated 20 miles per gallon in town, 25 on the highway, 22 in combined driving with manual transmission, 21/26/23 with automatic.

2.7-liter 4WD is rated 19/25/21 with automatic, 20/25/22 with manual.

3.3-liter V-6 is rated 19/24/21 with FWD or 4WD.

Regular-grade gasoline (87 octane) is specified. Tank is 19.8 gallons.

Trip computer in test vehicle — Limited 3.3-liter, FWD — showed 16.2 mpg in 120 miles of suburban driving.

Overall: A charming smoothie that needs a fuel-economy boost.

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