Monday, December 04, 2006

Hyundai overcomes its past with Santa Fe GLS

Hyundai overcomes its past with Santa Fe GLS

By Nick Yost
Published December 1, 2006

The going has not always been easy for Korean manufacturer Hyundai as it struggled over the past 20 years to gain a respectable foothold in the U.S. marketplace.

When its first compact Excels arrived in the United States in 1985, eager buyers gobbled them up, only to find that when you buy something because it is cheap you generally get what you pay for.

The company's reputation for producing poor-quality cars could have doomed it in the United States, but Hyundai maintained its favorable price position, slowly improved its products and put buyers at ease with a long-term warranty.

Today, Hyundai cars, minivans and crossover vehicles are respected as viable alternatives to their counterparts produced by the long-established automotive giants. The company has U.S. production facilities and a solid customer base.

I recently spent some time with one Hyundai that might qualify as a hidden gem. It has not received the marketing push of its more expensive twin, but it could just be the right vehicle for the practical, shopper.

I'm talking about the entry-level Hyundai Santa Fe GLS, not to be confused with the look-alike Santa Fe Limited that boasts, among many other things, a sophisticated 3.3-liter, 242-horsepower V-6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, sunroof, heated leather seats and, for some, an optional rear-seat entertainment system.

The Santa Fe, first introduced in the United States in 2000, fits into the fast-growing category known variously as entry-level sport utility vehicles, compact SUVs and crossovers. It looks like a small SUV, drives much like a car, and features such customer-preferred attributes as command-view seating, room for five or more and generous space for luggage.

Redesigned for 2007, the conservatively handsome Santa Fe has grown 7 inches longer, 1 inch wider and 2 inches taller. In addition, its track has grown by 2.9 inches to give the vehicle better handling and more interior space.

You can pick up a good-looking, solidly built GLS for $20,945, plus delivery charge. Add $1,200 if, like most buyers, you prefer the four-speed automatic transmission to a five-speed manual. But don't be fooled by the price. The GLS is anything but a no-nonsense, no-frills family hauler.

Every GLS comes equipped at no extra cost with traction control, stability control, six air bags, anti-whiplash head restraints, antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution, independent suspension, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, a tire-pressure monitoring system, air conditioning, six-speaker sound system with CD player and MP3 capability, cruise control, power windows, heated outside power mirrors, roof rack with cross rails, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, remote locking, windshield wiper deicer and a rear window wiper and washer.

It also comes with a standard V-6 engine featuring double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and an aluminum block and heads. Its 2.7 liters of displacement produce 185 horsepower, 57 less than the bigger V-6; and 183 foot-pounds of torque, 43 less than the more muscular power plant.

I'm sure there are times when some extra oomph could come in quite handy, but I didn't encounter any in a week of travels similar to what the average family might experience.

The engine was peppy, smooth and surprisingly quiet as I easily kept up with highway traffic, dawdled in rush-hour jams and zipped by slower traffic on hilly two-lane rural roads.

The smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission, which can be operated manually, seemed ideally suited to the engine's output and it didn't need to downshift every time we came to a slight upgrade. I encountered no situation where I yearned for one more cog.

At the end of my journeys, I topped off the tank with 13 gallons of regular fuel, forked over $25.50, and calculated an average of 19 miles per gallon for the entire experience. Not bad at all for an SUV wannabe.

The Santa Fe comes with standard two-row seating. Behind the second row, 34 cubic feet of cargo space are available. Fold the split rear seatbacks forward and the cargo container grows to 78.2 cubic feet. An optional, limited-use, third-row bench is available for the first time on 2007 models. With it in place, the space for groceries, etc., drops to 10 cubic feet.

All-wheel drive is available for an extra $2,000, but the Santa Fe I drove puts the power to the road through the front wheels only. I experienced no annoying torque steer, and no resistance to a direction change (understeer) on tight, highway-speed turns.

It got me to thinking that all-wheel drive on the Santa Fe is more of a luxury than a necessity in most sections of the country.

If you combine the front-wheel drive, 8 inches of ground clearance and the traction and stability assists with a good set of snow tires, the front-wheel-drive GLS should be able to conquer all but the worst weather.

The Santa Fe is no back-road bully, but it handles a lot better than a truck-based sport-utility vehicle. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted and reasonably precise, the four-wheel antilock brakes do their job well and the independent suspension offers a comfortable ride. A driver need only to remember that lots of ground clearance means a high center of gravity, and that means taking it easy around tight turns.

Inside, the Santa Fe GLS has an unexpected upscale ambiance. The cloth upholstery has a quality feel; the dashboard and other interior trim pieces have low-gloss, soft-touch surfaces; instrumentation is easy to read; controls are easy to find and operate; and even the faux wood trim adds a touch of class.

Now, about the warranty: All Hyundais are fully guaranteed for five years or 60,000 miles and come with roadside assistance for that period. The powertrain is guaranteed for 10 years or 100,000 miles.

The GLS may be the base Santa Fe, but there is nothing base about it. Comparison shoppers will have a tough time finding a better deal, especially when they factor in the all of the standard equipment and the peace of mind that long-term warranty provides.

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