Monday, May 14, 2007

Hyundai's Santa Fe Bulks Up

Hyundai's Santa Fe bulks up

What a difference a year makes, now that we've just had a generation change with Hyundai's Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe, Hyundai's sport utility, landed here from Korea six years ago as a 2001 model. It had the usual designer earmarks of a medium-size sport ute -- prominent grille, aggressive-looking tires -- and, coupled with its utterly generous warranty (10 years or 100,000 miles for the power train) and low price, it sold all over. Keep in mind that it looked and felt like a medium-size car -- at its biggest.

Now the ute is back, with a serious face-lift and everything-else-lift from last year's model. The differences are instructive. The 2007 model is 7 inches longer, more than 2 inches wider, almost 2 inches higher and weighs 175 pounds more. The 2007 gets better gas mileage -- 19 and 24 mpg versus 17 and 23 mpg from 2006 -- and yet the 2007 model, for all its extra bulk, has only six-tenths of a cubic foot extra interior room when you have the rear seats folded down.

What is happening here, I think, is the inexorable, if incremental growth habit of the car industry. A new model gets introduced. It's small, or fairly small. When it has a generation change -- this usually happens every four or five years; in Hyundai's case, it took six years -- the car gets bigger. It happened with the Honda Civic, and it has happened with nearly every other car out there. (There's also the fact that Hyundai has a smaller SUV, the Tucson, and there's little point in having it compete with the Santa Fe. Because they're progressing westward in their car-naming process -- Santa Fe to Tucson -- when do we see the Hyundai Bakersfield?)

First, a word about Hyundai, which has had a checkered history in the United States. It came here 20 years ago with the execrable Excel, a car so unreliable it became the universal butt of bad-car jokes. So Hyundai, an enormous and rich Korean company, invested a lot of money in making cars the right way and eventually redeemed itself in the eyes of U.S. buyers, not to mention the consulting firms that compile those widely distributed Best in Quality lists.

That said, what do we get in our new, bigger Santa Fe? Actually, quite a lot. Parked near its predecessor, the 2007 does look bigger, but not outrageously so. Keep in mind that this crossover utility vehicle is shorter than most midsize sedans (including Hyundai's own Azera and Sonata), so it is actually pretty easy to get through traffic.

The real thing you learn in driving the Santa Fe is that Hyundai appears to have taken that bruising of 20 years ago to heart. The fit and finish of the Santa Fe are fine. There is little to no grousing from suspension parts, even on rough roads. The doors have a satisfying thunk when they close.

Inside, all the usual modern-day gizmos have been provided and their placement has been well thought out. Electric window lifts fall to hand and are not hidden behind a door pull or some other obstacle. But there are some nits. Instead of the foot-operated pedal clumsily installed where your left leg would like to be most of the time, I think Hyundai could have provided an emergency brake operated by a console-mounted handle.

The Santa Fe shines, however, once it's on the road. The suspension is supple and smooth, about right for a tall station wagon that is not going to be climbing a quarry wall while towing a Boston Whaler with a 200-horse engine on the transom. This is the civilized city/sport ute, and it comes in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive models. With all-wheel drive, the system either "automatically routes power to the wheels that have the best traction," as Hyundai says on its Web site, or "The driver-selectable AWD lock provides a continuous 50/50 torque split between front and rear wheels during off-road situations."

Power comes from a 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V6 or a bigger V6, with 3.3 liters and 242 horses. Buying the less potent version gives you a choice between five-speed automatic or four-speed manual transmissions, and the bigger engine comes only with a five-speed automatic. We had the 3.3-liter version, with the optional third row seat, and there was plenty of power, even with four people in the car.

Of course, the big thing about Hyundai is its astonishing warranty -- five years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper and 10 years/100,000 miles on the power train. Psychologically, of course, it's a great pacifier, that giant warranty, no matter that most people don't even keep their cars 10 years. But the idea that a company would stand behind its product for 10 years is amazing. Comforting. Like toast and jam in the morning.

Then again, because we're talking about warranties, let's say that during that initial five-year period lots of little things go wrong. Unless you have a battery of servants to run back and forth, you end up spending a lot of time going to and from the Hyundai (or any other brand) dealer trying to get the car to work right. Yes, they'll do it on warranty, but how much is your time worth? And then if the engine or transmission go out at 90,000 or 95,000 miles, it's a long sojourn at the dealer's repair shop while the car is being fixed.

But it's a lot better than shelling out several thousand dollars long after a less-generous warranty has expired.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe

Type: SUV, front engine, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive

Base price: $25,945

Price as tested: $26,140

Power train: 3.3-liter V6 242-horsepower engine. Five-speed automatic transmission

Curb weight: 4,121 pounds

Seating capacity: seven

Mileage: 19 city; 24 highway

Fuel tank capacity: 19.8 gallons

Dimensions: Length 184.1 inches; width 74.4 inches; height 67.9 inches; wheelbase 106.3 inches

Warranty: bumper to bumper, five years/60,000 miles; power train, 10 years, 100,000 miles

Source: Hyundai Motor America; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (

Michael Taylor, Chronicle Auto Editor
Friday, May 11, 2007, San Fransisco Chronicle

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