The Santa Fe drives well on and off paved roads with decent handling and good brakes. The 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter V6 engines both deliver good acceleration, particularly in front-wheel-drive models. The four-wheel-drive system available with the 2.7-liter engine works well for light off-road duty. The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system available with the 3.5-liter engine provides good control for bad weather conditions. The 3.5-liter engine comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, an unexpected level of refinement for this class.
Starting at just $21,695, this compact sport utility has gained in features, style and performance with each model year. For 2006, the top trim level is the Limited (replacing the LX), which builds on the base GLS trim's many standard features by adding leather seating surfaces and other upgrades. A new all-black monochromatic color scheme also is available as an option on the Limited. The styling was revised for 2005.
Side-impact air bags are standard. GLS and LX versions come with a 218-watt Monsoon stereo. Santa Fe is backed by Hyundai's long and comprehensive warranty and offers exceptional value.
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS 2WD ($21,695); GLS 4WD ($23,195); GLS 3.5L 2WD ($22,395); GLS 3.5L 4WD ($23,895); LX 3.5L 2WD ($24,395); LX 3.5L 4WD ($25,895)
Santa Fe was designed to have a softer, more subdued visage than the rugged facade prevalent on other SUVs. Nevertheless, contrasting body cladding and bumpers give it a no-nonsense appearance of being able to cope with underbrush and tree limbs out on the trail.
For 2006, the Santa Fe has blacked-out B- and C-pillars that make for a more unified look when viewed in profile.
The rear liftgate works well. Hinging the liftgate at the top rather than one side eliminates the problem of the door getting in the way during curbside loading or unloading. Opening the rear hatch is a cinch with its pistol-grip latch handle and gas struts. Closing it is just as easy with a pull-down grip mounted inside. When open, the liftgate clears six-footers.
Once in, the interior is friendly to the touch. All controls are big and thick. The shift knob is big. The stereo controls are large, offering easy adjustment. The climate controls are big and easy to operate, though they look and feel like plastic. Bright trim dresses up the inside door releases and parking-brake handle.
The shift knob and shift quadrant are brightened by chrome trim. Illuminated power window switches and a lighted glove box reduce fumbling at night. The driver's cup holder is conveniently located, making this a good vehicle for that morning cappuccino. The digital clock is located in the middle of the dashboard where it's easy to see. Big outside mirrors provide an excellent view rearward.
The front seats are comfortable, though flat, without much side-bolster support. The driver's seat adjusts eight ways to accommodate different body shapes and preferences, though the adjustments are a bit awkward.
The Santa Fe offers roomy rear-seat accommodations, with lots of headroom and legroom. Rear-seat cup holders are molded into the door-mounted map pockets. The rear seatback reclines for better rear-passenger comfort. But the windows in the rear doors don't roll all the way down, a shortcoming shared with other small SUVs.
To fold the rear seats, flip the rear seat bottom forward, remove the headrests from the seat backs, then fold the seat backs down. This provides expansive cargo space. We noticed the latches for the flipping the rear seats forward were made of plastic rather than metal. The cargo floor isn't perfectly flat. But nine tie-down loops are available to keep your gear from shifting around. Sub-floor storage bins provide a place to hide valuables or road gear. A retractable cargo cover and cargo net are standard.
The 2.7-liter V6 produces 170 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. Those are good numbers. EPA-estimated City/Highway fuel economy is 19/25 mpg with front-wheel drive, 18/23 mpg with four-wheel drive.
The 3.5-liter V6 comes paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. It offers lots of throttle response once it's going. It's a little lethargic off the line and the throttle response isn't linear, but the owner should be able to calibrate his or her foot to it. The 3.5-liter engine develops 200 horsepower and 219 pound-feet of torque. EPA-rated City/Highway fuel economy is 17/23 mpg. The front-wheel drive 3.5-liter Santa Fe, equipped with trailer brake, is rated to tow up to 3,300 pounds, enough to handle a small boat trailer.
Santa Fe models equipped with all-wheel drive use one of two different systems, depending on whether the 2.7-liter or 3.5-liter engine supplies the power.
We found the mechanical full-time four-wheel-drive system that's available with the 2.7-liter V6 capable for light off-road driving in Southern California. The system appears to do a good job of sending the torque where it's needed, especially with the traction control (standard). This system is compact and clever and was developed by Austrian four-wheel-drive specialists Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The system combines proven engineering in innovative ways. A planetary differential inside the front transaxle splits the drive torque equally between the front wheels, and 60/40 between the front and rear axles. A viscous coupling between the front and rear axles overrides the differential if the wheels at either end begin to slip. This is a simple, purely mechanical system that's been around for decades, and it works very well with no attention whatever from the driver. All four wheels are driven all the time, with the coupling limiting the difference in speed between the front and rear axles. So if a front wheel starts to spin, torque is immediately re-directed to the rear, and vice versa.
Santa Fe 3.5-liter models come with a new and more sophisticated electronic system that Hyundai calls InterActive Torque Management (ITM). This system still requires no driver input. It drives only the front wheels most of the time, but monitors their traction with a computer, and distributes torque to the rear wheels only when necessary. The main advantage of ITM is optimized fuel economy with all-wheel-drive traction. A 3.5-liter Santa Fe with all-wheel drive gets an EPA rating of 17/23, comparable efficiency to the lighter front-wheel-drive version. The electronic ITM system available with the 3.5-liter V6 was developed by U.S. gearbox veteran Borg-Warner. It relies on a series of wet clutches mounted just ahead of the rear axle. A computer monitors wheel speed, throttle position and steering angle, and engages the clutches when necessary.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is fun to drive, particularly the V6 front-wheel-drive models. The optional all-mechanical four-wheel-drive system improves traction in slippery conditions, but places a burden on the 2.7-liter V6 engine. The all-wheel-drive system available with the 3.5-liter engine should work better. If you're in the market for a compact SUV, the exceptionally well-equipped Hyundai Santa Fe, with its attractive styling and competent manners, may be just what you're looking for. An all-new Santa Fe is expected for the 2007 model year so watch for deals on the 2006 models.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Los Angeles.