The Santa Fe is a so-called crossover SUV, meaning it's built like a car, using unibody construction instead of the body-on-frame construction of a traditional truck. It's a practical vehicle for everyday use.
Completely redesigned, the new 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe is attractive. It blends into the suburbs nicely, shedding the quirky looks of last year's model. It's larger than before and now offers third-row seating, for up to seven passengers. The five-passenger arrangement offers much more cargo space, however. The new Santa Fe is smooth and quiet and handles well on winding, paved roads. Yet it retains Hyundai's value quotient.
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS Manual ($20,945); GLS Automatic ($22,145); SE ($23,645); Limited ($25,945)
Hyundai says the new Santa Fe evokes the assertive grace of a speed skater with a relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs. Certainly if you squint your eyes and look at the side it has more of a profile of a sporty station wagon than that of a traditional body-on-frame SUV. Some would say it looks like a smaller version of the Volkswagen Touareg, which is not a bad comparison.
The most noticeable attribute of the Santa Fe's front is the complete absence of a bumper. Instead the front valence curves around from beneath the body to encompass the large grille and wrap around headlights. The hood slopes up toward the raked windshield and the wedge shape continues along the lower edges of the side windows that sweep up dramatically toward the tailgate.
Even the rear has distinctively curved lines with high mounted taillight clusters that are partially mounted on the main body and the tailgate. The easy to see and easy to grab tailgate handle is definitely a Santa Fe design cue.
Although the new Santa Fe is slightly larger than the previous model, it looks smaller because its styling is more refined and it looks less like a truck.
The gauges are mounted in a large instrument pod in front of the steering wheel. The radio and climate controls are well located in a center stack that is mounted high in the dashboard for easy reach and observation while driving.
According to Hyundai's measurements, the headroom and legroom is greater in all rows than in competing models thanks to a uniquely designed unibody that is not based off an existing car platform, thus allowing the engineers to maximize interior space without compromise.
With the optional third row of seats folded down there is a generous 34.2 cubic feet of storage space on an almost flat floor. Fold down the middle row of seats and there is 79.3 cubic feet of storage space. Although the Santa Fe is one of smallest midsize SUVs in exterior dimensions it is far from being the smallest inside, a tribute to its space-efficient design.
The air vents for the center row of seats are mounted in the B-pillar, which is much more effective than being mounted down low behind the center console, as in many vehicles.
We did not get to try a model with the third row of seats. In our experience they are of limited use for anything more than carrying kids short distances. With them in place there is a mere 10 cubic feet of cargo space, which is no more than you'll find in a cramped two-door coupe. If you really need to carry seven passengers and/or cargo, a minivan is far more practical. Additionally, one loses the very practical hidden storage space under the rear floor when the vehicle is fitted with the optional third row of seats.
Overall, the driving experience is transparent, meaning there is nothing outstanding, negatively or positively. The steering has a pleasant feel, neither too tight nor too loose, the brakes work well if not dramatically, the ride is smooth and the vehicle is quiet.
The GLS comes with the smaller of two available V6 engines and is available with a manual transmission, which is a unique combination in the U.S. We haven't had a chance to check it out and Hyundai admits few people will buy one, but a manual transmission is available for drivers who want one.
We briefly drove a Santa Fe with all-wheel drive and on dry pavement it did not feel any different from the front-drive model. All-wheel drive is designed to improve handling stability and traction on slippery surfaces.
All Santa Fe models include electronic stability control with traction control.
The best value may be the front-drive SE model, which has the same high-tech aluminum engine and transmission as the Limited.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is the same size as the Toyota Highlander, but it costs less. Judging from Hyundai's performance in J.D. Power and Associates quality studies, Hyundai's vehicles are right in there in terms of quality and reliability as well. If you're in the market for a suburban SUV rather than a genuine off-road vehicle, the capable and refined Santa Fe should be included on your shopping list.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie drove the Hyundai Santa Fe in Santa Barbara.