Technically, both vehicles are crossovers, meaning they are built like cars, using unibody construction, instead of the body-on-frame technique of a traditional truck. That could prove to be a disadvantage in, say, the Paris-to-Dakar rally; or while outmaneuvering an unwanted military incursion. But in most ways it's better for everyday driving. Compared to a truck-based SUV, a car-based crossover is generally lighter, smoother riding, and more responsive. Crossovers also tend to use less gas than truck-based SUVs. Still, with the right options, the Santa Fe can tow up to 3500 pounds.
The 2008 Santa Fe looks fresh, shapely and attractive. Completely redesigned for 2007, it shed the quirky lumpiness of the pre-2007 models. It's a little bigger than previously, and comes in five- and seven-passenger versions. Yet it retains Hyundai's value quotient. Underway, the Santa Fe handles well on winding, paved roads.
For 2008, a 605-watt Infinity Logic 7 audio system is now standard on the top-rung Santa Fe Limited. So is a power sunroof. And a new navigation system is optional.
More important, the Santa Fe delivers on safety, with six airbags and standard anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, stability control, and traction control. It has earned the Federal government's top five-star crash test rating for front and side impacts, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) Top Safety Pick, an award given to only 21 new vehicles. The Santa Fe is assembled in Montgomery, Alabama, at a plant that has been certified to the International Automotive Task Force's (IATF) most rigid quality management standard. More than half of the Hyundais sold in the U.S. are now manufactured here.
Hyundai is on a roll. Its vehicles are proving to have the reliability and quality people expect from Japanese cars. The Santa Fe could be a true alternative to the Toyota Highlander and other higher-priced crossovers.
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS Manual ($21,150); GLS Automatic ($22,450); SE ($24,150); Limited ($28,100)
With its relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs, Hyundai says the Santa Fe now evokes the assertive grace of a speed skater. Certainly it has more the 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 end 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 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 current Santa Fe is slightly larger than the previous model, it looks smaller because its styling is more refined and less truck-like.
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.
New for 2008, the navigation system was developed exclusively for Hyundai by LG, a leading worldwide electronics manufacturer. The system provides coverage for the continental United States and includes touch-screen functionality, point-of-interest features, and audio-visual prompts.
According to Hyundai's measurements, headroom and legroom in the Santa Fe is greater in all rows than in competing models, thanks to a uniquely designed unibody that is not based off an existing car platform. That allowed 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 78.2 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.
Third-row seating in the Santa Fe is similar to that in other SUVs, so it's of limited use for anything other than carrying kids short distances. Setting up the third row for seating in the Santa Fe leaves 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 better. 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. In short, the Santa Fe can carry seven passengers but works better for five.
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, a rare combination in the U.S.
We 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 only a little smaller than a Toyota Highlander, but it costs about $6,000 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, 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.