The Hyundai Santa Fe, a midsize crossover SUV, is a practical size, roomy interior, worthwhile features, a combination of responsive performance and commendable fuel economy, an attractive price, and a terrific warranty. It's a good choice for dealing with urban and suburban traffic, taking the family on a vacation, or hauling random stuff from one spot to another.
The Santa Fe is a crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, meaning it is built with unibody construction, instead of having the body-on-frame structure of a traditional truck or larger SUV. Compared to a truck-based SUV, a crossover is generally lighter, smoother riding, more responsive, and delivers better fuel economy. But you knew that. Many of the SUVs this size are crossovers now. The Santa Fe is built in the U.S., in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Santa Fe is an attractive vehicle with a sleek shape. Inside, it's roomy. It seats five. It has four doors, a rear liftgate, and offers a lot of versatility for carrying people or cargo.
The Santa Fe offers a choice of 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6 engines, both of which were brand new for 2010. It is available with front-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive for those who might need more traction.
The 2.4-liter engine delivers 20/28 mpg City/Highway when equipped with the 6-speed automatic, according to the federal government. A 6-speed manual is standard. Rated at 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 169 pound-feet of torque at 3750 rpm, this second-generation Hyundai engine is high-tech: all aluminum, 16 valves, Continuously Variable Valve Timing on both camshafts and a Variable Intake System.
The 3.5-liter V6 boasts 276 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm, big numbers, yet it gets an EPA-estimated 20/26 mpg, good numbers, also. Those last figures edge out the 2.4-liter with the 6-speed manual (19/26 mpg). The V6 comes standard with the 6-speed automatic, and it is a very good transmission, adding to the efficiency of the powertrain. Like the new four-cylinder, the new V6 features overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, CVVT and VIS, up to date and sophisticated, in other words.
2011 Santa Fe Limited models offer a new 605-watt Infiniti Logic 7 audio system. For 2010, Santa Fe was upgraded with fresh styling, new engines, and the latest navigation technology. It was last redesigned for the 2007 model year.
With its relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs, the Santa Fe has more the profile of a sporty station wagon than that of a traditional body-on-frame SUV. 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 handy and convenient.
Both the 17- and 18-inch wheels are a five-split-spoke design, and with the other exterior enhancements give the Santa Fe a look that says it might cost more than its actual price. The roof rack is well integrated into the whole.
Pleasing is the best way to describe the interior of the Hyundai Santa Fe because it's trimmed in modern plastics with a soft-touch feel. All models feature blue accent lighting at night to illuminate the instruments, switches and the edges of the front cupholders. Even the base GLS has nice luxury touches.
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, headroom and legroom in the Santa Fe is more than just competitive with other vehicles in its class, thanks to a uniquely designed unibody that is not based on an existing car platform. That allowed the engineers to maximize interior space.
Fold down the second 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 second 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.
Nobody can expect an SUV, even one built using a stiff unibody, to handle as well as a sedan. However, the Hyundai Santa Fe comes mighty close. Indeed, as long as you don't fling it around corners as if you're in a sports sedan, you'll have no complaints about the Santa Fe's handling.
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 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is quite a pleasant surprise. It has Continuously Variable Valve Timing on both the intake and exhaust valves, and a Variable Intake System that enhances engine breathing, and, as a result of these advanced technologies, delivers both better performance and superior fuel economy than the 2.7-liter V6 it replaced. For most drivers most of the time, the four-cylinder will be more than adequate and deliver great fuel economy in the bargain.
The 3.5-liter V6 is also a very nice engine. It also has the Continuously Variable Valve Timing on both intake and exhaust, and a three-step Variable Intake System that enhances engine breathing and efficiency at both low and high engine speeds. The benefit is felt in both off-the-line acceleration and in passing performance. In addition, it also delivers better fuel economy than the previous 3.3-liter V6. Both these engines are big improvements and really enhance the viability of the Santa Fe in its competitive market segment.
The 6-speed automatic transmission features SHIFTRONIC, which allows manual control of the gear selection, and it has both overdrive ratios and a lock-up torque converter for improved highway fuel economy.
We drove a Santa Fe with all-wheel drive. It's electronically controlled and automatically sends power to the wheels with the best traction. For really slippery or off-road conditions, there is a driver-selectable all-wheel-drive lock that provides a fixed 50/50 torque split between the front and rear wheels. On dry pavement (not locked) 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, and the Hyundai system does that. In addition, all Santa Fe models include Electronic Stability Control (ESC) which includes the function of traction control.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is only a little smaller than a Toyota Highlander, but it costs a lot less. Judging from Hyundai's performance in J.D. Power and Associates quality studies, Hyundai's vehicles are right there in terms of quality and reliability as well. If you're in the market for a suburban utility vehicle, with a tidy size, good versatility, nice styling, responsive performance, commendable fuel economy, a generous list of appealing features, and an attractive price, the Santa Fe should be included on your shopping list.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie drove the Hyundai Santa Fe in Santa Barbara.