1. The Santa Fe is powered by a 3.3-liter V6 engine that makes 242hp and 226 ft-lbs of torque and is rated at 17/24 mpg (city/highway), more than the Highlander or Pilot.
2.The SUV’s excellent road manners have a lot to do with the fact that its frame is based on the Sonata.
3. 3.3-liter V6 models available in AWD which can be switched on or off.
It doesn’t happen very often, but as an automotive journalist every now and then a vehicle comes along that really surprises me. This time the surprise came courtesy of Hyundai and the vehicle just so happens to be the Santa Fe.
Arguably this review might be a little skewed by the fact that my tester happened to be the top-of-the-line Limited AWD model, but the less pricey models aren’t that far below. Having come directly from driving an ’09 Accent for a week the thing that amazed me most was how a company like Hyundai could produce a vehicle as basic as the Accent and as luxurious as the Santa Fe – and do both models so well.
In 2007 Hyundai redesigned the Santa Fe and distanced it significantly from its sibling the Tucson. For the record the Tucson is based on the Elantra platform whereas the Santa Fe is based on the Sonata platform.
The new look really helps to show off the Santa Fe’s larger proportions and give it a real SUV appeal.
LIMITED: 3.3-LITER V6 AND AWD
While a base model comes with a 2.7-liter V6, there are three 3.3-liter V6 trims including GL, GLS and Limited, which all come with a standard five-speed manual transmission with Shiftronic manual shift mode. Power is plentiful with 242hp and 226 ft-lbs of torque. When driving solo it’s more than enough power and thanks to robust amounts of torque the Santa Fe moves forward without hesitation, even with a full passenger load.
The 3.3L V6 models also come with an optional AWD system. It is engaged via a button on the dash, which when pressed immediately sends equal power to all four wheels. I had the opportunity to drive my tester in the snow and the AWD system really helped while pulling away from a stoplight. I was even surprised that without winter tires (just a set of all-season Bridgestone Duelers) grip was still quite good.
Not only does the Santa Fe accelerate well, it drives nicely with a quiet cabin, a soft highway ride and more agility than you would expect in a vehicle of this size. The front MacPherson strut and coil spring setup and rear multi-link suspension with coil springs and gas shocks is essentially the same one found on the Sonata and it works incredibly well. This setup also receives front and rear stabilizer bars to keep the top heavy SUV planted on the road.
IMPRESSIVE AND LUXURIOUS INTERIOR
With plenty of power and a great drive to it, the real surprise can be found inside the SUV. The leather on my Limited edition tester was not only high quality but impeccably well assembled.
Climbing into the driver’s seat, you realize just how high up the Santa Fe is – with a viewpoint more like a real truck than a crossover. Turn on the ignition and the dash and gauges light up with a cool blue illumination. Blue is certainly an unconventional choice but it is easy to see and easy on the eyes. I only had one real issue with it.
Depending if you are in Drive, Reverse or Park, a light blue D, R or P will show on the gauges. In every other vehicle on the market a blue light on the dash means you have your high beams on and so I couldn’t help but notice the light over and over and over again thinking that I had accidentally switched my hi-beams on.
With that exception the interior was pretty much flawless.
The seats are comfortable – even on long drives – featuring an eight-way power adjustment on all 3.3-liter models with power lumbar support (and a four-way power passenger seat) on the Limited edition.
The Limited also gets dual-climate control, as opposed to the HVAC controls in all other models.
For 2009 all Santa Fe models get a USB/iPod auxiliary input and a mid-cabin roof lamp with a stereo system that has been upgraded from 112 watts to 120 watts.
If good quality audio (at a significant volume) is important to you, then the Limited edition is really your only choice. While the 120-watt system performs fine, it pales in comparison to the 605 watt Infiniti Logic 7 10-speaker sound system with a six-disk CD changer.
While Hyundai did go the distance to include a wide array of controls on the steering wheel (which, by the way, now features the telescopic function as standard equipment), the buttons were far too low on the wheel, which made using them difficult.
Other Limited features include an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a built-in compass and a Homelink system to operate your power garage door without worrying about brining the clicker along.
THE COMPETITON: MPG, CARGO ROOM, TOWING CAPACITY & PRICE
In the back seat there is plenty of room and Hyundai even boasts that the second-row has more head, leg and shoulder room than the Lexus RX350. It’s even quite civilized back there thanks to adjustable vents located in the B-pillars. To be fair, however, the Santa Fe’s real competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7/9, Saturn Vue, Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain (formerly Pontiac Torrent). For the price, however, larger American SUVs like the GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Chevy Traverse are within range.
When it comes to fully-loaded (including leather) AWD SUVs in this class the Santa Fe is priced significantly lower than the Japanese competition. The Hyundai retails for $28,445, compared to $36,750 for the Highlander V6 Sport, $33,430 for the Murano and $35,295 for the Pilot. The only closer offering comes from the American camp with the Saturn Vue priced at $29,230. The Mazda CX-7 can be had for just $27,500 but it is much smaller and the CX-9 is a better space option.
The Fe does rate lower in terms of power than many of the others but as we were already impressed with how well it hustled, we don’t see this as a real issue. If, however, you do intend to haul the boat up the cottage, the Santa Fe’s towing capabilities are limited. It is rated at a respectable 3,500-lb towing capacity when equipped with the Trailer Prep Package (which comes standard on the Limited). The Vue, Edge/CX-9 and Murano also rate at 3,500 lbs but the Pilot and Highlander rate at 4,500- and 5,000-lbs respectively.
The up-side of this lower output is fuel economy with a 17/24 city/highway rating – the same as the Vue. Both the Highlander and Pilot rate at 17/23 and the Edge rates at 15/22 with the CX-9 getting a distant 15/21.
The final competitive factor is cargo space and this is also an area where the Santa Fe rates highly with 34.2 cu.-ft. of space behind the second row seats and 78.2 cu.-ft. with the second row folded down.
On the safety front the Santa Fe comes well-equipped with all the expecteds. Those include diver and front passenger front and side impact airbags as well as roof-mounted side curtain airbags. The truck also comes with standard stability control.
Above these features, the vehicle has received the Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS and has earned a five-star crash test rating from the NHTSA for front and side impact. These features, along with the surprising number of details that surprised us also led to the Santa Fe being awarded a Top Pick by Consumer Reports in 2008.
As already mentioned, the Santa Fe is a surprising find that’s surprisingly good. It’s luxurious, comfortable, safe and rides well.
Thanks to more than just its MSRP it’s a better bargain and an overall better buy than most of its competitors and should only be cut from your short list if you absolutely need more than 3,500 lbs of towing capacity.
It has excellent fuel economy and a look that stands out against its boxy competitors. That look speaks volumes about the car as it has been completely engineered more for luxurious urban people-moving than hauling heavy loads up dirt roads. Still, it is capable of some dirty work (especially with the AWD system in the Limited) and yet looks more like luxury competitors than its immediate boxy brethren.
Hard-to-reach steering wheel controls