By now, everyone knows that South Korean automakers have come a long way since their first halting attempts to sell tinny econoboxes to Americans. The distance Hyundai has traveled is no longer figurative; it can be measured in miles.
The new-from-the-ground-up 2007 Santa Fe, for instance, wears the logo of the Seoul-based company, but it is as Korean-American as kimchee at a suburban A.& P. This larger, more substantial, car-based S.U.V. - a crossover, in the parlance - was developed specifically for American tastes. It was designed at the new Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, Calif., and rolls off a new assembly line in Montgomery, Ala.
And, of course, it carries a name that evokes adobe missions, Georgia O'Keefe paintings and dried chili peppers.
In styling and performance, the second-generation Santa Fe is a significant step up from the model originally introduced in 2000. It offers an optional third-row seat, which is becoming the price of admission even among the compact utility wagons once known as cute utes.
It also incorporates many of the latest safety features found on much more expensive automobiles.
Prices, which start around $21,000 and can reach $33,000, fall squarely in the middle of the hot crossover market. But like other Hyundais, the Santa Fe is priced to undercut similarly equipped competitors from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and others.
My test vehicle was a Santa Fe Limited, the most expensive of three trim lines. With front drive, the Limited starts at $26,715. The base model GLS starts at $21,715 and the midrange SE at $24,415. Ordering all-wheel drive adds $2,000 to each price.
Unlike several of its closest competitors, the Santa Fe does not come with a four-cylinder engine. The base GLS's engine, a 2.7-liter V-6, was carried over but upgraded with variable valve timing, a variable intake system and other improvements. It is rated at 185 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque. Alone in its class, this model comes with a five-speed manual transmission, although a four-speed automatic is optional.
Optional on the SE and standard on the Limited is a new 3.3-liter V-6 with 242 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque. This engine comes only with a five-speed automatic.
Both engines meet California's ultra-low-emission standards and burn regular-grade gasoline.
As is common these days, the all-wheel drive system is electronically controlled and splits the torque to direct it to the wheels that can use it best. Uncommon on crossover utilities, however, is a lock control that will split the torque 50-50, front to rear, an advantage in mud, deep snow or off-road conditions.
Hyundai has made an unusually strong commitment to standard safety equipment in the vehicles it sells in this country. The Santa Fe has six air bags, including side curtains that help to protect all three rows of seats. Bags like these have proved effective in reducing injuries and deaths in side-impact crashes.
Also standard is another proven device, an electronic stability control, that helps the driver maintain control in sudden maneuvers or other emergency situations that could result in a spinout or rollover.
Four-wheel antilock brakes are standard as well, and they incorporate two additional safety features: emergency brake assist, which applies full-force braking if sensors detect the need for an emergency stop, and electronic brake force distribution, which balances the braking force regardless of the vehicle's load.
The Santa Fe has done well in crash tests. It received five stars, the highest rating, in front and side-impact tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And it earned a "good" rating in the front"offset test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Styling verdicts are best left to the individual, but to my eye the new Santa Fe has a lot going for it. It eschews the zoomy rear quarter panels and small rear side windows of some Japanese utilities, which can create large blind spots for the driver. Instead, Hyundai's designers stuck to softly rounded corners without pronounced styling accents. This, in my view, is a big improvement over the strange sci-fi contours of the first-generation Santa Fe.
While the Hyundai's size is similar to rivals like the Toyota RAV4 and Highlander, the Honda CR-V and the Chevrolet Equinox, it manages to eke out a bit more space inside.
The third row, for example, is almost habitable. It is split 50/50 and can be folded flat. Yet I would pass up the third seat, even if it is one of the few that adults can use, in favor of the two-row version that has roomy rear storage with two convenient compartments.
The second row folds nearly flat - no need to remove the head restraints - and locks in the down position. Atypically, the windows in the rear doors roll down all the way.
Interiors are becoming ever more appealing, especially in European and Japanese models, with smart color choices and textures that give a feeling of luxury and value. The new Santa Fe incorporates many of these intangibles into a moderately priced wagon. Instruments are simple and clear, with blue lighting at night. The controls are logical, so there is no need to consult the manual. The console box is a roomy two-tier affair; there are sturdy cup holders.
The redesign has improved the Santa Fe's performance in all respects. The new 3.3-liter engine in my test vehicle was responsive, and the overall performance was enhanced by the smooth-shifting automatic. The use of five speeds allows a more aggressive first gear and a fifth gear biased toward economy.
With the larger engine, fuel economy is rated at 19 m.p.g. in town and 24 on the highway. While not class-leading figures, these numbers are competitive. My average was 20.6, a bit better than the 4-cylinder Toyota Highlander that I drove a while back, but not as good as my mileage (23 m.p.g.) with the 4-cylinder RAV4. With the 2.7-liter engine and automatic transmission, the Santa Fe is rated 21 in town, 26 on the highway.
Steering and handling are smooth and steady and, while none too sporty, are certainly good enough in this class. The fairly tight turning circle (35.8 feet) was appreciated. The four-wheel disc brakes are firm, with a nice, progressive feel.
The ride is about what I'd expected of a small crossover, firm and well controlled and not stiff or jerky like many truck-based S.U.V.'s. The highway ride is reasonably quiet, with low wind and tire noise.
Consumers are learning that crossover wagons are worthwhile choices when a sedan doesn't seem to have enough space and heavy truck-based S.U.V.'s seem too clumsy and thirsty. There are many crossovers on the market, with more arriving every few months.
There are a few standouts in this rather large group, including relatively compact models like the RAV4, the CR-V and the Subaru Forester. I would add the new Santa Fe to that group. It is roomy, cleanly designed, reasonably priced and it comes with a lot of safety features.
INSIDE TRACK: If you are thinking of crossing over, here's a crossover worthy of your short list.
By BOB KNOLL
Published: February 4, 2007 The New York Times