Wednesday, March 05, 2008

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD

The Hyundai Santa Fe is an SUV offered in both FWD and AWD versions. The standard configuration has two rows of seating for up to five passengers. An optional seven-passenger version adds two more seats that fold out of the cargo floor. The internal dimensions of the Santa Fe suggest a mid-sized vehicle, but its taut exterior styling belies the actual size of this SUV.

With so many vehicles in the segment, it is difficult to identify direct competitors. Depending on what is important to the prospective buyer, there can be dozens of available alternative vehicles. The Santa Fe effectively splits the gap between smaller SUVs like the Ford Escape, and slightly larger models such as the Toyota Highlander. Dimensionally, the Santa Fe is similar to the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, but the five-passenger model has an interior volume comparable to the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge. Select the optional seven-passenger seating, and the only vehicles that can rival the Santa Fe's accommodations and refinement cost $5,000-$10,000 more.

The Santa Fe can be equipped in GLS, SE and Limited trim levels. All three models are well equipped with standard stability control, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, power windows, door locks and a 6-speaker audio system. Entry-level GLS models start at just over $21,000 and include a 2.7L V-6 under the hood. The SE and Limited models add a larger displacement 3.3L V-6, standard five-speed automatic transmission, and larger wheels/tires. SE models list at just over $24,000 and include a leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium cloth seats. The range-topping Limited trim level starts at about $28,000; Limited models add heated leather seats, a sunroof, and dual-zone climate controls. All three models offer either FWD or AWD drivetrains. All-wheel-drive adds about $1,500 to the price. To get seven-passenger seating, the Santa Fe SE and Limited models must be equipped with an optional Touring package.

Our test vehicle was a 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD. The MSRP for this model was $29,600. An optional navigation system was included for $1,750, as were carpeted floor mats for $120. Price, as tested, was a reasonable $31,470. With the healthy list of features, the Santa Fe is comprehensively equipped for its price.

The first pleasant surprise is the interior. The headliner, seats, center console and lower half of the instrument panel were finished in light beige. The top of the dash, upper door panels, cargo area, carpeting, and scuff-prone areas are all finished in a contrasting charcoal color to hide stains. A band of plastic "wood" trim with aluminum highlights separates the transition between the light and dark-colored interior moldings. Although most plastic surfaces are hard to the touch, they are pleasantly grained and will not mar or scratch easily. More importantly, there very few visible panel gaps which lends to an overall impression of a very high-level of fit and finish. The Santa Fe's upscale interior is more befitting of vehicles with much higher price tags, and is a cut above the Toyota RAV4 and other smaller SUVs.

The instrumentation is clear and useful with few gimmicks. A medium sized speedometer is front and center, with a tachometer to the left, and fuel and temperature gauges to the right. A small display inset in the tachometer shows the tire pressure monitoring system status. The speedometer includes a small trip computer that shows fuel economy, range, and trip mileage. The steering wheel has controls for the cruise control on the right, and the audio system on the left. The buttons are simple and easy to find without looking down. One complaint with many steering wheel-mounted controls is that they are sometimes too easy to hit accidentally while steering around corners. In the Santa Fe, we kept inadvertently hitting the audio system mode button.

The center stack starts at the top with an LCD clock and the passenger airbag indicator. Below that, our test model had the optional navigation system, which supersedes the audio system head unit. The dual-zone automatic climate control system is below; it consists of an LCD display with large temperature adjustment knobs on each side. Buttons for the defrosters and hazard lights are near the bottom. A small ashtray-sized container resides at the bottom edge of the instrument panel.

The center console contains a large tray for holding cell phones, mp3 players, etc. In a recessed area on the console are the heated seat controls, and a 12V power point. We wish all vehicles had a simple storage bin like this at the front of the center console. It is handy, yet out of the way of the cup holders and shifter. The armrest and center console cover a shallow bin above a deeper storage compartment. The rearview mirror is auto-dimming with an integrated compass. Above the mirror are the pushbutton controls for the sunroof, map lights and a sunglass holder.

The Santa Fe's passenger accommodations are above average. The sculpted leather seats are properly shaped for comfort, while the perforated middle cushions help to manage perspiration. Front headrests adjust both up/down and fore/aft. The driver's seat contains basic power-operated controls, but the front passenger makes do with manual adjustments. Rear seat occupants benefit from the reclining 60/40 split rear seatback. The outer seating positions are somewhat contoured and should be comfortable for most, but the middle passenger sits on a flat cushion and seatback acceptable for only short trips. All seating positions contain sufficient headroom and ample legroom.

Open the rear hatch via the unique side-mounted grab handle and the Santa Fe becomes surprisingly versatile for hauling duties. There is over 34 cubic feet of storage behind the second row seat. With the second row folded flat, stowage increases to over 78 cubic feet. In addition, there are two large storage compartments beneath the load floor. The rearmost compartment holds the tire changing kit, and has a spot for first aid supplies. The forward dividable compartment features a large deep well that is sufficient to hold a decent load of groceries. Seven-passenger models give up this cargo area for the third row seats. The spare tire mounts under the vehicle for maximum interior room.

Our test model was equipped with an optional navigation system, which is the first time Hyundai has offered a factory-installed navigation system. The system, made by LG Electronics, features a touch-screen with a small number of physical buttons for commonly accessed functions. The screen is ordinarily bright and legible, but like many other factory systems, automatically dims to an unacceptably low brightness level when headlamps are required during daylight hours. Relatively speaking the Hyundai navigation system is feature-rich and useful for $1,750, but falls short of the usefulness and value of an aftermarket unit like those from Garmin.

Hyundai offers the Santa Fe with two different V-6 engines. A 3.3L V-6 producing 242-bhp and 226 lb-ft of torque resides under the hood of the Santa Fe Limited. With almost two tons of mass to move, this is the preferred engine. The fuel economy penalty is negligible compared to the 2.7L V-6, because the 3.3L V6 is equipped with a five-speed transmission. Our only real complaint with the Santa Fe is the transmission. The shift logic seems biased towards fuel economy, and often leaves the vehicle in the wrong end of its torque band for swift acceleration. Switching the transmission to the manual input mode provides a significantly more rewarding driving experience. Working the V-6 harder significantly diminishes fuel economy. We averaged about 17 MPG in mixed duty, and significantly less with frequent starting/stopping.

In the ride and handling department, the Santa Fe never shows its weight. While the larger Veracruz, feels disconnected and quiet, the Santa Fe is lively and fun to drive. The body structure is tight, and the test vehicle showed no signs of flex or rattles. The rack-and-pinion steering is direct, with an appropriate level of feedback. The fully independent suspension provides a ride that is comfortable, yet sporty enough to appeal to SUV buyers. There is noticeable body roll, and at times a little pitching over very rough surfaces, but nothing out of the norm for a tall vehicle with 18-inch wheels. Our Santa Fe came shod with Bridgestone Dueler H/T all-season tires. The tires provided reasonable traction in dry, wet, snowy and icy conditions. The standard four-wheel disc brakes stop the vehicle with confidence.

In summary, the Hyundai Santa Fe is a vehicle that belongs on many shopping lists. It offers most of the size, equipment, utility and refinement of larger SUVs at a far more agreeable price. Buyers will make few sacrifices and will end up with a pleasing vehicle that is attractively styled and fun to drive.

Greg A. Godsell 02/26/2008
Velocity Automotive Journal

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