Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Santa Fe's a Wheel Winner

Santa Fe's a wheel winner

TEST DRIVE | There's little not to like in this 2008 model from Hyundai, which nicely blends features of sport-utility vehicles and cars

The Santa Fe is another mid-size SUV that could be marketed as one of the increasingly popular crossover vehicles -- those combining SUV utility with carlike manners.

The Santa Fe debuted for 2001 and was continually updated over the years to become a solid model with Hyundai's long warranty. But the 2007 model got the Santa Fe's first major changes, being made larger, roomier and more powerful. New features included availability of an optional third-row seat for seven-passenger seating, although the third seat area is strictly for kids.

The changes paid off, as Hyundai saw Santa Fe sales jump to 92,421 units in 2007 from 63,931 in the previous year.

The handsome Santa Fe is nicely built and has an attractive, if rather bland-looking, interior.

The Santa Fe, as with all Hyundais, always has been very price-competitive. List prices for the 2008 Santa Fe go from $20,995 to $29,600. It comes as GLS, SE and top-line Limited models. It's offered with front- or all-wheel drive that permits locking in a 50/50 front/rear power split.

Hyundai dropped a four-cylinder Santa Fe engine in 2005, so even the base GLS trim level has a 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V-6, air conditioning, tilt/telescope wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, second-row split folding seat and power mirrors, windows and door locks with remote keyless entry. It comes with a five-speed manual gearbox or extra-cost four-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability.

Move to the mid-range SE, which starts at $24,100, and you get a 3.3-liter V-6 with 242 horsepower and standard five-speed automatic transmission, also with manual-shift capability. The SE also adds a leather-wrapped wheel with radio controls, heated power mirrors, wiper deicer and wider 60-series tires on larger 18-inch wheels -- up from 70-series tires on 16-inch wheels.

The uptown Limited's features include leather upholstery, heated front seats, power sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate controls, power driver's seat and an upgraded audio system with an in-dash 6-disc CD changer.

All Santa Fe models have safety features galore, including front and curtain-side air bags, traction control, anti-skid system and anti-lock brakes with brake assist.

All seat five, but you can get the SE model with the 50/50 split third-row seat for seven-person seating in a $1,500 Touring Package, which includes rear air conditioning, transmission cooler, heavy duty engine cooling and trailer wiring.

There are a variety of option packages for the GLS and SE, and stand-alone options for the Limited are a $1,750 navigation system and a $1,750 DVD entertainment system.

The Santa Fe is fairly heavy at 3,727 pounds and up, so the 2.7-liter V-6 provides just adequate acceleration. In contrast, the 3.3 V-6 with its added power and torque provides strong acceleration, with an especially good 65-75 mph passing. It works with a very responsive transmission, although the shifter has a rather notchy action.

Estimated fuel economy of the 2.7 is 17 mpg in the city and 24 on highways with front drive and the manual transmission and 18 and 24 with the automatic (or 17 and 23 with the automatic and all-wheel drive). The 3.3 with its extra-gear automatic provides 17 city, 24 highway with either drive system. Only regular-grade fuel is needed.

I tested a Limited with all-wheel drive. It had quick, nicely weighted steering and a tight turning radius for good maneuvering in close quarters. It also had a firm-but-supple ride and almost carlike handling, although it's no sports SUV (or crossover). The brakes pedal has a linear action for consistently smooth stops.

Just a little extra effort is needed to get in and out of the quiet interior, although reaching the third-row seat is easiest for nimble kids. Front seats should offer more side support. But occupants sit high. Visibility is generally good, and a driver has outside rearview mirrors nicely sized for safe lane changes and faces easily read gauges that have colorful red-and-white pointers on a black background. Easily reached sound system and climate controls are large, but the driver's power window controls are set back a bit too far, as are the console's twin cupholders.

Interior door handles are easily grasped for quick exits, and sun visor mirrors have sliding covers and are illuminated by lights in the roof -- a nice touch.

Dashboard vents are strategically placed for good heating and cooling, and there's a deep covered console storage bin.

The large cargo area has a low, wide opening. The hatch has no opening glass area, but it is equipped with a hefty pull-down strap. The cargo area has a moderately deep, covered bin in which to put valuable objects.

The fairly new Hyundai Veracruz, which is larger than the Santa Fe but also classified as a mid-size SUV/crossover, seems to be stealing some Santa Fe sales, but it is more costly, starting at $26,900. The Santa Fe thus remains the bargain child of Hyundai's SUV/ crossover lineup.

Prices: $20,995-$29,600

Likes: Fast with larger V-6. Roomy. Nice ride and handling. Key safety items. Strong warranty.

Dislikes: Power window controls too far back. Notchy transmission shifter. Third-row seat just for kids.

March 8, 2008
BY DAN JEDLICKA Chicago Sun-Times Auto Editor

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