Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Motor Mouth: Hyundai Santa Fe Mimics Pricier Models

Motor Mouth: Hyundai Santa Fe mimics pricier models



At the risk of sounding like a hopeless rube, I'll confess that I mistook a Hyundai for a BMW last week. The error was fleeting, but still surprising. BMW makes premium-class vehicles designed to pamper, flatter and entertain people who enjoy active driving. By contrast, many people still consider Hyundai an economy brand.

The gaffe occurred when I caught my first, rapid glimpse of the model I would be test driving for this report. "Oh, nice, a BMW X3," I thought. The X3 is the smaller of two "sport-activity vehicles" sold by the German automaker. Starting at $38,775, it aims to combine the athletic road maneuvers for which BMW is renowned, with the hauling utility and all-weather security of an SUV.

But a closer look revealed that my test model was a Hyundai Santa Fe. The medium-sized SUV is a crossover (a sport utility body built on a car-like foundation, rather than a truck frame). It carries a suggested retail price of $21,690 for a front-drive model in standard trim. All-wheel-drive versions start at $23,390.

The Santa Fe deceived me with its wide, stable stance, its poised rear haunches, its blunted nose, wrapped front corners and, especially, its subtly arched, black-railed roof. The vehicle also looked very well finished, painted a silver-blue that shone deeply and lustrously in the sunlight. Before taking a moment to examine it, I thought I was approaching a wagon much more expensive than the Santa Fe turns out to be.

The brief masquerade last week doesn't diminish the X3. Unquestionably, BMW makes a desirable vehicle. But the incident says a lot about Hyundai.

No doubt the handsomely assertive aspect of the Santa Fe, along with its gloss of craft and quality, help account for its enduring appeal. Hyundai, which builds Santa Fe in Alabama, introduced the current version as a 2007 model. The redesigned SUV performed well its first year, attracting buyers when the overall car market was turning south. Last year, Santa Fe sales increased 45 percent over 2006. But through the first three months of this year, Santa Fe sales are down about 17 percent nationally, according to Hyundai Motor America, the California-based U.S. arm of the Korean auto maker. But keep in mind that demand for just about every vehicle is falling this year.

The best indication that Santa Fe is carving out an audience comes from the growing number I notice sharing our roads. Salem Ford Hyundai in Salem, N.H., has a hard time keeping them in stock, reported Nancy Rodriguez, the dealership's Hyundai sales manager.

"My inventory has gotten low" after a few months of strong demand, she said. At the moment, Hyundai is buffing the SUV's appeal with low finance rates and rebates, she explained.

Rodriguez boasted that Salem Ford Hyundai beats even the best manufacturer offers, because it operates as a no-haggle, one-price dealer that sells all models for $300 over their own net price. She said the net price is typically lower than the vaunted invoice price, which is the amount car makers charge dealers before tacking on dealer profit. The net price includes additional discounts a car company gives a dealer.

To illustrate, she noted that the sticker price for a fully loaded Santa Fe Limited model pushes toward $34,000. "After my discounts and my rebate, you're looking at $28,600. For everything: leather, sunroof, rear DVD entertainment center. Everything. If you start looking at other SUVs with that equipment, you're up in the $40s," she said.

The standard equipment built into Santa Fe helps make it attractive to motorists, said Rodriguez. A basic Santa Fe GLS comes with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, doors and mirrors, four-wheel disc brakes, tinted glass, tire-pressure monitoring and alloy wheels. The base model is powered by a 2.7-liter V6 mated to a manual transmission. The higher level, SE and Limited versions get a 3.3-liter V6 and five-speed automatic.

Safety equipment built into every Santa Fe includes advanced anti-lock brakes, dynamic stability control, and air bags all around, including side-curtain air bags.

Indeed, Rodriguez noted that Santa Fe's safety standing increases its appeal to families. The SUV earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's top, five-star crash test rating for front and side collisions. It is also a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which gave the award to only 20 other models this year.

Another big family pleaser is the fold-down, third-row seat, which converts five-passenger Santa Fe into a seven-seat SUV, said the sales manager. Hyundai added the feature as an extra-cost option this year. The majority of Santa Fe buyers at the Salem dealer choose it, said Rodriguez.

The Santa Fe Limited I drove included the third seat. But for the SUV's biggest test, I folded it flat to utilize the full rear cargo floor. It very handily held the dog crate for a 10-month-old, hyperactive whippet named Sonya. The cargo bay still had room for a cooler and weekend travel bags. Up front, Santa Fe comfortably accommodated three adults for a two-day, 1,000-mile dash.

I would have liked better fuel economy than the 22 miles per gallon Santa Fe delivered. (Its official, EPA fuel-use estimates are 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway.) But a smaller vehicle, with better fuel economy, may not have treated Donna, Erik and me so well. The road-trip ride was supple and quiet. Seats readily adjusted to accommodate changing drivers. The back seat provided lots of space to snooze in reasonable comfort between shifts behind the wheel. The navigation system was cooperative when we needed it. The comfort and entertainment controls were intuitively easy to operate an important factor.

Would I take the Hyundai Santa Fe over the BMW X3 I first mistook it to be?

BMW is a premium brand, so it carries more status and prestige than mass-market models. An upscale image has value for people who want it, so they willingly pay more for products that convey such an image. That intangible value accounts for part of the price difference between the vehicles. There are other differences, too. I would examine them all. My choice, like yours, would depend on which brought me the most personal benefits -- both tangible and intangible -- for the dollar.

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe

Vehicle type: front- and all-wheel-drive, 5- and 7-passenger, midsize SUV

Price range: $21,690 to $30,340 (plus options)

Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles basic warranty; 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain warranty; 7 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance

Base engine: 2.7-liter V6

Power: 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 183 lb.-ft. torque at 4,000 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Fuel economy: 17 mpg city; 24 mpg highway

Wheelbase: 106 inches

Length: 184 inches

Width: 74 inches

Height: 68 inches

Weight: 3,727 pounds

Fuel capacity: 19.8 gallons

Turning circle: 35.8 feet

By Jeffrey Zygmont
Motor Mouth
Eagle Tribune

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