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Santa Fe offers value, versatility

May 07, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

Named for a southwestern city of considerable charm, Hyundai's Santa Fe has charmed a lot of midsize SUV buyers with a combination of versatility and value.

Midsize sport-utility vehicles with car-based platforms, such as the Santa Fe, are a hot commodity these days for some good reasons. They combine SUV looks and just-right size outside, with station wagon space inside. And, when equipped with all-wheel drive, they make it easy to go through snow.

Santa Fe is Hyundai's only SUV (a compact sport-utility called Tucson arrives later this year), but thanks to an increasing number of engine choices, it's getting to be a diverse, one-model lineup. My test vehicle was a top-line, all-wheel-drive LX series, with a sticker price of $25,679. An entry-level model is $17,999.

Santa Fe is offered in three trim levels. The base model has a 2.4-liter, 138 horsepower four-cylinder under the hood, coupled to a five-speed manual transmission. No engine options are offered on the entry-level model and it is only available with front-wheel drive.

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Next up is the mid-level GLS. It's powered by a 2.7-liter, 173 hp V-6, and a four-speed automatic transmission is standard, as is front-wheel drive, with full-time all-wheel drive optional.

At the top of the line is the LX. The standard motor here is a 3.5-liter, 200 hp V-6 (also available optionally on GLS models). The 3.5 links to a five-speed automatic transmission. Check the all-wheel drive option for GLX and you get some new technology this year.

Designed by Borg-Warner, the Electronic 4WD System operates in front-wheel drive until the system detects slippage. At that point, engine torque is shifted to the rear wheels as needed. Wheel sensors monitor speed, throttle position and the angle of the steering wheel and make adjustments accordingly. Once you've regained your grip, power to the rear tires is cut back or eliminated entirely. In practice, the system is transparent to the driver - there is nothing to activate, no buttons to push.

The Santa Fe is built on a car-based platform and isn't geared toward hard-core four-wheeling. No metal skid plates are available for undercarriage protection, and there's no low-gear range for slow, steep crawls. Light off-road however, like a rutted dirt road, is well within its reach. There's 8.1 inches of ground clearance below, and angles of approach, breakover and departure are reasonable (28.4/26/21 degrees).

Paved roads are where 98 percent of all Santa Fes will live their lives and here, I found the Santa Fe LX acquits itself well. The 3.5-liter V-6 offers smooth acceleration, whether for freeway flying or getting a running start at an on-ramp merge. Gas mileage is disappointing, at an estimated 17 miles per gallon city and 21 mpg highway. The most economical of the group are the four-cylinder models, which return an estimated 20 city, 27 highway with automatic or manual transmission. However, that motor is only available in front-wheel-drive models, and has 52 less horsepower under the hood.

All Santa Fes have a fully independent suspension, and a good ride on a smooth road. Choppy pavement can make the ride likewise. Handling is on par with other medium-sized SUVs.

Where Santa Fe shines is on the inside. It has a comfortable cabin, suitable for four or five, with enough legroom front and back for 6-footers, and enough headroom to survive a return of big hairdos or top hats. Up front, particularly in LX models, Santa Fe is well equipped. There's only one major option available on the top-line versions: a power-sliding moon roof ($595). Controls are within easy reach and simple to operate. Santa Fe's high ride height makes for good visibility, though it doesn't sit so tall as to make getting in and out a stretch.

Cargo capacity is first-rate. The rear lift back swings up to reveal a generous 30 cubic feet of capacity, expandable to 77 cubic feet with the split rear seat folded down. The load floor is wide, lift-over height is low and the rear seats fold flat.

SUV buyers seeking a midsize with room for people and possessions will want to put Santa Fe on their shopping list. Compared with similarly equipped SUVs, a loaded Hyundai LX 4x4 is a good value, with the added incentive of an impressive (10 year/100,000 mile) powertrain warranty.

Copyright Motor Matters, 2004

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