No car company has taken bigger strides over the past decade than Hyundai. Formerly a manufacturer of small, dowdy cars that were both uninspiring and uncertain, the Korean automaker has transformed itself into a powerhouse, a paragon of reliability and value.
Hyundai is still establishing itself, and its models have been finding their respective niches by the seats of their pants, often being redesigned or renamed after just a year or two on the market. Hyundai’s Santa Fe SUV has been around since 2001, but has seen its mission statement substantially redefined for 2007.
The first-generation Santa Fe competed with Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4, but couldn’t match those two established cute-utes in terms of interior appointments and refinement. Its dash and cabin were boring, and the styling was…well, hardly cute at all. Its saving grace was that it offered a V6 (first a 2.7, later a 3.5) against its competitors’ inline-fours, and it was cheap.
However, the 2007 Santa Fe has left the past in the dust. It sports styling in line with its mainstream Japanese competition, and takes some cues from some more unorthodox vehicles as well. From the rear, it resembles Subaru’s daring B9 Tribeca, and its front grille, mounted flush with the top edges of its angled headlamps, is strongly evocative of Saab’s cool 9-7x. It has a new 3.3L V6, and its interior no longer resembles that of a Korean airport shuttle. And most importantly, it’s bigger.
How much bigger, you ask? The new Santa Fe is around seven inches longer than the outgoing model, one inch wider and almost two inches taller. It has increased its track by 2.9 inches. Hyundai’s press site proudly contrasts this measurement with those of the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer, which is one of many indicators that the Santa Fe is no longer just hunting small-SUV game.
Hyundai’s website offers a comparison feature, so potential buyers can pit the Santa Fe (in somewhat limited categories) against as many as three other vehicles. You can choose most any vehicle you want, even a Lamborghini, but Hyundai already has three picked out for you: the Honda Pilot, and the Highlander and RAV4 from Toyota. This is quite interesting indeed, since the RAV4 and Highlander are two different class of SUV. Hyundai is trying to lure potential buyers of both vehicles into the Santa Fe fold – away from the Highlander with cost, and away from the RAV4 with size and features.
The new Santa Fe’s larger size has made room for an optional third row of seats. Our tester, a top-of-the-line 2wd Limited model, did not come so equipped, and we are therefore reserving judgment on how well Hyundai has executed the additional row. It’s split 50/50 and does fold totally flat, increasing the practical appeal of this particular check-box on the options list. However, from all the Santa Fes we’ve looked at and sat in, it looks a little tight back there. There is a standard feature to make ingress and egress easier through the second row, but it just doesn’t look like there’s enough legroom for anyone but small children. And that may be fine for the majority of Sante Fe buyers.
The rest of our Santa Fe’s cabin was inviting and roomy. The car’s 60/40 split second row seats recline independently of each other, and like the third row they fold completely flat to make cargo hauling easy. The second row has a folding armrest, and the front passenger’s seat can be ordered with full-power adjustability – things not offered in comparable trim levels of the Pilot, Highlander, or RAV4.
The new Santa Fe drew rave reviews from the Roadfly staff for its interior appointments. Surfaces, while they acknowledged their plastic DNA, aren’t cheap-looking. And the finish of the wood veneer is superior to that in some luxury vehicles we’ve tested. The gauges glow fluorescent blue at night, as do the separate screens for the clock, audio system, and dual-zone HVAC (which blows through wonderfully massive vents in the center console). It all adds up to a reassuringly high-tech atmosphere when you’re whizzing along at night.
The Santa Fe offers two engine choices for 2007. GLS models are equipped with a 2.7-liter V6 making 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 183 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm, while SE and Limited models like our tester get an all-new 3.3-liter V6 making 242 hp at 6,000 rpm and 226 lb.-ft. at 4,500 rpm. The 3.3L unit replaces last year’s 3.5, and makes 42 more horsepower despite having a smaller displacement. Our Santa Fe got the bigger motor, and although it’s no sports car, it’s miles ahead of the old model, and on par with the power outputs of the Pilot, Highlander and RAV4.
True to Hyundai form, our tester had a ton of standard equipment. The only cost-added option was a set of carpeted floor mats, at a measly 95 bucks. Stability and traction control, front and side airbags all around, active head restraints, and a tire pressure monitor were the most notable safety features. Leather is standard on the Limited, as are little lifesavers like de-icers for the rear windshield wiper and an AutoMirror equipped with Homelink.
By now we all know that Hyundai can offer a litany of features at a bargain-basement price, just as its Japanese targets did in the 1980’s. But we were still surprised at what a bargain our Santa Fe presented. At $26,040, the Santa Fe undercut our tester RAV4 by two grand.
It’s not an entirely fair comparison, as the RAV4 came with 4WD and a moonroof, things the Santa Fe offers but were not included on our tester. But, we think it’s significant that the larger, more luxurious Santa Fe can still come out much cheaper than even the lesser of the two Toyota SUVs it has taken aim at. When we tested the RAV4, we lamented its lack of interior furnishings. There was no leather, and a very small amount of creature comforts. Our Santa Fe had a power-adjustable seat, and stereo controls on a steering wheel that tilted and telescoped – all stuff the RAV4 lacked. The interior of the Santa Fe also had more panache, expressed in small things like the texture of the stereo buttons, or the uniformity of the space-age blue displays.
Overall, the Hyundai Santa Fe is, well, a Hyundai. In today’s automotive market, that means a tremendous bang for the buck, a superlative warranty to ease the mind, and a list of features that makes you shake your head in amazement. For 2007, the Santa Fe has added style, performance, and versatility to its list of charms. If you’re on a budget, or just want something a little different from the fleet of Pilots, Highlanders and RAV4s that dot suburbia these days, this is the SUV for you.