Hyundais compact sport utility vehicle returns for its fourth season in the U.S. market. Late in the 2003 model year, Hyundai made a 3.5-liter V-6 engine available as an alternative to the regular 2.7-liter V-6. Offered in an option package, the 3.5-liter power plant comes with a five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission. A BorgWarner all-wheel-drive system is also available. Hyundai continues to offer a four-cylinder version of the Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe is roughly the same size as the Honda CR-V, but Hyundais SUV is wider. Front-wheel-drive and permanently engaged all-wheel-drive versions are available. The all-wheel-drive system provides extra highway traction on slippery surfaces rather than serious offroad capabilities.
The Santa Fe is offered in three trim levels: base, GLS and LX. The Santa Fe is based on the front-drive Sonata sedans platform.
Built on a 103.1-inch wheelbase, the Santa Fe is 177.2 inches long overall and close to 66 inches tall. Fords Escape has the same wheelbase but is 4 inches shorter overall. The Santa Fes bulging front fenders are similar to the ones used on Hyundais Tiburon sport coupe. The four-door SUV is equipped with a rear liftgate and standard 16-inch tires.
The Santa Fe holds five people with front bucket seats and a split, three-place rear bench that folds for additional cargo space. Cargo volume behind the rear seat is 30.5 cubic feet, and capacity grows to 77.7 cubic feet when the backseat is folded down. The step-up GLS edition adds such features as remote keyless entry, fog lights and a cassette/CD stereo system. Leather seating surfaces, automatic climate control and heated front seats are part of the top-of-the-line LX version. A Monsoon sound system is installed in the GLS and LX models.
Under the Hood
Hyundais 2.7-liter V-6 engine produces 173 horsepower and teams with a four-speed-automatic transmission. The new 3.5-liter V-6, which is standard in the LX and optional in the GLS, generates 195 hp and 219 pounds-feet of torque. The automatic transmission has manual-shifting capability. Used in the base model, the Santa Fes 138-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mates with a standard five-speed-manual transmission.
Front-wheel drive and permanently engaged all-wheel drive are available, and the latter is intended to provide extra grip on slippery highway surfaces rather than for use on serious offroad treks. No Low range is included.
Side-impact airbags are standard in all Santa Fes. Antilock brakes are standard on GLS models equipped with the 3.5-liter engine and the LX and are offered as an option on others.
Ranking as one of the friendliest and easiest of the smaller SUVs to drive, the Santa Fe handles adeptly and performs admirably. Its bulging fenders, which are uncommon on SUVs, actually make a difference in judging the vehicles position. This SUV is appropriately spacious, and it runs quietly. You can also expect an appealing ride.
Though it is clearly stronger, the new 3.5-liter V-6 doesnt boost performance quite as much as expected. The automatic transmission sometimes shifts with a jerk. When rolling through curves, the 3.5-liter Santa Fe can exhibit a slightly top-heavy sensation.