If we were to pick the best redesigned SUVs for 2007, Hyundai’s Santa Fe would be among the finalists. The overhaul gives new life to a model that was desperately in need of an update to stay competitive in the midsize body type SUV segment.
The new Santa Fe is larger and its engines are more powerful, but it also gets better gas mileage than its predecessor. The newly optional third-row seat increases the maximum seat count to seven, and the new cabin’s overall refinement is surprisingly good. It also has numerous standard safety features and an impressive warranty.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is offered with a choice of two V6 engines. The base GLS has a 2.7-liter V-6 while the midlevel SE and top-of-the-line Limited — the trim level I tested — feature a larger 3.3-liter V6. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in the GLS, but a four-speed auto is optional. The Hyundai Santa Fe SE and Limited have a five-speed automatic. Front-wheel and all-wheel-drive models are offered.
| Hyundai Santa Fe Engines
| Horsepower (@ rpm)
|| 185 @ 6,000
|| 242 @ 6,000
| Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|| 183 @ 4,000
|| 226 @ 4,500
| Required gasoline
| Manual: 20/25
With the 3.3-liter V6, the Hyundai Santa Fe is swift enough to easily handle most drivers’ power needs. It’s a rather smooth engine, too. Whether it’s accelerating hard when merging onto the highway or just making its way through traffic, the five-speed automatic transmission always seems to be in a sensible gear for conditions. Shifts are smooth, even those that occur under full-throttle acceleration. Both automatics include Hyundai’s Shiftronic clutchless-manual mode that gives the driver control over gear changes.
The Santa Fe’s all-disc brakes have no trouble stopping the SUV, and pedal feel is nice and natural.
The Santa Fe’s very stiff suspension was probably the most surprising aspect of the SUV. It didn’t help that most of my driving was done in the Land of Potholes — a.k.a. Chicago in the spring — where smooth pavement is hard to find. Even so, a little more damping would have been appreciated. The Limited’s 18-inch alloy wheels wear lower-profile tires than the ones mounted on the GLS’ 16-inch wheels, which might offer a little more ride comfort than the 18s. The Santa Fe steers just fine, but don’t expect it to be a source of driving joy.
Other aspects of the Santa Fe’s handling capabilities are certainly praiseworthy. The Santa Fe’s manageable size feels stable on the highway, where it’s surprisingly quiet even on concrete interstates adept at generating cabin noise. Wind noise levels are low, too. Body roll is noticeable through tight corners, but it’s by no means excessive for this class.
The Hyundai Santa Fe’s all-new cabin is a big improvement over its predecessor’s aging design. The Limited trim level had a number of unexpected details, like dual sunglass holders, a woven headliner, thick carpeted floormats, rich bluish-purple lighting and active head restraints for the front seats that adjust forward and back as well as up and down.
That’s not to say it got everything right. While the silver-colored trim pieces in Hyundai’s new Veracruz three-row crossover actually look pretty good, the treatment in the Santa Fe looks a little cheap; black plastic would have been fine instead. The brown faux wood trim is unconvincing, and the turn-signal stalk has a notchy feel. That said, other trim and dashboard plastic has nice graining, and the overall fit and finish is good.
The cabin had a hint of the chemically new-car smell that’s plagued a number of Hyundais we’ve tested, but it wasn’t as bad as others, and it should fade over time. Cloth seats are standard and leather ones are optional. The leather front bucket seats have firm cushioning but offer a comfortable driving position. Even though the Hyundai Santa Fe’s side windows taper upward toward the rear of the cabin, overall visibility from the driver’s seat is good.
The second-row seat offers just enough legroom for tall adults (my knees were touching the back of the front seat) but there’s good foot room and generous headroom. As in the front of the cabin, the second row has extra details like air-conditioning vents in the B-pillars.
Reclining the 60/40-split second-row seats in our five-person Santa Fe meant lifting a handle at the top of the seat. While it works just fine, it’s not as convenient as the low-mounted lever on the side of the seat cushion that some SUVs have. The optional Touring Package includes a 50/50-split third-row seat that increases the Santa Fe’s seat count to seven.
In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset crash test, the Hyundai Santa Fe received a Good overall rating, the best possible score. As of this writing, the new generation hasn’t been tested for side-impact protection by IIHS. All trim levels have standard antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system.
The cargo area features a clean design that maximizes usable space thanks to minimal wheel-well intrusion and generous underfloor storage space in the two-row model. There’s 34.2 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seats, and folding those seats flat creates 78.2 cubic feet of total space. The inclusion of both a strap and handle to close the liftgate is a thoughtful touch. Three-row models have only 10 cubic feet of room behind the third row and lose the larger of the two underfloor storage bins.
The Hyundai Santa Fe can tow up to 2,000 pounds without any special preparation, but pulling the maximum 2,800 (GLS) or 3,500 (SE and Limited) pounds requires a Touring Package that includes a transmission cooler, upgraded radiator and fan, and trailer wiring.
The SUV can be equipped with most of the comfort and entertainment features you might expect, including a power sunroof, a power driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustment, an Infinity premium sound system and rear-seat video. Two notable options — a navigation system and a rearview camera — aren’t offered. Most Santa Fe options are part of packages, which makes it impossible to pick and choose many features individually.
With competitors constantly pushing the level of features, technology and refinement with each redesign, I can see how a product planner for midsize SUVs could have a lot of sleepless nights. After driving the Hyundai Santa Fe, it’s clear that Hyundai cares about getting the small things right in a vehicle, and it got enough things right in this SUV that those planners should be sleeping just fine these days . . . at least for a few months.