Despite the recent public backlash against sport-utility vehicles, you can still buy one legally in California.

And if you want to feel good about your purchase, you might want to look at a Hyundai Santa Fe -- the no-guilt SUV. My test Santa Fe was the 2003 GLS, a $20,099 front-wheel driver only a small step above the base GL, which starts at $17,549. In a world chock-full of $30,000-and-up SUVs, the Santa Fe is a genuine bargain.

The tested GLS was not dressed up; the only option was an $85 rear cargo tray. What was included for the five-seater's 20-grand and change was noteworthy:

Standard features included steel-belted radial tires, a four-speed automatic gearbox that also enables the driver to do clutchless manual shifts, four-wheel disc brakes, a 218-watt Monsoon sound system (with AM/FM radio, cassette and compact disc player), a roof rack with rails, heated power mirrors and a first-aid kit.

Had someone read me just that list for an SUV and asked me to peg the price, I would have guessed $25,000, minimum.

So the Santa Fe must have a cheap dog of an engine that enables Hyundai to make some money, right? Hardly.

The GLS was equipped with a 2.7-liter V-6, a compact power package that churns out a robust 173 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 182 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. Acceleration from a standing start was excellent. The GLS took on inclines with relatively little strain.

SUV critics have been slamming them for their immense size and ability to crush compact passenger cars. The Santa Fe is not in that crowd.

It's a manageable package of about 3,500 pounds and 177.2 inches in length. Though no garage-filler, it still has a good ground clearance of 7.4 inches -- more than enough room for most off-road ventures. Cargo-carrying capability is a fairly roomy 77.7 cubic feet when the rear seat is down.

Styling, done at Hyundai's California Design Center in Fountain Valley, is pleasant -- slightly sporty but with enough light-truck features to brand it a true SUV -- as opposed to a "what-is-it crossover."

And that other anti-SUV gripe, horrible gas mileage, does not apply to the Santa Fe. The six-cylinder power plant is rated at 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the open road -- very midsize sedan-like.


Wait, here's the best part: exceptional warranty coverage. The standard warranty package is five years/60,000 miles on the vehicle, 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain, five years/100,000 miles on anti-perforation and five years/unlimited mileage for roadside assistance.

Given everything, the Santa Fe is arguably the best SUV value on the market.

What's not to like? Well, it's not a Mercedes-Benz, nor does it handle like one. At the top of a steep Sierra Nevada incline, the 2.7-liter engine will lose some juice. And although the engine is plenty strong e nough to whip through traffic on twisty roads, you're going to feel some body sway above 40 mph.

Getting the complete off-road package is going to cost you more. A 2003 Santa Fe LX 4WD model starts at $24,999 -- edging into that sticker territory inhabited by other makers of sport-utes.

So if you want to go that LX 4WD route, do so.

But if you are seeking a no-nonsense SUV that is nicely equipped, moderately priced, sensibly sized, adequately powered, politically correct, capable of handling most urban/rural duties and backed by a warranty that will probably pay for any trouble you encounter, the Santa Fe GLS should be added to your test-drive list.

There's certainly no guilt in either testing or buying one.

Hyundai Santa Fe at a glance

Make/model: 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS.

Vehicle type: Five-seat, four-door, front-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

Base price: $20,099 (as tested, $20,184).

EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city; 26 mpg highway.

Transmission: Electronic four-speed automatic with clutchless manual-shifting feature.

Steering: Power rack and pinion.

Brakes: Power, vented discs on front; power, solid discs on rear.

Suspension type: Independent with MacPherson struts on front; independent with trailing arms on rear (coil springs and gas-filled hydraulic shocks front and rear).

Maximum cargo volume: 77.7 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 17.2 gallons.

Base curb weight: 3,549 pounds.

Front track: 60.7 inches.

Rear track: 60.7 inches.

Height: 66 inches.

Length: 177.2 inches.

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches.

Width: 72.7 inches.

Ground clearance: 7.4 inches.

Tires: Standard P225/70R16 steel-belted radials.

Maximum towing capacity: 2,700 pounds (with specified trailoring equipment).

Port of entry: Los Angeles.