For just a minute, forget about slalom speeds and skid pad Gs. Forget about track testing and torque, forget about overhead cams and final-drive ratios and focus on what an SUV like the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe is really supposed to deliver. Its true test is in how it handles the rigors of weekly shopping trips, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, daily commutes and the occasional trip to Grandma's house.
Focus on those real-world chores and it's easy to see the new 2007 Santa Fe as an all-star. By making the Santa Fe wider, longer and more powerful than before, Hyundai has created a suburban multitasker that does almost everything so well it blends into the background of everyday life — and we don't mean that in a bad way.
Despite its price and warranty advantage, the original Santa Fe felt a little low-tech and a notch or two below competing Honda and Toyota SUVs. Now the Santa Fe's interior has vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V looking somewhat low-buck by comparison.
Although the new Santa Fe is offered in three trim levels, the interior of the top-of-the-line Santa Fe Limited like our two-wheel-drive test car will really have you doing a double-take once inside. With its convincing wood grain trim combined with faux aluminum trim it has an obvious "near luxury" feel.
Other touches also add to the notion that the '07 Santa Fe has been bumped up a few notches. For example, the dash lights and gauges glow in blue similar to some VW products, and the rear seats have their own heating and A/C vents are thoughtfully placed near the doors rather than through the back of the center console.
The Limited's other amenities include comfortable leather seats with a power driver seat, comprehensive steering wheel-mounted audio controls, dual-zone climate controls and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. An optional 10-speaker Infinity sound system and rear-seat DVD player are available as options and by spring of 2007 a navigation system will be offered. XM radio becomes standard on all Hyundai vehicles by the fall of 2006. All of these are features we wouldn't dare expect on a Hyundai just four years ago.
But the Santa Fe's ladder-climbing isn't limited to its interior; the exterior also looks more contemporary. View the SUV from the rear and there's a noticeable resemblance to such midsize crossover SUVs as the VW Touareg. From the side there's a little Lexus RX and Mazda CX-7, and from the front more than a few editors noticed the slight sneer of an Infiniti FX combined with the gracefulness of an Acura MDX.
It might sound like a hodgepodge but the new Hyundai Santa Fe, which is about the same size as a Toyota Highlander, is clean-looking, with smooth lines and a crisp, contemporary feel. Gone is the distinct Korean look of the old Santa Fe with its funky angles and busy bodywork. Projector-style headlights and a prominent grille up front further drive the point home.
Mechanically, the 2007 Santa Fe is all-new as well. Buyers can choose from two- or four-wheel-drive versions and there are now two available engines: both V6s. The base engine, standard on the Santa Fe GLS, is a 2.7-liter V6 that was available in the previous Santa Fe but now offers the added benefit of variable valve timing. Output is now rated at 185 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque.
Replacing the previous Santa Fe's cast-iron 3.5-liter V6 is an all-aluminum 3.3-liter V6 we first saw in the redesigned Sonata — it's standard on the Limited and SE trim levels. Despite its slightly smaller displacement, this newer motor is actually more powerful. At 242 hp, the Santa Fe's 3.3-liter V6 delivers 42 more ponies than the old 3.5-liter.
That engine doesn't make the SUV terribly quick. We recorded a 0-60 time of just 8.7 seconds. The Mazda CX-7 is slightly quicker and the V6-powered Toyota RAV4 is a second and a half quicker. However, the Santa Fe still has plenty of power for passing and on the open road our Santa Fe Limited never felt weak or underpowered. The engine is also remarkably smooth. Even under hard acceleration, it doesn't sound harsh or overworked. Instead, there's a low growl that's almost reassuring when merging into freeway traffic.
While a manual transmission is available on the GLS, all Santa Fe Limiteds and SEs get a five-speed automatic transmission. With the automatic, upshifts are precise without being hard and the transmission isn't prone to hunting or confusion even in demanding Los Angeles traffic. Sometimes downshifts are too slow to come, but there's a shift-it-yourself feature for impatient drivers. Sadly, upshifts happen well before redline whether you tap the shift lever or not.
Unlike more aggressive sports crossover SUVs like the Infiniti FX, the Santa Fe isn't intended to be a sharp-handling, hard-edged SUV. Hyundai describes the 2007 Santa Fe's handling as "engaging" and we think that's about right. The tradeoff is that the ride can be very busy on the highway, but we attribute that more to the Limited's standard 18-inch wheels and tires than an excessively hard suspension. The GLS comes with 16-inch wheels and the extra tire sidewall smoothes out the ride considerably.
Around town the brake pedal feels about right, but can get soft during hard braking. At the track, the Santa Fe exhibited plenty of nosedive and took a long 142 feet to come to a stop from 60 mph. We attribute the vehicle's below-average braking performance primarily to its hefty curb weight — it tips the scales at just over 3,800 pounds.
But the suspension does a good job of minimizing body roll and managing that nearly two-ton curb weight. The Santa Fe is easy to control and handling is predictable. Our tester slipped through the slalom cones at 61.3 mph. Its handling is just sharp enough to be entertaining, but the Santa Fe's suspension is really tuned to get the family comfortably across town to Chick-Fil-A.
And what about that all-important kid-carrying quotient? Hyundai has been doing its homework. For 2007, the Santa Fe offers an optional third-row seat — a virtual must-have for this increasingly competitive segment. The new Mitsubishi Outlander has one, as does the Toyota RAV4.
Apples to apples
As good as the new Hyundai Santa Fe is, it still needs to be competitively priced, and it is. The base GLS starts at just over $22,000 and our two-wheel-drive Limited with only a few options carried a sticker price of $26,780 (with destination). A smaller RAV4 Limited with a more powerful V6 and similar equipment costs about $1,000 more, while a similarly sized seven-passenger Toyota Highlander with comparable equipment can be $5,000 more.
Ultimately the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe is the perfect suburban companion for those making more trips to Stride Rite rather than up a twisty mountain pass. The Santa Fe may not be the fastest or sportiest SUV around but it does meet or exceed its competitors on virtually every front and does so with an upscale feel.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
System Score: 7.0
Components: The standard stereo is a single-CD player with MP3 capability. It has six speakers and is good for 112 watts. There's no auxiliary jack and XM radio isn't yet available. However, in the near future all Hyundai cars and trucks will be offered XM-ready with a three-month subscription at no cost. There's also an optional stereo available but our Santa Fe did not have it. The optional system is an Infinity stereo with 10 speakers, a six-disc CD changer and an external amplifier. It comes in one of three option packages, all of which include the rear-seat DVD player. The least expensive package that includes the upgraded stereo is $3,500.
Performance: As it sits, the sound quality is very good. The bass is deep enough and the highs are sufficiently brilliant. Of course audiophiles will want the upgraded Infinity sound system.
The standard unit's weak spot is lack of separation but the six-speaker system sounds better than the Honda CR-V's stereo and better than the RAV4's standard audio system. The Santa Fe's standard stereo does play MP3s but the display screen is too small to effectively view MP3 files and folders. However, that display is clear and easy to read, and doesn't wash out in the sun.
One thing we really like is how Hyundai has revised the steering wheel-mounted controls. The buttons now have a higher-quality look and feel, plus Hyundai has added more comprehensive functions like the ability to tune a radio station or jump tracks back or forward on a CD. Other Hyundais with steering wheel controls include only volume and a "mute" adjustment.
Best Feature: Ease of use.
Worst Feature: Lack of sound separation.
Conclusion: The system that comes as standard equipment in the Santa Fe Limited offers acceptable sound quality and logical controls. The optional Infinity audio system is the best pick for those who want a little something extra in terms of sound quality and deep bass. — Brian Moody
Managing Editor Donna DeRosa says:
This is an attractive-looking SUV but it sure has grown. The new Santa Fe is about seven inches longer than the previous model. I liked the stiffness of the ride. It sort of reminded me of the way the BMW X3's suspension feels.
Don't get too excited. I said sort of, in the way you feel every bump in the road. I don't mind that, but some others might. But that Hyundai stiffness carries over into the interior of this truck. Seats, steering wheel, dash, all elements of the interior felt hard. The driver seat was very firm and pressed hard into my back. I tried to adjust the lumbar support with the power controls on the side of the seat, but it made little difference. Despite their rigidity, the seats also didn't feel very supportive. They didn't grip around the hips and shoulders to keep me secure while going over bumps and around corners.
Even the steering wheel felt hard. While it was sufficiently grippy, it was uncomfortable in my hands after awhile. No give. Dash elements and side panels were also hard to the touch. They were unyielding when I pressed my finger into them, although I thought the faux wood trim looked rather nice.
From the outside, the Santa Fe is a nice-looking SUV. Some interior comforts would help if Hyundai wants to keep up with its rather stiff competition.
Executive Editor Scott Oldham says:
Hyundais are better than they were. Sure, there's no arguing with that. But I'm getting a little tired of my colleagues bestowing such radical praise on the Korean carmaker. Don't misunderstand, Hyundai has made great strides. Its engineers deserve credit for taking their products to the next level, and the company's bean counters should be lauded for allowing it to happen.
But let's get real, people. There still isn't a Hyundai around that's as well built or as rewarding to drive as the Toyota, the Honda or the Mazda it competes with. Not the Elantra, not the Sonata and not this Santa Fe.
Oh, sure, it's much improved over the old Santa Fe, but that's like saying she's got nicer feet than Dick Butkus. Hyundai still has a way to go when it comes to seat comfort, seating position, engine power, transmission refinement, braking ability and ride quality, all problems I have with the Santa Fe. As much as I like the way this SUV looks, both inside and out, its depth of engineering and level of refinement remain a few clicks behind the big boys.