Several of Hyundai's latest vehicles have hit the sweet spot in various segments, and the Korean carmaker is hoping to repeat its recent successes in the white-hot crossover category with the refreshed 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe. To that end, the Santa Fe features a revamped engine lineup paired with a new six-speed automatic transmission to yield more power and better fuel economy.
Technology such as Bluetooth with voice activation is also now standard, while the exterior receives a minor makeover, including a new grille and taillights. While none of these changes make the Santa Fe a must-have in the midsize crossover segment, they do incrementally inch the Santa Fe closer to that position.
The Santa Fe will be cross-shopped against competitors like the Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. In terms of horsepower, it eclipses them all (with the V6-equipped RAV4 a close second) but still sits in the sweet spot in terms of fuel-efficiency. It further sweetens the deal with desirable features and superior fit and finish.
The 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe SE FWD is powered by a 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 that produces 248 pound-feet of torque, a nice bump above the 242 hp and 226 lb-ft of the previous 3.3-liter V6, and with better fuel economy (20/26 vs. 17/24).
Despite its V6 advantage, we found the Santa Fe lacking a bit in bottom-end torque, but its acceleration is on par with the RAV4 V6 and quicker than other similarly sized crossovers. The six-speed automatic transmission is relatively smooth overall but a little slow to downshift. The Shiftronic manual-shift mode, which is standard on the SE trim and a feature that most competitors lack, is handy for gear-braking on grades and for passing.
The brakes have a soft and vague feel, but with a stopping distance of 126 feet from 60 mph, they are on par for this vehicle segment. Likewise, steering is appropriately accurate for a small SUV, if a tad artificial-feeling, and the Santa Fe SE exhibits more body roll than we would like to see in a midsize CUV.
Still, with its V6 power, manual-shift mode and 18-inch wheels and tires, the Santa Fe is more fun to drive than its duller crossover counterparts, such as the Equinox and Ford Escape. But the Santa Fe SE's larger tires also cause the ride to be a bit rough over bumpy pavement.
The 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe provides a high perch for the driver and up to four passengers. (For the 2010 model refresh, Hyundai jettisoned the optional third-row seat, which is no great loss due to its small size and difficult access.) The SE comes standard with a power driver seat and lumbar support, and the steering wheel has tilt-and-telescoping ability, but we never felt entirely comfortable no matter how often we tweaked the controls.
The leather seats with cloth inserts are plush and impressive for this vehicle class, as are the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Ingress and egress are easy, and isolation from wind and road noise is solid. In fact, driving the Santa Fe SE along an ocean road on a day with a gale warning in effect surprisingly didn't create a din of wind noise in the interior.
Where the 2010 Santa Fe SE excels is in technology, ergonomics and attention to detail. It comes with USB and auxiliary audio jacks (an iPod cable, premium audio and a navigation system are optional). Bluetooth hands-free phone capability with voice activation is also standard, and voice activation is near flawless in executing spoken commands to call a number or contact in a phone's address book.
The dash controls for audio, Bluetooth/voice activation and climate control systems are straightforward and intuitive to use, as are the steering-wheel controls, which are logically aligned in two strips on either side. Storage space and layout is also ample and well thought out, with smart touches like dual sunglasses holders in the overhead console and illuminated cupholders.
Attention to detail extends to the large grab handle used for opening the tailgate and a textured top section of the rear bumper to help prevent paint damage when moving cargo in and out. The rear cargo bay of the Santa Fe SE is generously sized and can swallow much more with the 60/40-split seats folded down. We even fit a 9-foot-plus surfboard inside the Santa Fe, although it protruded into the front passenger seat area and could have also easily fit on the standard roof rack cross rails. Visibility was average for a crossover of this size, with the rear-seat headrests slightly blocking our line of sight out the back of the vehicle.
Design/Fit and Finish
Hyundai played it safe with the exterior facade of the 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe SE. It doesn't have the strong design of, say, the Mazda CX-7 or Nissan Murano. And while it isn't as boxy bland as the Ford Escape, it also doesn't have the distinct identity of the Chevy Equinox or Honda CR-V.
The interior stands apart, however. The wood-grain trim and silver accents are tasteful, while the plastic of the dash and other interior bits are of high quality and grain. The tactile feel of the controls is also excellent and interior and exterior panel fitment on our test car was above average.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe SE sits midpack in the crossover segment and offers the advantages of crossovers costing both less and more. It's a good value considering it balances V6 power with typical fuel economy for its class and also offers upscale tech, leather seating surfaces and superior fit and finish. The Santa Fe hits the sweet spot in the small crossover category, and will certainly give the competition a run for its money and consumers a great value for theirs.