2007 Hyundai Santa Fe drops weird styling, adds third row

Friday, December 8, 2006

The Hyundai Santa Fe should be on a Hollywood makeover show because the latest redesign of this crossover sport utility vehicle has improved its appearance markedly.

Weird, angled styling of the first Santa Fe, launched in 2001, and odd, bulbous front fenders on the 2005 vehicle are gone.

The new-for-2007 model looks more upscale than ever, with headlights that remind me of an Audi and a rear end that looks similar to that on a BMW X3. It's also bigger than its predecessors, now comes with V-6s only and offers third-row seating for the first time.

And it's loaded with standard safety equipment, including curtain air bags, stability control and whiplash-resistant front head restraints. It receives its highest safety rating from the U.S. government ever -- five-out-of-five stars in both frontal and side crash tests.

Thankfully, the mid-size Santa Fe remains affordably priced.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including delivery charge, for a base, 2007 Santa Fe GLS is $21,715. This is for a two-wheel drive model with 185-horsepower V-6, manual transmission and seating for five.

With four-speed automatic transmission, the five-passenger GLS starts at $22,915, and an all-wheel drive Santa Fe starts at $23,715 with manual transmission.

The Santa Fe competes mainly with top Japan-branded crossover SUVs, such as the 2007 Toyota RAV4, which starts at $21,495 for a base model with 166-horsepower four cylinder, and the 2007 Honda CR-V, which starts at $21,295 for a base model with 166-horsepower four cylinder.

Neither the RAV4 nor CR-V has a manual transmission.

Indeed, the Santa Fe is rare in offering a five-speed manual transmission, particularly with a V-6, in this class.

When introduced earlier this decade, the Santa Fe was the first crossover SUV sold in the United States by a South Korean automaker. It was based on the platform of the front-wheel drive Hyundai Sonata sedan.

The 2007 Santa Fe is historic, too, because it's the first SUV built in the States by a South Korean company. Hyundai builds the Santa Fe at its first U.S. assembly plant, in Montgomery, Ala.

Engineered for on-road travel rather than rugged off-roading, the Santa Fe still sits up some from the pavement to provide good views over traffic ahead. The test GLS with two-wheel drive rode on base, 16-inch tires and required someone of average height to scramble just a bit to get up onto the seats. Minimum ground clearance is an SUV-like 8.1 inches.

Once inside, passengers find an easy-to-understand arrangement of gauges and controls amid a nicely textured dashboard. The tester had fabric seats that were supportive, even for lengthy drives, and the interior, overall, didn't look or feel cheap.

Two smallish displays in the center of the dashboard -- one for audio, the other showing heater/air conditioner information such as temperature and fan speed -- have a neat, illuminated bluish background.

In uplevel Santa Fes, the four-spoke steering wheel is leather-wrapped, but I wished that the height-adjustable front passenger seat was in all Santa Fes, not just the top Limited model.

I also looked in vain for rear parking assist or rear camera. It's not offered, even as an option, on the Santa Fe. Yet it was difficult for me to see what was behind this 5.7-foot-tall SUV as I backed up.

With a new platform under this second-generation Santa Fe, the ride felt more controlled than before, though still mostly mainstream.

Little road noise emanated from the steel-belted tires, but mild wind noise could be heard at highway speeds. I liked the more responsive feel of the revised power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering, and it's not a big chore to do a U-turn in the Santa Fe. It has a car-like turning circle of 35.8 feet.

But the suspension -- new MacPherson strut configuration in front for better stability and an independent rear suspension using trailing arms -- seemed to be at its limits on rough roads and potholes. There also was an occasional "grunch" sound that came from the front left wheel area when I'd pull into my driveway.

The GLS tester had the base, 2.7-liter V-6 that was in earlier Santa Fes. It has variable valve timing and variable intake now, so horsepower is increased and torque peaks at 183 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

Mated to a four-speed automatic, this powerplant moved the Santa Fe well in city traffic and on the highway, while boosting fuel economy over last year's model with 2.7-liter V-6.

Indeed, this base engine with automatic gets the best mileage rating from the federal government of any 2007 Santa Fe: 21 miles a gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway, up from 19/25 mpg for a comparable 2006 Santa Fe. This for a two-wheel drive model.

There's also a new, top, 3.3-liter V-6 with 242 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque peaking at 6,000 rpm. It comes with five-speed automatic.

The two-person third-row seat is an option adding about $1,300. It is smartly packaged with auxiliary climate control for rearmost passengers.

Hyundai lengthened the Santa Fe some seven inches for 2007, so legroom in this new back seat is 31.3 inches. It's OK for kids and some smaller-sized adults but not exactly roomy. It compares with 30 inches in the third row of the RAV4 and 30.9 inches in Subaru's B9 Tribeca. Honda's CR-V doesn't offer a third row.

Cargo space is bigger, too, in the new Santa Fe. Maximum room with all rear seats folded is 78.2 cubic feet.

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