Hyundai hits the mark

Friday, October 24, 2003

srobertson

Smooth, quiet-running engine provides an excellent ride

Bad news: The service manager told you that you need a new transmission. It will cost more than $800. You still have six more payments to make on your 4-year-old car.

Good news: You drive a Hyundai that came with a 10-year/100,000 miles powertrain warranty!

Bad news: You can't pronounce Hyundai, let alone spell it.

Good news: Hyundai rhymes with Sunday, and Hyundai is in your computer's spell check!

More good news: Cape's newest auto dealer sells Hyundais, and provided the vehicle for this week's review. When I picked up the pretty 2004 Santa Fe GLS from Wieser Hyundai, conveniently located across the street from Wieser Honda, it was clean as a whistle, full of gas, and well stocked with owner's manual and sales brochures.

Fastest-growing type

The Santa Fe is a compact SUV on a unibody frame and competes with the Mazda Tribute (reviewed last week), Ford Escape, Honda CRV, Toyota Rav4 and Saturn VUE. This is the fastest-growing segment in the auto industry, with practically every auto manufacturer offing its version of what an SUV should be. How does the Korean entry measure up?

Although you sit tall in the Santa Fe, you don't have to climb into it -- you just walk up and sit down. An eight-way manually adjustable seat greets you. Hey! Power seats are expensive! The Santa Fe's sticker price is only $23,664. Glance around the cabin and you'll see smooth curves, rounded edges and tasteful appointments. The cabin feels open and spacious. Based on Hyundai's midsize Sonata sedan platform, it offers more passenger and cargo room than its competitors -- only the Honda CRV offers comparable accommodations. Levers and controls are logically placed. Two cup holders for the front-seaters easily swallowed my oversize coffee mug. Outside, graceful, old-fashioned fender flares distinguish your SUV from all the others. The front end could use a little more chrome, but the tail end is a masterpiece of beauty and function. There is a handy minivan-style liftgate rather than the swing-open door found on other SUVs, and I love the side-mounted door handle that makes opening the gate a simple one-handed affair. Walk up to the Santa Fe from the sidewalk, grab the handle and toss the gate up and out of your way. Or push a hidden button and the liftgate glass can be opened.

How it drives

The GLS is equipped with a smooth and quiet running 2.7 liter V6 engine, mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission. This SUV provides a serene, smooth ride. So smooth in fact, that I drove back and forth twice on the old Mississippi River bridge -- once to test the suspension, and again to verify that the bridge hadn't been resurfaced! The Santa Fe made that miserable old broken driving surface seem almost tolerable.

Out on the highway, the Santa Fe was as quiet as cars costing much more. I found a steep, grassy hill to test the full-time all-wheel-drive system and could not get the SUV stuck. I found a deserted road and simulated some emergency maneuvers and quick stops, and the Santa Fe did not loose its composure. I did wish for more enthusiasm from the Santa Fe's engine compartment. Although the Santa Fe will outrun a Honda CRV or a Toyota Rav4, it is no match for the Tribute. There's simply not enough torque available to launch the Santa Fe smartly from a standing start. Power comes on with a rush at 3,500 rpm and builds quickly up to 6,500 rpm, but this kind of power is more suited to a sports car, not an SUV. But Hyundai has a solution: a 3.5-liter 200-horsepower engine that cranks out 219 pound-foot of torque. This is the engine I'd want because I'm always towing something somewhere.

Satisfied but hungry, I found a little country cafe and ordered the plate lunch special. "What kind of car is that you're driving," an old-timer asked, "Is that a Honda?" I replied, "That's a Hyundai." He smiled and nodded back at me, "That's what I thought … them Hondas is good cars, ain't they?"

Oh well. Besides being confused with their more expensive Japanese competitor, I have one other gripe about the new Santa Fe: the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel are not lighted! How are we supposed to use them in the dark?

I can recommend the Santa Fe to anyone looking for a comfortable vehicle capable of taming the highways or the back roads without breaking the bank. With power windows, power locks, power steering, independent suspension, tilt steering, a 218-watt 6-CD stereo system and a low price, this vehicle may be just what you've been looking for.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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