Overview

The Hyundai Santa Fe blends the best attributes of traditional SUVs with a driving character like that of a mid-sized sedan and offers extensive convenience, safety, and trim features that come standard.

The Santa Fe drives well on and off paved roads with decent handling and good brakes. The 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter V6 engines both deliver good acceleration, particularly in front-wheel-drive models. The four-wheel-drive system available with the 2.7-liter engine works well for light off-road duty. The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system available with the 3.5-liter engine provides good control for bad weather conditions. The 3.5-liter engine comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, an unexpected level of refinement for this class.

Starting at just $21,695, this compact sport utility has gained in features, style and performance with each model year. For 2006, the top trim level is the Limited (replacing the LX), which builds on the base GLS trim's many standard features by adding leather seating surfaces and other upgrades. A new all-black monochromatic color scheme also is available as an option on the Limited. The styling was revised for 2005.

Side-impact air bags are standard. GLS and LX versions come with a 218-watt Monsoon stereo. Santa Fe is backed by Hyundai's long and comprehensive warranty and offers exceptional value.

Model Lineup

The Hyundai Santa Fe is available in two trim levels: GLS and Limited. Both levels come standard with front-wheel drive, but four-wheel drive is available for all models ($1500).

Santa Fe GLS ($21,695) is powered by a 2.7-liter V6 engine, coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual shift control. GLS comes standard with a long list of features, including air conditioning, tinted privacy glass, power windows and door locks, outside power-adjustable heated mirrors, cruise control, keyless entry system with alarm, roof rack side rails, new-for-2005 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, rear intermittent wiper with washer, contrasting bodyside cladding and bumpers, 218-watt Monsoon AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, leather-wrapped steering wheel, carpeted floor mats, a cargo net and retractable cargo cover, and a first aid kit (comprising sunscreen, poison ivy balm, bandages, and a thermal blanket).

GLS is also available with a 3.5-liter V6 engine ($22,395) with five-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual override. The GLS 3.5L 4WD ($23,895) features a more sophisticated four-wheel-drive system with locking viscous differential.

The Limited ($24,395) comes standard with leather upholstery and the 3.5-liter V6 and five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission, all features of the GLS, plus automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, eight-way power driver's seat, an electrochromic rearview mirror, Monsoon stereo with in-dash six-CD changer, automatic headlamps, HomeLink garage door opener, full instrumentation, and chrome door handles.

A power tilt/slide sunroof with sunshade ($850) is optional on all models. Another upgrade includes the sunroof with the new monochromatic black trim ($1,000).

Safety features on all Santa Fe models include dual front airbags and front-seat mounted side airbags. All five seating positions have three-point seatbelts; the front belts include pretensioners and have height-adjustable shoulder harnesses. Convenient anchor points allow child seats to be secured in the back seat. Active safety features designed to help drivers avoid accidents include four-wheel disc brakes, an anti-lock braking system with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, and traction control.

All Hyundais come with one of the best warranty/service plans in the business: 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain, five years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, five years/60,000 miles on corrosion, and 24-hour roadside assistance for five years with unlimited mileage.

Walkaround

The proportions of the Hyundai Santa Fe are nicely balanced. A friendly front end blends smoothly into gentle flanks. The design suggests sufficient robustness for off-road capability. Large wheel arches filled with 16-inch alloy wheels and high-profile 225/70R16 tires reinforce this impression of strength.

Santa Fe was designed to have a softer, more subdued visage than the rugged facade prevalent on other SUVs. Nevertheless, contrasting body cladding and bumpers give it a no-nonsense appearance of being able to cope with underbrush and tree limbs out on the trail.

For 2006, the Santa Fe has blacked-out B- and C-pillars that make for a more unified look when viewed in profile.

The rear liftgate works well. Hinging the liftgate at the top rather than one side eliminates the problem of the door getting in the way during curbside loading or unloading. Opening the rear hatch is a cinch with its pistol-grip latch handle and gas struts. Closing it is just as easy with a pull-down grip mounted inside. When open, the liftgate clears six-footers.

Interior Features

Getting in and out of the Santa Fe is easy, thanks to its big, comfortable door handles and low step-in height. You don't have to climb up to get in or climb down to get out. Rear-seat passengers don't need to turn their feet sideways to clear the doorjamb.

Once in, the interior is friendly to the touch. All controls are big and thick. The shift knob is big. The stereo controls are large, offering easy adjustment. The climate controls are big and easy to operate, though they look and feel like plastic. Bright trim dresses up the inside door releases and parking-brake handle.

The shift knob and shift quadrant are brightened by chrome trim. Illuminated power window switches and a lighted glove box reduce fumbling at night. The driver's cup holder is conveniently located, making this a good vehicle for that morning cappuccino. The digital clock is located in the middle of the dashboard where it's easy to see. Big outside mirrors provide an excellent view rearward.

The front seats are comfortable, though flat, without much side-bolster support. The driver's seat adjusts eight ways to accommodate different body shapes and preferences, though the adjustments are a bit awkward.

The Santa Fe offers roomy rear-seat accommodations, with lots of headroom and legroom. Rear-seat cup holders are molded into the door-mounted map pockets. The rear seatback reclines for better rear-passenger comfort. But the windows in the rear doors don't roll all the way down, a shortcoming shared with other small SUVs.

To fold the rear seats, flip the rear seat bottom forward, remove the headrests from the seat backs, then fold the seat backs down. This provides expansive cargo space. We noticed the latches for the flipping the rear seats forward were made of plastic rather than metal. The cargo floor isn't perfectly flat. But nine tie-down loops are available to keep your gear from shifting around. Sub-floor storage bins provide a place to hide valuables or road gear. A retractable cargo cover and cargo net are standard.

Driving Impressions

The Hyundai Santa Fe offers good handling, particularly in the two-wheel-drive version. The front-drive Santa Fe proved to be more fun and more responsive than the heavier four-wheel-drive models. It doesn't feel top-heavy like some SUVs. The brakes are refreshingly responsive, even before the antilock brakes kick in.

The 2.7-liter V6 produces 170 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. Those are good numbers. EPA-estimated City/Highway fuel economy is 19/25 mpg with front-wheel drive, 18/23 mpg with four-wheel drive.

The 3.5-liter V6 comes paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. It offers lots of throttle response once it's going. It's a little lethargic off the line and the throttle response isn't linear, but the owner should be able to calibrate his or her foot to it. The 3.5-liter engine develops 200 horsepower and 219 pound-feet of torque. EPA-rated City/Highway fuel economy is 17/23 mpg. The front-wheel drive 3.5-liter Santa Fe, equipped with trailer brake, is rated to tow up to 3,300 pounds, enough to handle a small boat trailer.

Santa Fe models equipped with all-wheel drive use one of two different systems, depending on whether the 2.7-liter or 3.5-liter engine supplies the power.

We found the mechanical full-time four-wheel-drive system that's available with the 2.7-liter V6 capable for light off-road driving in Southern California. The system appears to do a good job of sending the torque where it's needed, especially with the traction control (standard). This system is compact and clever and was developed by Austrian four-wheel-drive specialists Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The system combines proven engineering in innovative ways. A planetary differential inside the front transaxle splits the drive torque equally between the front wheels, and 60/40 between the front and rear axles. A viscous coupling between the front and rear axles overrides the differential if the wheels at either end begin to slip. This is a simple, purely mechanical system that's been around for decades, and it works very well with no attention whatever from the driver. All four wheels are driven all the time, with the coupling limiting the difference in speed between the front and rear axles. So if a front wheel starts to spin, torque is immediately re-directed to the rear, and vice versa.

Santa Fe 3.5-liter models come with a new and more sophisticated electronic system that Hyundai calls InterActive Torque Management (ITM). This system still requires no driver input. It drives only the front wheels most of the time, but monitors their traction with a computer, and distributes torque to the rear wheels only when necessary. The main advantage of ITM is optimized fuel economy with all-wheel-drive traction. A 3.5-liter Santa Fe with all-wheel drive gets an EPA rating of 17/23, comparable efficiency to the lighter front-wheel-drive version. The electronic ITM system available with the 3.5-liter V6 was developed by U.S. gearbox veteran Borg-Warner. It relies on a series of wet clutches mounted just ahead of the rear axle. A computer monitors wheel speed, throttle position and steering angle, and engages the clutches when necessary.

Summary

The Hyundai Santa Fe is fun to drive, particularly the V6 front-wheel-drive models. The optional all-mechanical four-wheel-drive system improves traction in slippery conditions, but places a burden on the 2.7-liter V6 engine. The all-wheel-drive system available with the 3.5-liter engine should work better. If you're in the market for a compact SUV, the exceptionally well-equipped Hyundai Santa Fe, with its attractive styling and competent manners, may be just what you're looking for. An all-new Santa Fe is expected for the 2007 model year so watch for deals on the 2006 models.

New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Los Angeles.

Model Line Overview
Base Price (MSRP)
$21,695
Model lineup:
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS 2WD ($21,695); GLS 4WD ($23,195); GLS 3.5L 2WD ($22,395); GLS 3.5L 4WD ($23,895); LX 3.5L 2WD ($24,395); LX 3.5L 4WD ($25,895)
Engines:
170-hp 2.7-liter dohc 24-valve V6; 200-hp 3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Transmissions:
4-speed automatic with Shiftronic override; 5-speed automatic with Shiftronic override
Safety equipment (Standard):
dual front airbags with passenger-presence detection, front side-impact airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, anti-lock braking system, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control
Safety equipment (Optional):
none
Basic warranty:
5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in:
Ulsan, South Korea
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSRP):
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS 3.5L 2WD ($22,395)
Standard equipment:
air conditioning; six-speaker AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo; power door locks, windows and outside mirrors; overhead console; first aid kit; tilt-adjustable steering wheel; front passenger seat under-storage tray; 60/40 split reclining and folding rear seat with folding center armrest; four under-floor cargo area storage areas; leather-wrapped steering wheel; power steering; tachometer; in-glass radio antenna; fog lamps; cargo net with retractable cargo cover, rear intermittent windshield wiper with washer
Options as tested:
none
Destination charge:
595
Gas Guzzler Tax:
N/A
Price as tested (MSRP)
$22,990
Layout:
front-wheel drive
Engine:
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm):
200 @ 5500
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):
219 @ 3500
Transmission:
5-speed automatic with Shiftronic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:
17/23 mpg.
Wheelbase:
103.1 in.
Length/width/height:
177.2/ 72.7/66.0 in.
Track, f/r:
60.7/60.7 in.
Turning circle:
37.1 ft.
Seating capacity:
5
Head/hip/leg room, f:
39.6/54.3/41.6 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r:
39.2/53.9/36.8 in.
Cargo volume:
77.7 cu. ft.
Payload:
N/A
Towing capacity:
3300 lbs.
Suspension F:
independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension R:
independent, multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Ground clearance:
8.1 in.
Curb weight:
3737 lbs.
Tires:
225/70R16
Brakes, f/r:
disc/disc with ABS in.
Fuel capacity:
19.0 gal.
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