Twenty years ago, Hyundai cars and SUVs were seen as low-cost, low-quality imports with limited styling and technology. Today, they are some of the most technically advanced and sought after cars in the market. One such vehicle is the 2007-2012 Hyundai Santa Fe crossover SUV (CUV), an all-around family vehicle with attractive styling and some very impressive features. Unfortunately, if you are looking for a spotless repair and reliability history, this may not be the SUV for you. During this time period, the Santa Fe was benefiting from Hyundai's quality improvement efforts. While resale values did rise, they are only average when compared with similar models from Honda and Toyota. However, this may work in buyers' favor, as it allows those on a limited budget to get more car for their money.

Why You Want It

The Santa Fe is a reasonably sized, reasonably priced compact crossover SUV that competes head on with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Edge. With styling that's vaguely Lexus-like in its execution, the Santa Fe's clean exterior and handsome interior give it a more upscale look that belies its rather affordable pricing. The Santa Fe offers a bit more shoulder and hip room than its rivals, but its rear seat isn't as accommodating as the CR-V or RAV4. The Santa Fe is big on safety, with numerous airbag and electronic stability features standard on every trim. And, unlike the CR-V and Equinox, some Santa Fe trims offer a small but still usable third-row seat.

With an eye toward versatility, the Santa Fe offers a choice between 4-cylinder or V6 engines, manual or automatic transmissions, as well as front-wheel or all-wheel drive. And while Hyundai's unbeatable 10-year/100,000-mile warranty doesn't transfer to the new owner, the company does back its used vehicle with a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranty in its place. That's still better than many manufacturers that only offer a 3-year/36,000-mile plan. But the best reason to buy a Santa Fe comes down to bang for the buck. For about the same price as a entry- to mid-level used CR-V, you probably can get into a nice Santa Fe Limited with far more features.

Notable Features & Options

The Santa Fe comes in three trims: GLS, SE and Limited. The GLS features such notable standard items as air conditioning, cruise control, power functions for the windows, mirrors and locks, keyless entry with remote, 16-inch wheels and a 5-speed manual transmission (6-speed after 2010). The SE trim is a bit sportier, adding a larger V6 engine, 5-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission (6-speed after 2010), 18-in alloy wheels, fog lights, windshield wiper deicer, steering wheel audio controls, heated side mirrors and driver seat lumbar support. The luxurious Limited adds leather seating, heated front seats, power driver seat with power lumbar control, automatic climate control, power sunroof, 605-watt 10-speaker Infinity audio and a body colored hatch spoiler. All Santa Fe trims feature 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic traction and stability control and front side-impact and full-length side curtain airbags

Popular options are bundled into packages. The GLS can add an automatic transmission, heated side mirrors, steering wheel audio controls, automatic headlamps, premium cloth seats and driver lumbar. The SE can be equipped with a power sunroof, power driver's seat, a third-row seat and third-row auxiliary climate controls. A Trailer Prep Package adds a transmission cooler, upgraded radiator, upgraded cooling fans and pre-wiring, allowing the Santa Fe to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Finally, the Limited trim can be fitted with a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, LG navigation radio and a 115-volt outlet.

Model Milestones

2008: Limited models receive a 605-watt Infinity Logic 7 audio system and a power sunroof. An LG navigation radio is added to the Limited's option sheet.

2009: All radios now have USB/iPod integration, while the SE Touring package adds a power driver's seat and Homelink.

2010: In the GLS, a new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine offers more power and better fuel economy than the V6 it replaces. The SE and Limited also get a new 3.5-liter engine with more horsepower and better fuel economy than the outgoing 3.3-liter unit. Both engines are paired with a new 6-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission. Bluetooth steering wheel controls are standard on all models, while the Limited offers a new touchscreen navigation system with rearview camera.

2011: No major changes.

2012: A minor grille update, some new colors and the addition of Downhill Brake Control round out the changes for the final year before an all-new Santa Fe debuts.

Engines and Performance

A Santa Fe built between 2007 and 2009 offers two V6 engine choices. The GLS is powered by a 2.7-liter V6 rated at 185 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque. When paired with the 5-speed manual, fuel economy for this engine is 17 miles per gallon city and 24 mpg highway. AWD models earn a slightly lower rating of 17/23 mpg. Moving to the 4-speed automatic raises fuel economy to 18/24 mpg and 17/23 mpg with AWD. SE and Limited trims have a 3.3-liter V6 good for 242 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque. A 5-speed Shiftronic automatic with manual shift mode is the only transmission. Fuel economy figures for this engine are 17/24 mpg with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive (AWD).

The 2010 and newer GLS models are powered by a new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 175 hp and 169 lb-ft of torque. With the new 6-speed manual, fuel economy figures are 19/26 mpg. The 6-speed Shiftronic automatic get slightly better numbers at 20/ 28 mpg, while the AWD version achieves 21/27 mpg. SE and Limited trims gain a new 3.5-liter V6 rated at 276 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy figures for the front drive and AWD models are identical, rated as 20/26 mpg.

Early Santa Fe models with the 2.7-liter V6 feel a bit sluggish, but the larger 3.3-liter engine pulls just fine, though it feels a bit course and unrefined. We much prefer the 3.5-liter engine to all others, finding it delivers an excellent combination of power, smoothness and fuel efficiency. The 2.4-liter 4-cylinder is actually quite perky and enjoyable -- especially with the manual transmission -- but we don't suspect you'll find many of those on the used car lot. For daily driving with one or two aboard, the 4-cylinder engine is just fine. But with a full complement of cargo and kids, the V6 is really the best choice for the Santa Fe. As for the Santa Fe's driving characteristics, we'd say they are right in line with the most compact crossovers. The steering is nicely weighted but a bit vague. Body roll and lean are minimal in all but the most aggressive driving scenarios. Ride comfort is on par with many midsize sedans.

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued the following recalls for the 2007-12 Hyundai Santa Fe:

2007: Recalls were issued for a possibly defective stop lamp switch that could fail, causing the brake lights to not illuminate, and for a baffle in the fuel tank that doesn't meet federal standards.

2007-08: Recalls were issued for a possible defect that allows the clock spring contact assembly for the driver's airbag to become damaged over time, possibly causing the airbag not to deploy, and for improper information on the tire load labels.

2007-09: A recall was issued for possible problems relating the calibration of the front passenger seat airbag sensor. Improper calibration may result in the airbag failing to deploy when a small child is occupying the seat.

2009-11: A recall was issued for possible defects in the trailer wiring harness that could lead to fire.

2010: A recall was issued for models equipped with the 2.4-liter engine 6-speed automatic transmission for excessive wear of the intermediate shaft, leading to damage or failure of the transmission.

2011: A recall was issued for a possible problem involving improperly machined rear brake calipers, leading to possible brake fluid loss due to leaks.

Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and, if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.

As for safety, the 2007-2012 Hyundai Santa Fe scores well in the government's older crash test studies, scoring five out of five stars in the front end and side impact crash tests. In the more stringent standards, established after 2011, the Santa Fe scores four out of five stars in the roof strength roll-over tests. In tests conducted by the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Santa Fe earns top marks, scoring "Good" in the off-set front, side impact and roof strength tests.

When new, the Santa Fe rolled off the showroom floor with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper vehicle warranty. Unfortunately, the powertrain warranty is not transferable to the second owner and is reduced to 5 years/60,000 miles -- the same as the vehicle warranty. However, if you choose to purchase your Hyundai through a Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) dealer, you will receive the full 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty starting from the date the car entered into service, plus the remainder of the 5-year/60,000-mile vehicle warranty. Buying a CPO vehicle makes a lot of sense, especially a late model, low-mileage car. The Hyundai CPO program includes a 150-point inspection in which any part or system that fails is repaired or replaced. It also comes with a 10-year/unlimited mileage road-side assistance plan, including first-day car rental reimbursement for covered repairs, a free CARFAX history report and 90 days of complimentary satellite radio and Hyundai BlueLink service for cars so equipped.

Word on the Web

There is no way to sugarcoat the shellacking Consumer Reports gave the 2007-2009 Santa Fe. From engine to transmission problems, electrical, body, paint and audio, the Santa Fe scores average to below average in almost every category. With the exception of the recalled 6-speed transmission, ratings improve somewhat in 2010. Miraculously, the 2011-12 models do a complete turnaround, scoring well above average in most categories. Hyundai underwent a vigorous quality control campaign during these years and the later model Santa Fe seems to bear witness to its success. At Hyundaiforums.com, owner sentiments seem to echo CR's findings. We found more than a few complaints about the 2010 model's transmission. We also found various postings online about jammed CD players, engine hesitation, transmission surges and failure, squeaks and rattles and broken sun visors. The beauty of the Santa Fe is that most or all of these problems were repaired under warranty, another good reason to get either a late model or CPO vehicle.

Competitive Set

Toyota RAV4: The RAV4 has a slightly larger rear seat than the Santa Fe, plus far better resale and reliability ratings. But the RAV4 holds a premium in the used car world, and most of the best features are reserved for high-end models.

Honda CR-V: Like the RAV4, the CR-V bests the Santa Fe in resale and reliability. But the CR-V doesn't offer a third-row seat option or the choice of a manual transmission or V6 engine. It also lacks a high-end audio system and rear-seat DVD player.

Chevrolet Equinox: The Equinox is on par with the Santa Fe in terms of resale and repair history, and it too can be had with either a 4- or 6-cylinder engine. But the Equinox doesn't offer a third-row seat, nor can it match the Santa Fe's warranty.

Auto Trader Recommendations

Considering how much content you get for the money, it makes sense to look for a well-equipped SE or Limited model. We'd go with the 2010 or newer simply because the engine choices and reliability record are so much better than the earlier models. However, if you get a smoking deal on a low-mileage 2007-09 model, it might be worth it if you can get it as a CPO vehicle with the extended warranty. Because the CPO powertrain warranty basically reestablishes the original factory plan, we'd say it's well worth the slightly higher price you'd pay versus a private party transaction.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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