An attractive package with looks to match.
by Tom Lankard
Base Price (MSRP) $16,499
As Tested (MSRP) $20,329
The questioner, an airport shuttle driver, had just spied the 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe parked outside the hotel's entrance. "That's a Hyundai?" He was favorably impressed. Even without an up-close-and-personal examination, he allowed as how he'd take a close look at the Santa Fe if he were in shopping mode.
We were in Southern California, where automotive observation has achieved post-graduate degree status. On a lengthy drive the following day, everyday folk echoed the shuttle driver's reaction. From blue-haired teens to elderly blue hairs, the response was the same: "What's that?" "A Hyundai." Finnbar O'Neill, president and chief executive officer of Hyundai Motor America, said the Santa Fe recorded a "very high gawk factor" whenever he drove one on Los Angeles freeways. These initial reactions give hope for Hyundai officials as the company launches its first sport-utility in the world's toughest automotive market.
While we didn't gawk, we liked what we saw. And for the most part, we liked how the Santa Fe drove, both on and off paved roads.
The 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe comes in three versions. The base GL model ($16,499), the GLS ($19,299) and the LX ($20,499).
A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is available on the base GL model fitted with a five-speed manual transmission with front-wheel drive. A four-speed automatic is optional for $800.
All other models come with a 2.7-liter V6 with a four-speed automatic. They range from $18,299 to $21,999. All V6 models are available with front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.
ABS is optional across the line.
Standard features include cloth seating, power-assisted steering, power door locks and windows, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers, illuminated glove box, air conditioning, carpeted passenger and cargo areas, three power outlets (two front, one rear), digital clock in overhead console, rear seat heating and air conditioning ducts, eight-way manually adjustable driver's seat, and reclining rear seatbacks.
In addition to ABS, optional on the base GL are a six-speaker AM/FM/CD and AM/FM/CD tape cassette stereo, power door locks and heated outside rearview mirrors, rear limited slip differential and first aid kit (comprising sunscreen, poison ivy balm, bandages and thermal blanket).
With GLS you get four-wheel disc brakes, the four-speed "Shiftronic" automatic transmission with manual shift override, fog lamps, the six-speaker AM/FM/CD and cassette stereo, power door locks and heated outside mirrors, first aid kit, under-cargo floor storage bin and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
GLS options include full-time four-wheel drive, traction control, limited slip differential and power driver's seat.
No surprise, but the LX is the plush entry, although to get the best you still have to check a few option boxes. Traction control, for instance, and ABS. Also Hyundai's full-time 4WD system. And automatic climate control. And the power-adjustable driver's seat and heated front seats. But you do get leather seating surfaces (which aren't offered even as options on the GL or GLS), auto-dimming inside rear view mirror and limited slip rear axle (when your order the optional full-time 4WD) for no extra cost.
All Hyundais boast one of the best warranty/service coverages in the business - powertrain: 10-years/100,000 miles; bumper-to-bumper: five-years/60,000 miles; corrosion: five-years/60,000 miles; and 24-hour roadside assistance: five-years/unlimited mileage.
Eschewing the demi-brutish, jutting-lower-jaw facade that's become so prevalent with today's quasi-off-roaders (see the Ford Escape, for instance), the Santa Fe proffers a visage that's softer, somewhat subdued, but still forceful. Hyundai has never designed a vehicle like this before, so it wasn't constrained with a sport-utility image, or that of an XUV for cross-over utility vehicle, an HUV for hybrid utility vehicle, or even a Cute-Ute.
Overall, Santa Fe's proportions are nicely balanced. The friendly front end blends smoothly into gentle flanks that suggest sufficient robustness to promise an off-road capability beyond that which most owners will expect or explore. Large wheel arches reinforce this robustness. The glasshouse is adequately sized. Like many smaller SUVs, the rear door side windows leave about four inches of glass showing when rolled all the way down.
The rear liftgate avoids the mistake made by the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, whose right-side hinged tailgates force U.S. buyers to walk around the tailgate to load and unload from the curbside. The nifty, pistol-grip latch handle makes opening the gas-strutted liftgate a one-handed cinch, while the inside-mounted pull-down grip make closing it easy. When open, the liftgate easily clears six-footers.
Being new to the genre, Hyundai didn't have any mistakes to undo. And it hasn't made any.
Our first impression is that it's easy getting in, thanks to a low step-in height. You don't have to climb up to get in or climb down to get out. And rear seat passengers don't need to turn their feet sideways to clear the door jamb.
Once in, the interior is mostly touch-friendly. Human-hand sized controls for the stereo and climate control system offer easy adjustment. Climate controls felt and looked plasticky, though.
Seats are quite comfortable. Space-wise, the Santa Fe is competitive with or betters the competition. Only the Ford Escape beats the Santa Fe by more than a half-inch in front-seat headroom or hiproom.
The Santa Fe's rear-seat headroom equals or beats all but the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Santa Fe legroom equals or beats the competition. Rear-seat passengers get head restraints and three-point seatbelts only on the outer positions, none for the center position. The shoulder belt anchor loops are fixed, not adjustable. The restraining loops for rear-seat belt buckles don't seem very durable. And the rear seatback recline adjusters are fiercely awkward, consisting of fabric loops extending from the outer edge of the seatbacks; the easiest way to adjust them is to climb out and yank them until the seatback is where you think you want it. Rear-seat cupholders are molded into the door-mounted map pockets.
Cargo-wise, the Ford Escape is the only competitor significantly bettering the Santa Fe. For hauling cargo-type stuff, the Santa Fe is a nirvana of tie-down loops, boasting as many as nine, depending on the seating configuration. The optional, subfloor storage bins in the cargo area are a thoughtful feature, provided your stored items fit the pre-configured bins. In other words, nothing too tall, wide or thick.
We first drove a four-wheel-drive LX model, which came with a 2.7-liter V6 that produces 185 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque. That's good power when compared against the V6-powered Ford Escape and Suzuki Grand Vitara. Indeed, only the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute, which come with a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, offer more power in this class. The Santa Fe offers much better acceleration than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 with their four-cylinder engines. Still, we were a bit disappointed. Responsiveness was a bit sluggish. Downshifts were prompt and smooth, but somewhat less than fulfilling. Acceleration from a stoplight was, well, OK. We don't doubt the rated towing capacity, but we suspect it will be less than exhilarating.
Handling, though, was excellent with minimal top-heaviness in corners. As expected, the Santa Fe understeers in hard cornering (meaning it wants to go straight while you want it to turn), but nothing beyond what everyday drivers will expect. The brakes are refreshingly responsive, even before the ABS steps in.
We also drove a GLS without the optional full-time four-wheel drive. The GLS proved to be much, much more fun and more responsive, no doubt the benefit of subtracting the 331 pounds the 4WD system adds. EPA estimated fuel economy is 19/26 mpg city/highway for a front-wheel-drive GLS and 19/23 for a four-wheel-drive LX.
Then it came time to navigating Hyundai's selected, off-road venue, a sometime-motorcycle circuit in Southern California. A couple of sections were challenging, but the Santa Fe's full-time 4WD system was more than up to the test, even without the traction control system. Though details from Hyundai about its full-time four-wheel-drive system are lacking, the system worked fine on the off-road course Hyundai offered us. It's a dynamic, viscous system. Though the torque split wasn't available, we jacked up the back tires and stood on the accelerator and it raced across the room. So the system appears to do a good job of sending the torque where it's needed: to the tires with the most grip.
Hyundai's first sport-utility looks good. It's fun to drive, particularly the front-wheel-drive GLS. The optional four-wheel-drive system improves traction in slippery conditions, but places a burden on the V6 engine.
Overall, the new Hyundai Santa Fe is worth looking at for buyers considering the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Honda CR-V, Suzuki Grand Vitara or Toyota RAV4.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.