SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (SNS) –
Styling is a superficial way to judge a
vehicle, and what is contained within all that stylish flair is more
important. But style was just about the only place where the current
Hyundai Santa Fe left me cold, so it with the highest praise that I
can declare the 2007 Santa Fe as a giant styling step forward for the
The current Hyundai Santa Fe was a big sales
success, and carved the Korean automaker an effective niche in the SUV
world. But to me, it also described the shortcomings of the Korean car
industry – a general tendency to offer efficient, well-built bargains,
with strong durability, but lacking in styling logic and that elusive
and subjective quality called refinement.
Hyundai has upgraded all its vehicles, and while
striving for excellence it has attained a top three initial quality
rating from JD Power pollsters in every segment, except for the Santa
Fe. The new model almost certainly assured Hyundai of running the
table, and while it will take a longer test run to evaluate
refinement, the improved styling hits you as soon as the Santa Fe
comes into view.
I don’t mean to impugn current Santa Fe owners. The
vehicles filled every utilitarian purpose, and even took on an
ever-improving look as time passed.
But I took issue with the gratuitous fin-like humps
on the front fenders, and the little contours and swoops that were
added for no apparent purpose to the styling, as if any hump equated
To me, again, the Santa Fe’s styling shortcomings
were amplified when the smaller Tucson came out, completely clean and
sleek in style.
So now it’s the Santa Fe’s turn. Hyundai introduced
the 2007 vehicle to the media in Santa Barbara. Incidentally, the
company denied it is planning a new model called the "Santa Barbara,"
which could have been introduced in Santa Fe. After all, Hyundai also
introduced the Tucson in Portland, but it never followed up with a
"Portland" it could introduce in Tucson.
But it’s a dry heat.
While reinventing its models from the
smallest compact, up through the superb midsize Sonata, and the
superlative full-size Azera, Hyundai has been worthy of credit for
vastly improved style, and for going well beyond the lure its
corporate 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty promises.
While that powertrain warranty did much to raise the
company’s standard since 1998, it is reinforced by Hyundai’s claim
that its warranty costs have dropped 50 percent in the last three
The midsize crossover SUV market is crowded with
outstanding competitors, and Hyundai engineers benchmarked some of the
best of them, such as the Toyota Highlander and RAV4, Honda Pilot, and
domestics such as the Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Explorer and Escape,
while designing the new Santa Fe.
Hyundai wanted to shoot high for Santa Fe
development, so it also closely examined upscale models, such as the
Lexus RX330, Acura MDX, Volvo XC90. It also mentioned comparisons with
the newest and sportiest Acura RDX and Mazda CX-7, although such
claims of sporty similarity with that pair might be more fanciful than
But the target of fulfilling the handling
capabilities of a good midsize sedan, while also providing the
interior room and flexibility for three rows of occupants, clearly is
met by the new Santa Fe, which is 7 inches longer, 1 inch wider, 2
inches taller and with a track stance 2.9 inches wider when compared
to the current vehicle.
The styling, however, remains the most compelling
improvement to me. Built on an entirely new platform, and not on the
new Sonata platform, the Santa Fe front end has a distinct grille
opening, with very slick glass-encased headlights, with an outer lens
that curves around the front corners of the car.
The side slopes gracefully from a "Z" shape at the
front wheelwell on an upward sweep to the rear, without any of those
humps, bulges and needless contours that marred the preceding model.
The taillights are horizontal slashes that fit the
scooped rear window. As the first venture from Hyundai’s new
California design studio, the exterior styling is worth five stars, or
an "A," whatever tops your grading system.
Hyundai is also improving on its engine building.
After years of making good copies of Mitsubishi engines, Hyundai has
now stepped forward to advance its own engine creativity. When
DaimlerChrysler brought out its 2007 Dodge Caliber, it entered a joint
agreement with Mitsubishi and Hyundai on a new, world-class 4-cylinder
The result, being
built by Chrysler in Michigan, was actually designed by Hyundai,
after a major revision when its first attempt was discarded.
That engine is not present in the
Santa Fe, but two new engines are loaded with the latest
technology, including variable valve-timing.
Both the base 2.7 and upgraded 3.3 V6
engines match the previous displacement, but Hyundai officials insist
both are entirely new.
The 2.7 buyers can choose between a 5-speed stick or
an optional 4-speed automatic, while the 3.3 selection gives you a
5-speed Shiftronic automatic, with a Borg-Warner electronic
all-wheel-drive system that can lock in 50-50 front and rear torque.
For power, we won’t quibble, and fuel economy
estimates are improved for both engines. The new 2.7 "Mu" engine has
185 horsepower (an increase of 15) and 183 foot-pounds of torque, with
improved fuel economy estimates of 21 city/26 highway.
The 3.3 "Lambda" engine has 242 horsepower and 226
foot-pounds of torque, an increase of 42 horsepower over the current
engine, plus EPA fuel estimates of 19 city and 24 highway.
The new platform and body combine for a stiff shell
that, overall, is 50 percent stiffer than the current Santa Fe, and,
Hyundai claims, 59 percent stiffer than Toyota’s Highlander. McPherson
strut front suspension with independent rear multilink handles the
Santa Fe well, and all four corners get coil springs and gas-charged
Inside, blue backlighting of the instruments is
impressive, and carries over to color-coding of the cupholders, and
seatbelt buckles. Other interior surfaces are tastefully two-toned in
either grey or beige.
Compared to the current model, the new Santa Fe is
longer and taller, and it has such features as more third-row headroom
than a Lexus RX even though it’s 2.1 inches shorter overall. That
fold-down third row seat also has better legroom than the Highlander,
MDX, or XC90. The second seat tumbles forward and out of the way at a
touch, for easy access to the third row, as well.
John Kravcik, Hyundai’s vice president for product
development, makes a strong case for his company’s objectives. Among
them is the safety of side airbags, but an even bigger emphasis is on
Kravcik cited insurance industry findings that 34
percent of fatalities could be prevented by stability control systems,
which can prevent loss of control and rollovers. That’s 10,000 lives
"Our Tucson was the
first, and for 2006, 53 percent of our vehicles have stability
control," Kravcik said. "For 2007, with the Santa Fe introduction,
73 percent of Hyundais will have stability control." For a
not-too-subtle comparison, Kravcik produced a chart that shows
competitor stability-control percentages as Honda’s 45, Volvo’s
35, and 20 percent for Toyota and General Motors.
On the Santa Fe, such attention to safety is
underscored by standard 4-wheel disc brakes, with 4-channel and
4-sensor antilock and electronic brake distribution.
Perhaps most amazing is that with all the upgrades,
the new Santa Fe has lowered prices at every model. The GLS starts at
$21,595 with the 2.7 and front-wheel drive, the sportier SE starts at
$24,295, and the top Limited model opens at $26,595 including leather
and other premium interior touches.
Built in Hyundai’s Alabama plant – where 50 percent
of all U.S.-sold Hyundais will be built by the end of 2006 – the new
Santa Fe has projections for 90,000 sales in its first year. Forty
percent of them, Kravcik said, will be all-wheel drive, with the other
60 percent front-wheel drive.
Driving hard in the front-wheel-drive Limited model,
my co-driver and I agreed that the Santa Fe looked good, and felt
pretty good, but we didn’t think the handling was as precise and
refined as we had anticipated.
Later we drove an all-wheel-drive version and
thought it was better, but felt tail-heavy, almost as if the same
vehicle suddenly was given a heftier rear axle with more weight but no
Another tandem of journalists gushed praise about
the handling to Hyundai officials during a lunch stop conversation,
and I countered by saying we found the opposite to be true.
However, on the return trip, in a different Limited
with front-wheel drive, we both thought the handling was much more
crisp, much more precise, and more impressive. Later, I found the
lunch-table associate and he said they drove back in the Santa Fe we
had driven up, and he agreed the handling was not as precise.
So we determined that it might be something as
simple as less air pressure in the front tires, or a lack of
consistency in different production vehicles at the introduction.
Regardless, step back and look at the new Santa Fe,
and you can appreciate the giant step forward it represents for
Hyundai. If all that’s lacking now is a tiny, final tweak of
refinement, the new Santa Fe is a lot closer to bargain perfection
than most of its competitors.
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.