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NEW TRUCK REVIEW
2007 Santa Fe accelerates Hyundai's move upward
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

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 Korean automaker.

 

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 style.

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 years.

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 accurate.

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 engine project.

  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 dampers.

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 stability control.

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 per year.

"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 alteration.

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 cars@jwgilbert.com.