Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tight and Tidy Santa Fe Shows Hyundai Progress

If there are any remaining doubts that South Korea’s Hyundai is rapidly maturing into a world-class competitor for major automakers from Japan, the U.S. and Europe, a short drive in the 2007 Santa Fe should remove them.

Hyundai redesigned the Santa Fe for 2007 from stem to stern and the result is a serious alternative to rivals like the Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Equinox and Nissan Frontier on all counts, including quality, equipment and design.

Among the key changes is the Santa Fe’s exterior styling, which has lost the previous generation’s somewhat odd look, replacing it with a smooth, carefully rounded shape that is contemporary and attractive. There are distinct hints of the Highlander, as well as hints of Subaru Outback and Acura MDX here and there.

The other more significant change is the tangible improvement in driving refinement and quality. There is a base 2.7 liter V-6 good for 185 horsepower and a much healthier 242 horsepower 3.3 liter V-6 for the higher priced SE and Limited models. My Limited tester was equipped with the standard five-speed automatic, which is also found in the Hyundai Sonata.

What is arresting about the 2007 Santa Fe is how smooth and quiet is its driveline on the road. The 3.3 liter V-6 provides excellent power in all driving situations, including passing on two-lane roads and crowded suburban parkways.

Equally arresting is the crisp handling exhibited by the new Santa Fe. The unibody platform contributes to the ride quality, which is tight and quiet on all kinds of road surfaces, but the steering feel, especially at turn-in, is what really stands out.

You expect a unibody SUV to handle better than a traditional body-on-frame based model, but the Santa Fe exceeds the typical expectation. This is not to suggest that the Santa Fe is a sports sedan killer, but it is a distinctly more fun and spirited driver than the Highlander.

Inside the Santa Fe is a passenger cabin that combines a well-integrated instrument panel that puts easy-to-read major gauges right in front of the driver and major controls for the environment and entertainment where they should be. Seating for five is comfortable and there is an available third row of seats that are suitable for small children.

The look and feel of interior appointments is of a very high quality and somebody at Hyundai deserves a fat raise for the wonderful light blue hue of the instrumentation at night. Just makes you feel all snug and secure.