Up Front

Like The Jeffersons from the 1970s TV series, Hyundai is movin' on up, adding features and size to its vehicles while still trying to offer better value than its big-name competitors.

The Korean automaker's new Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle is an example of the trend. The Santa Fe, which first came out in 2000, used to be fairly compact. But for the '07 model year, the company moved it up into the midsize range to compete with models such as the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Hyundai also gave the Santa Fe more refined comfort and driving features that put it into the hot-selling crossover category of vehicles that combine the space and hauling capacity of an SUV with the driving characteristics of a car.

The new Santa Fe measures 184 inches in length, more than half a foot longer than the previous model. It's also slightly taller and wider. And by paying an extra $1,200 or so for the Touring Package, you can add a third row of seats, turning the Santa Fe into a seven-passenger people-hauler.

To my eye, the new Santa Fe looks a lot better than the old one, too. Its lines are cleaner, and the pointier front end, with its sloped grill, looks downright rakish. The new Santa Fe won't turn heads when you pull into the local health club, but it won't embarrass you, either. And the fit and finish on my test model was excellent, with relatively tight and very uniform gaps around the doors and hood.

The 2007 seems to be a hit with consumers. September sales data were not available as of this writing, but for August, 2006, Hyundai reported that sales of Santa Fes were up 25% over the same month in 2005.

The Santa Fe's list of standard features is impressive. No matter which version you choose, it comes with cruise control, power windows, mirrors and doors, electronic stability and traction control, antilock brakes with brake assist and brake force distribution, as well as such standard safety gear as active head restraints, front and side airbags for the driver and front passenger, and side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. You can add all-wheel drive to any version of the vehicle for $2,000.

The Santa Fe comes in three trim levels, the GLS, SE, and the fancy Limited. As a value proposition, the cheaper versions are hard to beat. The base GLS starts at just $21,595 with a manual transmission, which is remarkable considering all the standard equipment it comes with. The main downside is that the GLS has a relatively small 2.7 liter V6 engine that only generates 185 horsepower, considerably less powerful than the 3.3 liter, 242 horsepower V6 that comes in the SE and the Limited.

However, you can easily spend more than $30,000 on a Santa Fe if you trick it out with all the available bells and whistles. The Limited, which comes with such standard niceties as leather seats, wood trim, steering-wheel-mounted controls, a heated driver's seat, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, starts at $28,595 with all-wheel drive. Going with the most expensive option package, which costs $4,750, adds such fancy enhancements as a power sunroof, an upgraded 10-speaker sound system, and a backseat DVD entertainment system with wireless headsets.

You'd almost think you were riding in a Lexus. (The RX 350 starts out with a MSRP of $37,000, however.) Yet, whichever trim and option level you choose, the Santa Fe's price comes in thousands of dollars less than those of comparably equipped rival models.

The Power Information Network -- which, like BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek.com, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP) -- figures the average selling price of the Santa Fe is $24,821, way less than the average of $27,676 for the Highlander and $27,959 for the Pilot, though more than the Ford Escape's $22,784 and $21,727 for the new Jeep Compass that DaimlerChrysler has just brought out.

Behind the Wheel. Unfortunately, the Santa Fe doesn't drive like a Lexus. My test car, a Santa Fe Limited with the larger, 3.3 liter engine, accelerated from 0 to 60 in about eight seconds -- fast enough to be practical for most suburban carpoolers, but hardly exciting. I don't know what the time would have been in a Santa Fe GLS with the small engine, but it would have been painfully slow.

Hyundai says the Santa Fe's driving characteristics were tweaked by U.S. engineers, and it feels like it. In fact, the Santa Fe looks and drives like a vehicle that has been heavily focus-grouped with suburban American drivers. I drove my test Santa Fe quite a bit on highways around New Jersey (hardly the nation's smoothest), and the suspension really smoothes out rough spots in the road.

The ride, however, is soft to the point of being spongy. I had been driving sporty BMWs and Mercedes in the previous 10 days, and the Santa Fe's ride felt pillowy by comparison -- which is probably a good thing if you're using it for commuting and car-pooling. The Hyundai has a softer ride and is noticeably quieter on the highway than the Highlander and Toyota RAV 4.

Hyundai bills the Santa Fe as a crossover: The company likes to brag, for instance, that the Santa Fe's body structure has 59% more rigidity than the Toyota Highlander's, and the Santa Fe does seem to handle better than the Toyota.

But the Santa Fe still feels SUV-like to me. Steering is far from crisp, and there's a fair amount of lean when you push it hard in a curve. If you want a truly sporty ride, this isn't the model for you.

On the upside, Santa Fe's interior is nice for such an inexpensive vehicle. The workmanship of the leather interior in my test vehicle was good, and the wood trim on the dash and doors added a touch of elegance.

The driver's seat was firmer than most, offering good back support without the excess of adjustments you have to make on more expensive vehicles. There is plenty of head, leg, and shoulder space in both the front and rear seats. My test model didn't have the third-seat row, but Hyundai claims it has more leg room than a Honda Pilot and Acura MDX, and matches the leg room in the new Mercedes GL-class SUV.

Buy It or Bag It? If you're trading in a behemoth, gas-guzzling SUV to save on gas, you should definitely consider a midsize SUV like the '07 Santa Fe. It packs a lot of people- and cargo-hauling capacity into a relatively small package.

In the five-passenger configuration, the Santa Fe has 34.2 cubic feet of storage space behind the second row of seats, which is a lot. There's also a handy storage box under the deck of the rear area where you can hide purses, cameras, computers, and other valuables. When you add the third row of seats, the luggage space shrinks to just 10 cubic feet, but there is a roof rack you could use for a stowing luggage in pinch.

The Santa Fe's gas mileage isn't great, but it's a lot better than a jumbo SUV's. With the bigger engine, two-wheel drive, and an automatic transmission, the Santa Fe is rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway. With the smaller engine in a similar configuration, it's rated to get 21 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway.

However, this is a category where you have a huge variety of choices, ranging from the Highlander and Pilot to the smaller Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, to small SUVs from the domestic automakers, including the Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty and Compass, and General Motors' Chevy Equinox. If you need the third row of seats for carpooling, the list starts to diminish. The main rival models I'd suggest considering in that case are the RAV 4 and Highlander, the Pilot, and the Compass.

The Hyundai stacks up well against that competition. It's priced only slightly higher than the RAV 4, yet matches the size of the bigger, more expensive Highlander and Pilot. And it offers features and refinement at a price the domestics are hard-pressed to match. If you're downsizing to save on gas, the Santa Fe now stands out as one of your best alternatives.


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