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a slightly Machiavellian view of Hyundai's decision to name its newest vehicle
Santa Fe. After all, Santa Fe was a thriving economic center of, first, Spanish
Louisiana and later Mexico. By means of the Santa Fe Trail, however, low-balling
U.S. traders from Missouri so persistently supplanted Spanish/Mexican commercial
interests that Santa Fe residents addicted to yanqui-priced goods
surrendered willingly to U.S. forces during the opening gambits of the Mexican
War. Korea's Hyundai, I propose, is equally hopeful to
insinuate its all-new SUV into the hearts and garages of U.S. auto buyers who are themselves now virtually addicted to the sport-utility premise.
It's a crowded poker game, but Santa Fe is holding a decent hand. Hyundai's top card is this ace: Santa Fe is a full featured, car-derived sport/ute with a starting price of just $16,499. Many smaller SUVs--notably the popular new Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins
--start at several hundreds, even thousands of dollars more. Combine Santa Fe's sticker with its industry-leading powertrain warranty of 10 years/100,000 miles and its bumper-to-bumper warranty of five years/60,000 miles, and Hyundai's sport-ute is in a good position to call a few bluffs.
The least expensive of Hyundai's eight different Santa Fe versions is a front-wheel-drive GL model with a 150-horsepower in-line four and a five-speed manual transmission. For $800 more, you can get a four-speed automatic; and $1000 yet again gets you the 2.7-liter V-6 making 181 horsepower.
A four-wheel-drive powertrain is available only with the V-6 models (for a $1,500 premium). The model designation GLS refers to an option package costing $1,000 over the GL V6 base price. The super-deluxe
Santa Fe LX V6 includes $2,200 worth of options. My tester was the GLS with front-wheel-drive and a heavy-duty towing package ($295). As tested, the vehicle cost $19,759. Creature comforts like CD stereo, air conditioning, remote/keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, fog lamps, and blackout privacy glass are all included with the GLS package. The only important option missing from my tester was the combination
anti-lock brake/traction control system ($595). A vehicle this well equipped for under $20,000 raises the stakes in a very bold way.
The Santa Fe may be a serious bargain, but a serious off-roader it is not. Even though I only drove the front-wheel-drive model, I can tell you that a 7.4-inch ground clearance is pretty down to earth in the worst sort of way, and no addition of 4WD can alter that fact. (By
comparison, Volvo's citified V70 CrossCountry wagon boasts 7.5 inches of clearance, for crying out loud.) Plus, the Santa Fe's chassis is tuned for city-slicker tastes. Its sporty four-wheel-independent suspension is tuned for a smooth if not exactly soft ride. Unfortunately, in serious off-road conditions, all that cushy springing tends to jam wheel travel right up to the bump stops.
That might as well be expected from a vehicle based on Hyundai's top-o'-the-line Sonata sedan. Obviously, Santa Fe has been conceived as an urban cowboy from the outset. So what? Virtually every other SUV on the market has devolved into a cozy street/utility vehicle as
well. Meanwhile, serious, rugged, off-roading has become about as commonplace as dueling with flintlock pistols.
With 78 cubic feet of total cargo space, and 29 cubes with the rear seat in use, the five-passenger Santa Fe actually comes close to rivaling the haulage capacity of seven-seaters like Acura's MDX and the Mercury Mountaineer/Ford Explorer, which cost nearly twice as
much. Unlike the aforementioned models, with their hard-edged, knife-creased exterior styling, Santa Fe is rounded, voluptuous, even vaguely bulbous. It is, in fact, a truck rendition of Hyundai's overtly odd-looking Tiburon sport coupe. I can assure you, however,
that fleshy, Rubenesque styling is infinitely more appropriate to a truck than to a sports car.
I have every expectation that the 181 horsepower rating of the Santa Fe's V-6 will inspire wails of woe from most auto writers and macho enthusiasts. I beg to buck this trend. Yes, there are more potent V-6 engines in similarly sized and even some smaller SUVs. No, the Santa Fe is not seriously underpowered. I found its performance about town very lively, and the twin-cam engine is fast-revving with a generously long powerband. Shiftronic clutchless manual shifting, moreover, adds an additional measure of sport to a routine commute.
On the freeway, I constantly caught myself slipping up to "bear-bait" speeds without even noticing; the engine pulls effortlessly, and the ride is reassuringly stable. What I didn't do, however, is race the thing. Anyone who requires a 200-plus horsepower SUV to do that is, in my humble estimation, embarrassingly--even pathologically--naive.
But I can say I'm disappointed with Santa Fe's fuel economy, rated at just 19 miles per gallon/city, 26/highway. If indeed one settles for less horsepower than the competition, then better fuel mileage ought
to compensate. In the Santa Fe it doesn't. At a time when $2-per-gallon gas is a distinct possibility, this SUV, which otherwise competes so boldly in price and warranty, is simply lost in the crowd when it comes to fuel efficiency.
I admire Hyundai just the same for buckling its spurs, cocking its hat, and looking the American SUV buyer square in the eye. If it takes a Wild West image and rock-bottom pricing to sell SUVs, Hyundai
is biting the bullet and doing just that. With SUV shoppers stampeding ever onward in a headlong rush, one of their preferred trails, I predict, will soon lead to Santa Fe.
2001 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS
Base price: $19,759
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 181 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 177.3 x 72.7 x 66 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 3494 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 19/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, optional ABS/traction control
Major standard equipment: Four-wheel independent suspension & disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD audio system, remote entry, power windows/locks/mirrors, fog lamps
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles