The 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe Is King of the Middle of the Road

Par for the course, Hyundai tucked a 7/8ths-scale 3rd row in the new Santa Fe, and a folding mechanism to form a flat load floor when the kiddies aren’t along for the ride. Adding the 7-passenger configuration was a no-brainer–what isn’t so average is the actual amount of room at the back of this bus. Our plucky correspondent packed his 5’10” frame (and each of his 190 pounds) in there pretty painlessly, considering the Fe’s paltry 15’ footprint. Barely a brush of the head or a knock on the knee was felt, meaning this cute-ute actually can haul a full complement of adults, should you ever need to shuttle 7 of them. Kids, of course, are easily ensconced.

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5-passenger models are also available, sharing the same snug dimensions–it’s grown 7” in length (2” short of a Lexus RX at 184”), plus a couple in height. Especially significant is the Santa Fe’s width (now 2 inches wider then the last model’s 73”). Compared to the competition, the Hyundai has more room across than all but the Honda Pilot. Consequently, it claims capaciousness that creams its counterparts; even the Toyota Highlander feels constricted in comparison (passenger room for the 5/7-seat Santa Fe measures 108.3/142.3”–markedly superior to the Toyota’s 104.7/133.9”).

Still, despite the generous proportions, the Santa Fe is anything but corpulent. At 3,727 pounds, it weighs a full 500 lbs. less than the Pilot. A more apt match would be Mazda’s CX-7–one of the sportiest SUVs available.

Power output is another arena in which the Santa Fe parallels the mighty Mazda, provided Hyundai’s 242-horse, up-level 3.3-liter powerplant is on hand. At 266 lb.-ft., torque, too, is plentiful. A 5-speed automatic is tied to this all-new “Lambda” motor; offering manu-matic shifting. Hyundai hasn’t released 0-to-60 mph figures for the ‘Fe, but we feel about 8 seconds would be a fairly accurate estimate.

While we generally applaud consumer choice, we might’ve crossed the GLS model off our lists out of hand. On paper, the power penalty its 2.7-liter base engine extracts would be a deal-breaker–185 is the figure for both horsepower and torque. In the interest of fair assessment, however, we snagged one of these more miserly models for a moment, and found it astoundingly ample. Again, we couldn’t clock exact times, but we’d venture to guess that the smaller six sacrifices less than a second to 60 mph. Even the 4-speed slushbox that standard ‘stripper’ Santa Fes are saddled with seemed surprisingly sufficient. Arguably, the all-aluminum architecture of this engine, added to the 24-valve DOHC air-management arrangement and Multi-Point fuel-injection assembly, affect a sprightlier attitude. We regularly extol the virtues of free-revving and instantaneous response–almost as much as we covet sheer horsepower supremacy. And what’s more, Hyundai offers an actual manual transmission with the junior engine–although no stick-shift was on hand to audition, Hyundai assures us that a 5-speed is officially on the option sheet, probably a product of the Santa Fe’s “world-car” status. In the current climate, where the citizenry craves convenience over stimulation, we commend any car that caters to the shift-it-yourself constituency–an SUV that comes with manual control is an almost unheard-of commodity.

Otherwise, only SE and Limited models benefit from the bigger engine, although all Santa Fe V6s boast the ULEV emissions badge. Fuel economy is midpack, at 21/26 city/highway for the “Mu” motor and 19/24 with .6 more liters of displacement.

An all-wheel-drive system is available to assuage off-road fantasies. Borg-Warner builds it, with a locking differential set at a 50-50 torque split. Not to ruin anyone’s reverie, but rugged runs over the truly tough terrain aren’t in the cards here. The suspension isn’t tuned for rigorous off-roading; the independent Macpherson struts up front and multilink setup out back are aimed at on-road aptitude. Anti-roll bars measuring 26mm/15mm front/rear, plus 235/60 rubber riding on 18” rims, also add to on-asphalt agility, as does a tight 35.8’ turning circle. Hyundai didn’t bother with the kind of concessions that end up diminishing road manners to improve prowess in more strenuous situations. The Santa Fe thus differentiates itself from similar-sized SUVs from brands like Jeep–which can certainly climb bigger boulders and ford deeper streams, but at the expense of handling and ride in more pedestrian conditions. Adroit enough and well-equipped for treks through inclement weather and traversing light trails, the Santa Fe is plenty hale and hearty to tackle the hairiest hikes Hyundai owners are likely to ever encounter.

On the road, it all adds up to a quietly competent SUV. We spent the majority of our test time in a top-line Limited model, with the larger V6 and all the options, and found it to be every bit as spry, swift, stable, and self-assured as any SUV in the segment–and more so than some. Still, similar size and strength notwithstanding, it didn’t seem as sporty as the Mazda CX-7, although the speeds we maintained through the twisties attested to an impressively adept demeanor. Hustling this hauler around the hairpins, we were compelled to heed the principles of physics–the Santa Fe’s suspension is well-sorted, but couldn’t completely compensate for an SUV’s intrinsic high center of gravity. Ample grip from the upgraded 235/60R18 tires gave great confidence; standard ESC guaranteed that the shiny side stayed up, even had the almost-absolute absence of tire howl goaded us past the point of prudence. The Santa Fe’s ride proved pleasantly smooth–sufficient for shuttling even the most sensitive sextenagerian to and from the nursing home–and at speed it was silent enough to soothe the most stressed-out commuters. On the sporty side, the assist afforded by the power-steering system was slight; we appreciated the heft, although some might be averse to the added effort.

A motif emerged–sporty yet sensible; the Santa Fe seemed a ‘middle-of-the-road’ machine. Mate the motor’s muscularity with the mild-mannered driving dynamics, and the posh appointments with the affordable pricetag–the theme was evident. It even carried over to the motor’s timbre; the 3.3L has a distinct growl that hints at its might, but is muted enough to appease the mainstream. (The 2.7L affects less of a rumble and more of a whine.) Come to think of it, the whole midsize-SUV segment is major middle-of-the-road territory–balancing family needs and personal preferences; spacious enough to appease demands for versatility yet small and efficient enough to defer to economic or environmental concerns. As an all-new crossover SUV that covers all the bases–in a class characterized by compromise–the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe strikes a happy medium betwixt driving enjoyment and everyday practicality.

Further, the Santa Fe ranks as one of the most practical SUVs in the segment–praise due partly to the Koreans’ progress in the ergonomics department. Reclining rear seats make for more comfortable excursions; fold back the front buckets to form a bed-like lounge area for naps. Roof rack rails are standard, and are 1-finger adjustable. 5-seat models hide a covered bin under the rear load floor, using the space the back bench would take up to provide secure, enclosed stowage. Folding side mirrors are fitted to foil any delinquent determined to sideswipe your Santa Fe, while a 115-volt AC power is provided for pulling on-road laptop duty.

Cargo room is spacious for an SUV of this size. 34.2 cubic feet are free for your family’s paraphernalia with the rearmost row folded; flatten the second row also, and 79.3’ emerge. As ever, configuring the cabin for maximum passenger transport trades away the bulk of your stowage space–there’s only 10’ with all 3 rows in place.

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Throughout the cabin, thoughtful touches multiply the comfort and convenience quotient. Ambient blue lighting–matching the instrument illumination–even rings the cupholders up front. Drivers of all models also enjoy a tilt/telescope wheel; their rear passengers get climate control. Cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors (heated!), keyless entry, and a clever windshield-wiper deicing system are also standard on the base GLS. Mid-level SE models get automatic headlights, fog lights, and a trip computer, as well as the upgraded wheel/tire package. Limited trim adds a power seat, upholstered in leather and heated; Homelink; dual-zone automatic climate control; and a slew of upgraded body trim, including a body-colored rear spoiler. (A sunroof, like the 3rd row, is a standalone option.)

Audio offerings include a 252-watt, 7-speaker system; an Infinity 10-speaker setup with 605 watts sits atop the option list. Sound quality is creditable from even the mid-level unit, and a 6-disc CD changer with mp3 capability assures near-endless entertainment. (An auxiliary input for iPods and such is in the works; expect it shortly, along with XM Satellite Radio.)

We’ve come to expect great values from Hyundai, since the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty signaled the re-emergence of the brand. The 2007 Santa Fe carries on the tradition; similarly-equipped RAV4s, Pilots and Highlanders run roughly 5-20 percent more than the Hyundai, which starts at $21,595. Prices even reflect favorably against the 2006 Santa Fe–other than the better-equipped Limited, which tops out around $27,000, the new model is actually less expensive.

Better in every way, well-protected and well-sorted, and cheaper than its predecessors as well as the competition–what’s not to like?

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