The Santa Fe represents everything Hyundai has done right in the U.S. market over that last five years. The Korean companys timing seems to be on the mark every time and their products remain stylish, well built and attractively priced. Hyundai launched the Santa Fe as the mid-size SUV market was just beginning to blossom. At that time, it offered a powerful V6 engine, side-impact airbags and a permanent all-wheel-drive option.
Barely three years old, the Santa Fe has already garnered a number of awards and continues to be one of Hyundai's hottest selling vehicles. For 2004, the Santa Fe continues to provide the kind of power, safety and low price that Hyundai customers have come to expect while adding even more content than was offered on the 2003 model.
People seem to flock to the Santa Fe for a number of reasons, one of which is its rather unorthodox styling. Where most SUVs are big and blocky, the Santa Fe favors sweeping lines and crisply sculpted sides to make itself stand apart from the crowd; the look is punctuated by a wide-mouthed front grille and thick, protective side cladding that surrounds the lower doors and bumpers. Though it does sit up higher than a conventional car, the Santa Fe actually shares its floor plan with the popular Sonata sedan. This design has allowed the engineers to build in more impact-absorbing crumple zones as well as attach an independent rear suspension; the latter is a major factor in contributing to the Santa Fe's dynamic stability and handling performance.
Hyundai gives you three trims from which to choose: base, GLS and LX. To call the entry-level Santa Fe a "base" model seems a bit absurd to us, considering that among its standard equipment list you'll find such thoughtful items as air conditioning, four-wheel disc brakes, power windows with backlit buttons, AM/FM stereo with CD, tilt wheel, front side-impact airbags, 16-inch alloy wheels, dual heated power mirrors and rear window defroster. GLS models get all that plus the V6 engine, fog lights, cruise control, keyless entry, rear wiper/washer, the Monsoon sound system and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. LX models come fully loaded including heated leather seats, automatic temperature control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, ABS with traction control, a power sunroof and an in-dash 6-disc CD changer. All Santa Fe models come standard with Hyundai stellar 10-year/100,000 mile warranty.
If the Santa Fe's impressive list of standard equipment seems too good to be true, just wait until you get behind the wheel. You'll find a roomy, comfortable vehicle with excellent headroom and exceptionally notable rear-seat legroom. The convenient rear hatch swings up high enough to stand beneath, making loading and unloading a breeze. You'll likely find the upright seating position to be a favorable one and the well-appointed instrument panel easy to read and operate. On the road, the Santa Fe will impress you both with its soft ride and with its sturdy cornering abilities, though you may find that the spring and shock rates are tuned a bit too soft, allowing the Santa Fe to bob a bit when it encounters dips and bumps. The steering feels taut and the brake pedal has a nice firm feel that makes it easy to control a panic stop on vehicles not equipped with ABS.
The base Santa Fe is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower and comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. Though not a terribly strong performer, the four-cylinder should be acceptable in the Santa Fe so long as your primary transportation needs occur mostly on paved roads and without a fully-loaded passenger compartment.
If you haul a full crew or plan to do any off-roading, the better choice in engines would be the newly introduced 3.5-liter V6. Standard in the LX and optional on the GLS, the 200 horsepower V6 gives the Santa Fe the pep it needs to move confidently in and out of traffic. Hyundais new five-speed automatic works flawlessly and features a manual shift mode that is most useful when climbing steep hills or wading through heavy snow; the new transmission also helps increase highway fuel economy.
Base Santa Fe's are pulled about by their front wheels, but on the GLS and LX trims, you can order Hyundai's all-new ITM (Interactive Torque Management) electronic four-wheel drive system. Designed by Borg-Warner, the new system automatically senses when the front wheels begin to slip and diverts torque to the rear wheels. Once the front wheels regain their grip, power is restored and the Santa Fe reverts to front-wheel-drive.
Overall, it's hard to argue with the Santa Fe's long list of standard amenities, powerful V6 engine and overall usefulness as a viable alternative to the family station wagon. When you consider that even fully loaded, a Santa Fe still lists for under $26,500and that includes the amazing Hyundai warrantyit becomes nearly impossible to think of a reason not to buy.