Crossovers are the family vehicles of choice for many new-car buyers in these days of record fuel prices, and one of the best is the Hyundai Santa Fe, which entered its second generation just last year.
In the makeover, the Santa Fe was upgraded to a midsize model from its previous compact size.
With the redesign, the Santa Fe now has a third-row seat and room for seven people, which puts it up against the segment-leading Toyota Highlander and other popular midsize crossovers with three rows, including the Honda Pilot.
It earns the "crossover" designation because of its unibody construction that combines the body and frame in one piece, giving the Santa Fe the ride and handling characteristics of a sedan rather than a truck.
The new model replaced a compact Santa Fe that already had been a hit. It was well-built, affordable, stylish and easy on gas.
Hyundai didn't abandon the compact segment, though, as it also offers the Tucson, introduced for 2005, which actually is in the same segment as the previous generation of the Santa Fe; the Santa Fe was just slightly larger and better-equipped, giving it a higher price.
This newest Santa Fe is 184.1 inches long, 7 inches longer than its predecessor. It's also an inch wider and almost 2 inches taller. Its track is 2.9 inches wider, which makes it wider than the tracks of the Highlander and Explorer.
Even though it is larger, the new Santa Fe starts at $21,150 (plus $695 freight) for the base GLS model with front-wheel drive and five-passenger seating. To get the third row, you have to move up to the midlevel SE model, which begins at $24,150.
Or you can go all out and choose the top-of-the-line Limited model, which has a base price of $28,100 with front-wheel drive or, as in the case of our test vehicle, $29,600 with all-wheel-drive.
With a few extras, our tester's sticker price went up to $32,165 (with freight), but it's really not necessary to spend that much to have a nice Santa Fe. The Santa Fe was the first production vehicle created by Hyundai's new U.S. design center in Irvine, Calif. The center's mission, Hyundai said, was to design a vehicle "to meet American consumers' demand for safety, style, sophistication and performance."
Benchmark for the new Santa Fe wasn't the Highlander and Pilot; instead, it was vehicles such as the Lexus RX and Acura MDX, which are the premium versions of the Highlander and Pilot, and the Volvo XC90.
The Santa Fe's safety features include electronic stability control, anti-whiplash active head restraints, and side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats.
The side-curtain air bags are standard on all models. Some of the Santa Fe's competitors offer this feature as an option.
Electronic stability control also is standard on all versions. This system is designed to help maintain vehicle stability in extreme maneuvers to help prevent rollovers. This is a feature that is appearing as standard equipment on many of the newer vehicles and can help lower death rates from SUV accidents substantially.
The 2.7-liter V-6 engine is rated at 185 horsepower and 183 foot-pounds of torque, which should be adequate for most people's everyday needs.
For a lot more zip, though, with nearly the same fuel economy, the 3.3-liter V-6 in the uplevel models, including our Limited, is the best choice. It cranks out 242 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of torque.
Those engines represent increases of 15 horsepower from the 2.7-liter engine in the 2006 model, and 42 horsepower from the 3.5-liter V-6 that was optional in the '06 -- with better fuel economy for the larger engine despite the huge spike in power.
EPA ratings are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway for the base GLS model with the 2.7 engine and 17 city/24 highway for the models with the 3.3-liter.
The 2.7-liter model comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission, while a four-speed automatic is an additional $1,300.
With the 3.3-liter engine, a five-speed automatic is standard. Both of the automatics come with the Shiftronic feature, which allows the driver to shift manually (without having to use a clutch).
Two-wheel drive is standard, but the electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system is optional. It automatically sends power to the wheels offering the best traction. The driver also can activate a new center differential lock that splits power 50-50 between the front and rear axles regardless of which wheels have the best traction. This can help move the vehicle better in some off-road situations.
Don't count on doing any serious off-road driving, however. The all-wheel-drive system does not have low-range gearing.
The Santa Fe's new exterior design has a more aggressive look that includes a new grille and headlights. The body is more aerodynamic, with a lower coefficient of drag. That's the measure of wind resistance; and the lower the resistance, the better a vehicle's fuel economy.
Although the vehicle is shorter than the Lexus RX, there is more head, leg and shoulder room in the first two rows of seats. The RX doesn't offer a third row of seating.
In the Santa Fe, the third-row seat has a 50/50 split and can be folded flat to increase cargo space. The middle seats, with a 60/40 split, can be folded, too, creating a cargo area of 78.2 cubic feet. With the second and third rows of seats in place, though, cargo space is just 10 cubic feet.
Three trim levels are offered: the base GLS, midlevel SE and Limited. But even the GLS is well-equipped, except for the absence of the third seat, and has more standard equipment for thousands of dollars less than a Highlander.
GLS models come with 16-inch alloy wheels, 112-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with six speakers, rocker panel moldings, heated power side mirrors, power windows and door locks with remote, roof rack with sliding cross rails, tire-pressure monitoring system, air conditioning, and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
Options include the four-speed automatic transmission and a Premium Package ($2,100), which adds a power tilt/slide glass sunroof and heated front seats, among other extras.
Moving up to the SE model brings the 3.3-liter engine and five-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, front fog lights and steering wheel audio controls.
To get the third seat and rear air conditioning, buyers must choose the SE Touring Package ($1,500).
The SE Premium Package ($1,850) adds a power driver's seat with lumbar support, a power tilt/slide glass sunroof, heated front seats and universal garage/gate opener.
Limited models come with everything found on the SE, plus leather seats, heated front seats, power driver's seat with lumbar support, dual zone automatic climate control with outside temperature display, and the universal garage/gate opener, among other things.
Special exterior touches on the Limited include a chrome grille and exterior door handles, and a body-color rear spoiler. A power tilt/slide glass sunroof is standard.
The Limited also comes with a 605-watt Infinity audio system with 10 speakers, 115-volt power outlet and power front passenger seat.
Our vehicle came with the optional navigation system ($1,750), as well as carpeted floor mats ($120).
2008 Hyundai Santa FeThe package: Midsize, five-door, five- or seven-passenger, V-6 powered, front- or all-wheel-drive crossover utility.
Negatives: Can get pricey in the top model with all the options.
Length: 184.1 inches.
Curb weight: 3,727-4,022 pounds.
Engines: 2.7-liter or 3.3-liter V-6.
Transmissions: Five-speed manual, four- or five-speed automatic.
Power/torque: 185 HP/183 foot-pounds (2.7-liter); 242 HP/226 foot-pounds (3.3-liter).
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Electronic stability control: Standard.
Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side-curtain, all rows.
Cargo volume: 10 cubic feet (third seat in place); 34.2 cubic feet (third seat absent or folded).
Towing capacity: Up to 3,500 pounds.
Fuel capacity/type: 19.8 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city/24 (2.7-liter); 17/24 (3.3-liter).
Major competitors: Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Nissan Murano, Dodge Journey.
Base price range: $21,150-$29,600 plus $695 freight.
Price as tested: $32,165 (Limited all-wheel drive, including freight and options).
On the Road rating: 8.8 (of a possible 10).
Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.
G. Chambers Williams
San Antonio Express-News