As truck and SUV sales tank, it’s easy to see why manufacturers are revising or coming out with new CUVs (Crossover Utility Vehicles.) Targeted primarily at small families, CUVs get better fuel economy than their larger, fuel-hungry siblings, while still boasting more space than a family sedan. Think of them as modern-day station wagons, but without the wood paneling.
But don’t think about today’s crossovers in the same light as the station wagons of yore, these are a far cry from your uncle’s Buick Roadmaster. While they may have the same utility, that’s where the similarities end.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is a shining example of a crossover.
Introduced in 2001 as Hyundai’s first SUV, the Santa Fe was a hit with U.S. consumers, contributing to Hyundai’s success in the United States. In 2007, Hyundai completely redesigned the Santa Fe, which carries over into our 2008 review model. We drove the 2008 Limited AWD Santa Fe – the “top-of-the-line” edition. Although the base GLS model starts at a reasonable $21,150, adding the features you want or need can bring the price into the low $30,000 territory.
The base GLS Santa Fe is a budget option, with the only engine choice being an underpowered 185 horsepower 2.7L V6 with 17/23 (city/hwy) mpg. If you go the GLS route, you have the choice of a 4-speed automatic transmission or 5-speed manual.
Step up into the SE or Limited model and you receive a more powerful 242 horsepower 3.3L V6 engine and a standard 5-speed automatic tranny with no choice for a manual. This engine actually gets 17/24 mpg – slightly better than the smaller 2.7L V6 in the GLS. A curious choice for Hyundai that makes me wonder why the small engine is even available, other than the relatively small price difference.
All models are available with either a front-wheel or all-wheel drivetrain, which has very little effect on fuel economy. The AWD version only costs you an extra $1,700 for each model – a reasonable choice for those who need to occasionally do some light off-road driving or live in an area with lots of snow and ice.
Driving and Usability
The Santa Fe is a pleasurable in-town and long distance driver for small families. With an overall balanced feel, capable engine on the SE and Limited models, and well-designed interior, you won’t mind taking long trips with a few passengers. In my experience though, adult passengers complained of being slightly cramped in the rear seats with limited leg room (but not uncomfortable) and no space for a third rear-seat passenger. That, of course could be solved with the available 3rd row seats, which would leave absolutely no room for any sort of cargo, I would imagine.
Driving is easy. The Santa Fe handles very well, has a tight turning radius, and accelerates quickly with the 3.3L engine in the SE and Limited models. The 5-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic (manual shift mode) is smooth, although slow to shift at times.
The 605 watt 10-speaker stereo system with 6-disc in-dash changer (standard in the Limited trim) sounds phenomenal. GLS and SE models get a 6-speaker sound system with no option to upgrade.
As a driver, most people will have little to no problems. Taller drivers will find that the short, flat bottom cushion provides little support for their thighs. If you’re taller than average, take this into consideration when test driving the Santa Fe by climbing in and out multiple times and testing how comfortable your legs are while traveling with cruise control for extended drives. Also take note that the front seats sit higher than normal, and do not have a vertical adjustment.
The interior is well designed in terms of placement, but the tan interior is very odd-looking, and in my opinion, ugly. The contrast between the charcoal dash and upper door panels and the otherwise tan interior is distracting, and on two distinct occasions, forced me to visit the pub for a black-and-tan out of association.
At night, the gauges and all buttons in the interior glow a pleasant blue which was very modern and inviting. The center console and other controls are logically placed, making it easy for anybody to figure out controls easily. My main complaint about the interior is the cheap, flimsy plastic handles that annoyed me every time I got out of the car. The drink holders securely held a large iced coffee from McDonald’s, but the whole area around the cup holders looked uncharacteristically cheap, including the unconvincing fake wood accents, and the silver plastic stripes which would look much better as brushed aluminum.
Their biggest mistake: No auxiliary input jack for the stereo. This is what allows you to plug in your iPod or other MP3 player and listen to music through the car’s speakers. With almost everybody owning an MP3 player now-a-days, not including this handy little feature is simply neglectful; especially when they come standard on many base-trim compact car models. Plenty of 12-volt accessory outlets and an optional 115-volt power outlet ensure that your cell phones can charge and your kids can stay busy with their portable video games.
Exceptional Safety ratings
High Overall Value
Easy to drive and handles well
Sporty and well designed inside and out
Capable engine on SE and Limited models
High-end models and options start to get pricey. Some options which should be standard on the Limited are missing (aux stereo input, no vertical seat adjustment, auto up/down windows.)
There are some cheap interior materials like the door handles, and some panels have gaps in them which makes you question the assembly quality. There are also some owner complaints about the automatic transmission having problems.
Lastly, some options should be available on more trim levels. For example, you cannot get leather on the GLS or SE models. This means that if you want something as simple as leather seats, you’re required to upgrade to the Limited model, forcing you to get a sunroof, the upgraded stereo, chrome accents, dual-climate, rear spoiler, etc…and pay for it.
Despite the cons listed above, I believe the Santa Fe would be a great choice for many people. If you’re in the market for a small SUV, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not checking out the Santa Fe. Consider the base GLS model only if budget is a very strict concern. The options and amenities are very limited, and the 2.7L engine is underpowered and no more fuel efficient than the 3.3L V6 on the SE and Limited trims.
The SE trim will be a wise choice for those looking for a bargain small SUV, and the Limited comes with plenty of extras that are sure to make you look and feel as though you’re driving something more expensive. No matter what trim level and options you choose, you’ll be getting peace of mind with the incredible safety ratings and second-to-none warranty with the 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe.
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Written by Chris Burdick | Photography by Christine McCown