We feel prescient. Back in April 2002, we took note of Hyundai's surging popularity and felt it demanded closer examination-say, something along the lines of a Four Seasons test.
More recently, our hunch has been borne out. In August, Hyundai announced its second-quarter '03 profits were up a whopping 86 percent over the previous year. Hyundai seems to be making money despite a Korean recession and a U.S. environment of insidious incentives and economic ennui.
Take the success of the Santa Fe, for example. The small SUV, aimed specifically at the North American market, had buyers on waiting lists in its first year (2001) and set an all-time Hyundai record with 11,293 units sold in just one month (March 2003).
But we didn't know all this in April 2002. Back then, the Santa Fe was one of a trio of Hyundais we considered inviting to the Four Seasons dance. Whichever one we selected would be literally the first long-term test car Hyundai had ever loaned to a publication. Hyundai PR scrambled to figure out details of insurance, delivery, and the loan agreement. They felt, one said, "kinda like the girl who's never been asked to the prom before."
The redesigned Tiburon, a sexy, sporty coupe, seemed an obvious match for us, but, as senior editor Joe Lorio said, "we thought it would live in the shadow of our recently arrived Four Seasons Acura RSX, plus it has no headroom." Our other prospect was the XG350 flagship sedan, but, to quote Lorio again, "we had to pass on the XG350 because of stultifying boredom."
Lorio ultimately takes credit for our choice of the Santa Fe, having argued-correctly, as it turned out-that the Santa Fe, although a bit odd-looking, "has a measure of utility that would endear it to staffers, and, moreover, of all Hyundai products, the Santa Fe competes most credibly with the leaders in its segment." Those leaders would be vehicles such as the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape. As it happened, our Four Seasons Escape had just left us, so comparisons were begging to be made. Lorio again: "The Hyundai has an equivalent roomy people package but much nicer interior materials than the Ford. It's also quieter, and the level of standard equipment is higher. Steering and handling aren't quite as crisp, nor is acceleration as strong. Still, it's pretty much a dead heat between the two."
Speaking of dead heats, several things about the Santa Fe would divide the AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE staff right down the middle, with half of our thumbs up and the other half down. (And yes, sometimes that would be a thumb up and a thumb down from the same person on the same issue.)
First came immediate and vociferous disagreement on the subject of the Santa Fe's looks, both outside and inside. The exterior was blasted as "a sci-fi extravaganza" by one logbook commentator. At least three others were disoriented and dismayed by the curvy door panels, which had them doing double takes in their driveways, thinking someone had rammed into the side of the parked vehicle overnight. Several amongus dug the distinctive lines, though, including editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, who proclaimed, "Whether you like the Santa Fe's looks or not (I do), you don't see these coming and going. And when you do, it's pretty striking."
We might point out that by the end of our year with the Santa Fe, some newcomers to the SUV and crossover scene had upped the ante for funkiness a bit. When you consider the out-there designs of the Infiniti FX45, the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, and the Honda Element, the Santa Fe seems downright conservative.
On the inside, the Santa Fe's styling was equally controversial. Logbook comments veered from "plasticky" and "cheap" to "high-quality" and "rich-looking." L.A. bureau chief Michael Jordan sounded sooo Californian when he wrote: "The dash looks as if it were grown hydroponically, made from genetically engineered vegetable matter." And yet he raised the thumb of his other hand to report that "the layout is logical, easy to use, and intuitive."
Indeed, the ergonomic friendliness of the cabin and its controls came in for much, dare we say nearly unanimous, logbook praise. One person wrote that the interior was "utilitarian-and I mean that in a good way." In evaluating features such as switches, center console, cup holders, and power outlets, Lorio summed up: "Hyundai got a lot of little things right that make this car easy to live with every day, much like a Honda."
Comfort, however, was an uncomfortable topic. Many found the seats supportive and the ride supple. Jordan even called it Camry-like. But an equal number described, in technical language, butt burn setting in after two hours, as well as tons of roll, lolling of the body, and excessive pitch during mild acceleration and braking. Many also complained about wind noise.
The Santa Fe's powertrain-a 181-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 mated to a four-speed manu-matic transmission-kept some drivers satisfied but had others wishing for more. Technical editor Don Sherman found power to be "generally smooth, quiet, and comfortable when cruising a bit over the limit," but he called the manual shift mode "worthless." Road test coordinator Tony Quiroga also used both of his thumbs. At first blush, he saw the Santa Fe as "a willing highway partner," but he later complained that "it takes forever to get to its torque peak, and once it does, you've already been passed by a gravel truck."
Our Santa Fe could not be faulted on reliability or durability, and this was one of several subjects on which logbook entries did agree. Over and over, the terms "solid" and "well put together" appear, and several writers noted the absence of rattles, even past the 30,000-mile mark. Service records prove the point: Beyond scheduled maintenance (not free from Hyundai), receipts for a set of $9 wiper blades at 30,000 miles, an $80 wheel alignment, and a warranty-covered repair of a transfer-case leak at 32,700 miles are the sole occupants of our thin file.
The Santa Fe was dependable in rain or snow, on long trips out East or down South, and wherever it went, it lugged our stuff. Here again, and despite the oft-bemoaned fact that the rear seats don't fold completely flat, the Santa Fe scored big. Folks seemed to delight in cataloging their cargo on the pages of the logbook. We find mention of rafting, biking, and camping gear; Thanksgiving foods and the bulky tools for preparing them; and thirty Christmas boxes bound for Connecticut. Our favorite is staffer spouse Emily Phenix's inventory of household goods gleaned from a trip to Philadelphia to clear out her sister's house before a move. Behold the chattels she hauled, all in one trip: one double-sized futon mattress and frame; nine boxes of books; one sewing machine; two Oriental rugs with pads; one leaf blower; one iron birdbath; two end tables; one footstool; two large garbage bags filled with quilts and pillows; five shopping bags holding clothes, gardening tools, more books, and more quilts; five framed wall hangings; one overnight bag; and several casserole dishes, serving plates, and mixing bowls wedged into empty spaces. Phenix wrote: "The ride home was just as easy and secure, despite compromised visibility out the back. The ass hung a little lower (must have been that iron birdbath), but the Santa Fe and I made it back safely."
With the money you save as the owner of a Santa Fe, you can afford to buy even more stuff to cram into it. And that brings us to the final-and perhaps most frequently cited-point of harmony among logbook commentators. Our Santa Fe 4WD GLS with the V-6 rang up at $22,524. Our only options were ABS for $595, roof rack cross rails for $180, and floor mats and mud guards for $155. Everything else on our sturdy steed was standard, including the full-time 4wd, power everything, keyless entry with alarm, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette/CD, automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a kick-butt Korean-style warranty of five years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and ten years/100,000 miles on the powertrain. This makes Hyundai's little spute a terrific value.
Is the Santa Fe perfect? Of course not. But, in the words of one wise contributor, "perfection costs more than $22K." We can all agree on that. What's more, there's no arguing that the Santa Fe is a worthy contender in its popular segment and a fine example of Korea's number one export.