Ann Arbor It was small, but it was important: sitting there on the tailgate, down beneath the release handle, was the "Santa Fe" badge. And it was crooked.
In the cheap and cheerful, low-buck, small-SUV segment, these kinds of details usually can be overlooked. But for the 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe, they're indicative of a larger problem. The Santa Fe is a perfectly competent SUV/trucklet/crossover, but it's missing those final finishing touches.
That's not to say Hyundai isn't trying. The '07 Santa Fe is a far more polished vehicle than its predecessor--both from an aesthetic standpoint and on the road. Gone are the polarizing lines, replaced by more palatable BMW- (see the X3 in the rear pillar?) and Volkswagen-derived (count the Touareg styling cues) shapes. Wind noise is down, power and ride comfort are up, and the Santa Fe's overall feel is more Real Car than Bargain Basement Special.
Where the Hyundai comes up short is in the details. The Toyota Highlander-aping interior feels more expensive than it is, but it also suffers from fit and overspray issues. The optional 3.3-liter V-6 is strong enough to get the job done, but it's also woefully underutilized by the standard five-speed manu-matic; shifts usually occur before the engine reaches peak power. And although we tested only the front-wheel-drive Santa Fe (four-wheel drive is optional), abundant torque steer and wooden, kickback-prone steering are high on our complaints list.
The Santa Fe may not be a dynamic or quality triumph, but it's still a good value, and that's what most potential buyers will be concerned with. A 185-hp V-6, stability control, side curtain air bags, and Hyundai's ten-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty are all standard. Most of the competition charges more and gives you less. The latest Santa Fe amounts to one more bargain-filled step down the road to refinement--we just wish it was a slightly bigger step.