- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

A decade ago, Hyundai was a nameplate no one took very seriously. This South Korean maker of entry-level cars was notorious for poor durability and lackluster design. What you got was a bargain-basement price and little else. Hyundais were time bombs waiting to let their owners down at the most inopportune moments. It wasn’t would they break down, but when.

How times have changed.

Besides offering the best warranty in the industry, Hyundai now builds vehicles that not only rival the quality of some Japanese brands, but are stylish to boot. No more parking them in the bushes behind the house to hide them from the neighbors. Models like the Tiburon and XG350 are downright handsome.

Although the looks of Hyundai’s foray into the sport utility vehicle market generates some debate, the Santa Fe epitomizes all that Hyundai has come to stand for: plenty of bang for the buck and solid quality. In an SUV comparison in which I was involved a year or so ago, the Santa Fe finished second behind the Ford Escape among six compact SUVs. Not bad.

Available in three trim levels — Base, GLS and LX — the Santa Fe ranges in base price from $17,200 to $23,300 before tacking on the $495 destination charge.

The Base version is equipped with a rather anemic 138-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine.

The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, but a four-speed automatic is offered for an extra $800.

If all you are going to haul around is you, the Base edition is probably fine, but there just isn’t enough gumption there once cargo, or a passenger or two enters the equation

. While the GLS and LX can be either two-wheel or all-wheel drive, the Base model the strictly 2WD.

Moving up to the GLS or LX trades the four-banger for a 173-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6.

This is more engine than most competitors offer and even when mated with the four-speed automatic (the only gearbox available with the V-6), it does a decent job of getting the Santa Fe away from the light.

Acceleration isn’t blistering — 0-60 mph in something over 10 seconds — but it’s adequate to maintain your position in traffic.

The automatic also has driver-shift capability. The 2WD GLS has an Environmental Protection Agency mpg rating of 20 in the city and 26 on the highway.

The $2,200 or so extra charged for the LX over the GLS adds a limited-slip differential, traction control, antilock brakes, leather seating and automatic climate control among other features.

However, the GLS is nicely appointed with upgraded Monsoon audio system, remote keyless entry, antitheft security system and rear wiper/washer.

All Santa Fe models come equipped with tilt steering wheel, cruise control, power windows/door locks, dual heated power outboard mirrors, air conditioning and AM/FM/CD audio system.

The Santa Fe has a pleasant over-the-road ride. Pavement imperfections are felt in the cabin, but overall the ride is smooth.

Some body roll is evident during hard cornering. My test GLS had the $595 antilock brake option.

Inside the cabin is roomy. Although it has a rather high stance, getting up into or down out of the Santa Fe is hassle-free.

Wheel wells that intrude into the rear door openings make rear-seat access a bit on the tight side.

Billing the Santa Fe as being a five-passenger vehicle is only accurate as long as the three rear-seat occupants aren’t all adults.

Headroom is liberal all around and rear-seat legroom is among the most generous in the segment.

With the split-folding rear seat folded down, there is lots of cargo space too.

The front seats are sufficiently supportive. Controls are easy to find and use.

Front side air bags are standard.

The Monsoon stereo upgrade makes for dynamic sound.

When value is a major concern, the Santa Fe shouldn’t be overlooked.

In GLS or XL trim, it can stand up against anything in its segment.

Some may consider its looks a bit quirky, but it certainly won’t be lost in a crowd. A wallflower it’s not.

My GLS carried a base price of $20,099. Adding the antilock brakes, roof rails and destination charge brought the price as tested to $21,369.

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