Thursday, August 28, 2003

A midyear upgrade brings more than just a face lift to one of the sleeper hits of the SUV market.

The 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe, which has helped lead this Korean manufacturer’s brand renaissance since its introduction to the U.S. market in 2001, has been upgraded with an available beefy new V-6 engine, a new five-speed automatic transmission, upgraded four-wheel drive and a host of interior improvements.

Santa Fe has played a key role in the recent renaissance that turned Hyundai’s reputation as an unreliable compact car company into that of a name-brand automaker worth a second look. Transformed by a revolutionary 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, introduced in 1998, the company’s credibility has emerged from the 1990s fully intact and stronger than ever.

As evidence of its increased strength, Hyundai posts these numbers: three out of the past four years, the company had led the industry in terms of its percentage of growth. Overall, sales were up 8 percent for this year as of April, while the industry as a whole lags at minus 4 percent.

The Santa Fe SUV lineup, only 3 years old, is responsible for nearly 30 percent of Hyundai’s growing sales. In fact, this light truck is the fourth leading seller among all import brands — from sedans to super-sized sport utes. Hyundai’s goal is to sell more than 100,000 Santa Fes, and if this midyear upgrade is any indication, it’s a number that should be well within its grasp.

The 2003 model features three engine choices: a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, 2.7-liter V-6 and new 3.5-liter V-6. The inline four is available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic; the 2.7-liter V-6 comes with the four-speed Shiftronic automatic; and 3.5-liter V-6 is mated to a five-speed Shiftronic automatic. Mechanical four-wheel drive is available with the 2.7-liter motor, while the 3.5-liter gets optional electronically controlled 4WD — a new option for the midmodel year.

Three trim levels are available: base, GLS and LX. Entry-level models come with the inline four, five-speed manual, disc brakes AM/FM CD system, air conditioning, cruise control, auxiliary power outlets front and rear, roof rails, heated outside mirrors, 16-inch wheels and power locks, windows and mirrors. GLS is equipped with the 3.7-liter engine and four-speed Shiftronic automatic, and adds a Monsoon premium stereo system and fog lights. The LX upgrades to four-channel ABS with traction control (optional on the other two trim levels), chrome trim on door handles, automatic air conditioning, a six-disc in-dash Monsoon stereo and leather seats.

In addition, GLS and EX models can be ordered with the 3.5-liter V-6 and with four-wheel drive. Models with the 3.5-liter engine get five-speed automatic transmission and electronically controlled 4WD; those with the 2.7-liter engine and 4WD get a mechanically controlled system.

The exterior of Hyundai’s midsized SUV remains largely unchanged. The same curvy profile with prominent headlamps and contrasting body panels remain; roof rails cap off the top, while 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels accent the four corners. Body-color mirrors and door handles are standard on all models except the LX, which gets chrome door handles.

The 3.5-liter V-6 provides a big boost in power and capability. The engine delivers 195 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 219 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. Matched to the new five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission, the engine has a towing capacity of 2,300 pounds with a trailer brake, 1,500 pounds without. Fuel economy is 16 miles per gallon city, 22 highway with front-wheel drive, 17 and 21 with 4WD.

Drivers choosing the four-wheel-drive version with the new engine get an all-new electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system designed by Borg-Warner, featuring InterActive Torque Management. Power is managed electronically between front and rear wheels, as opposed to mechanical management through a viscous coupling system. The electronic 4WD is transparent to the driver and includes a modified rear suspension.

Carry-over engines from the 2003 model post the following ratings: the 2.4-liter four-cylinder achieves 138 horsepower; and the 2.7-liter V-6 gets 173 horsepower. The inline four comes with a choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic with Shiftronic, while the 2.7-liter V-6 gets a four-speed automatic transmission. The 2.7 V-6 is available with either front-wheel or four-wheel drive; the base four cylinder gets front-wheel drive only.

Set up with a trailer brake, the maximum towing capacity of the 2.4-liter is 1,200 pounds. The 2.7-liter V-6 can haul 2,700 pounds with the front-wheel-drive set-up and 2,200 pounds with 4WD. Without a trailer brake, numbers fall to 1,000 for the inline four, and 1,200 for both the front- and four-wheel-drive V-6 configurations, although adding ABS boosts the towing capacity to 1,200 pounds, without the trailer brake, for the 2.4-liter, and 1,500 pounds for the 2.7-liter.

New features for the midyear model include new Monsoon stereo systems, HomeLink (now standard equipment on the LX trim level), an optional moonroof and chrome trim around inside door handles and parking brake knob and shift lever (shifter trim added to GLS and LX models only).

Seating and cargo space have been made more comfortable through a few key improvements. Seats are easier to recline and fold, and ISOFIX child seat tethers are now standard on both rear outboard seating positions. Power window switches and glove box are now illuminated for easier access, and the map light and overhead console design have been revised. Other interior enhancements include a revised center dashboard section and larger a/c vents.

As with the 2003 model, the midyear upgrade has 101 cubic feet of passenger volume and 30 cubic feet of cargo volume with the seats in their upright positions.

The Santa Fe’s carlike road manners are derived from its DNA — the SUV shares a platform with the Sonata sedan. McPherson front strut/fully independent trailing arm rear suspension design brings a smooth ride on highways and by-ways.

While the Santa Fe can be ordered with 4WD, it is not a rugged off-roader and is meant for soft-roading adventures in the back country. Rack-and-pinion steering provides firm and linear steering.

Safety equipment includes front passenger and driver front and side air bags (side bags are a new addition). Front seat belts have pretensioners, and higher end models are equipped with a fully stocked first-aid kit.

It’s not hard to see why the Santa Fe has been named the best midsized sport utility by the AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Survey for the past two years.

With the midmodel year improvements and a powerful new drivetrain option, it’s also easy to predict that Hyundai’s sport ute will continue to win the hearts and wallets of the North American market, as well.

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