2012 Hyundai Santa Fe- To The Moon And Back

DSCI1209In the Summer of 2000, my parents and I were  actively looking for a cheap set of reliable (used) wheels for my upcoming college years.  Like many in that same situation over the years,our quest sent us on a pilgrimage  to the local Hyundai dealer.  While checking out an Elantra, my mother’s attention was diverted by a shiny vehicle across the showroom floor and she exclaimed “what’s that!?”  “That” was the all-new for 2001 Santa Fe, Hyundai’s first attempt at an SUV.  Previously known for selling cheap, cheery economy cars, the Santa Fe represented a new chapter for the manufacturer.  The automaker wanted to be taken seriously and couldn’t do so without a truck in its stable.  But Hyundai isn’t one to shy away from risks, and looked to outer space for inspiration for the first Santa Fe.  Instead of the traditional outdoorsy look, that Santa Fe had love-it–or hate-it bulging fenders, a gaping grill, and a spaceship like interior. It begged for attention and the gamble paid off.  My mother eagerly bought one, which she still owns to this day.  And she wasn’t alone, Hyundai couldn’t keep up with demand and it quickly became their best-selling vehicle in the early 2000’s.  The stage was set for Hyundai in the 21st Century.

DSCI1211The family tree of Hyundai SUV’s grew quickly following the success of the Santa Fe.  The compact Tucson arrived in 2005 trailed by the  Veracruz luxury crossover  in 2007.  The Tucson was smaller yet offered more space than the original Santa Fe due to its longer wheeelbase.  To differentiate itself from its smaller sibling, the Santa Fe was fully redesigned in 2007 and the overall size was beefed up- adding seven inches in length and even gaining a third row seat.  However, many of my favorite features from the original Santa Fe were retained in this generation, which is now nearing the end of its life cycle.  An all-new third generation Santa Fe is already available for 2013.  However it was worthwhile giving the outgoing style one last look before it rides off into the sunset.DSCI1213

Compared to the original, this iteration of Santa Fe is much more conservative, although some may see the look as sophisticated.  This Santa Fe, along with the 2005 Sonata and 2007 Elantra, debuted at a time when Hyundai was on the path to building higher quality cars that offered mundane and forgettable styling.  The Santa Fe is attractive enough with swept-back headlights, a large chrome framed grill, and a slight upsweep of the greenhouse.  Out back, the rear has detailed clear-lensed taillights and a steeply raked liftgate that finish off the decidedly SUV look and proportions.  Overall, it’s an inoffensive, if not a tad bland, design. 

DSCI1216Inside it’s the same story.  Although there is Hyundai’s trademark backlit blue dials and gauges (I know, VW had it first, but Hyundai has committed to it on all their cars) and some decent glossy plastics imitating wood and chrome, there’s nothing here to get the heart pumping.  Everything is simple to use and intuitive.  One aspect I admire on most Hyundais’ is how good the ergonomics are and how they are DSCI1217able to combine advanced features and ease of use.  The AUX/USB are below the dash in their own cubby area that will hold phones and iPods and are a cinch to use.  There’s no digging through compartments or reaching across the car to connect to your music.  The radio display has a clear, easy to read font and is accompanied by real volume and tuning knobs and the ventilation is controlled  the classic three DSCI1197dial setup.  Gauges are clear and crisp.  Overall, everything is where it should be and the interior of the Santa Fe , while not expressive, is an example of utter simplicity and common sense.  All the pieces come together with a quality feel and the car feels well-built.  The only observation to offset the overall impression was that the steering wheel plastics did look and feel a tad chintzy, but higher trim models do come with leather trim.DSCI1214

An amazing array of storage compartments abound inside, if you get off on that sort of thing.  There’s a dual level console between the front seats, large pockets on all doors,, the AUX cubby, the glove compartment, a nifty unit on top of the dashboard, and not one, but two sunglasses holders in the headliner.  It’d be difficult to fill all of the spaces the Santa Fe offers.

DSCI1200Headroom for all passengers is more than sufficient and the front seats offer plenty of leg room and shoulder room.  The driving position feels lofty and truck-like.  I often found myself  looking high above some other SUV drivers.  Visibility is excellent all around, with large windows and relatively thin pillars.  In the rear, the seats felt like they were positioned too far forward as knees were touching the seat backs in front DSCI1215which could possibly be because this Santa Fe originally was packaged to accomodate three rows of seats (they were deleted as an option after 2009 due to lack of demand).  Regardless, it was still a comfortable place to be with enough space for three people in back.  The rear seat passengers are also not an afterthought and are treated to a rear seatback that reclines and air vents positioned in the B-pillars. DSCI1218

Rear cargo space is impressive with 78 cu. ft. and easily outshines the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4 and almost matches larger SUV’s such as the Ford Explorer.  The back seats are easy to fold down and the headrests do a neat trick- folding out-of-the-way automatically when the seat back is lowered.  No more awkwardness of having to wrestle with the headrests and place them aside like in some other SUV’s.  The seats fold completely flat to create a level loading space and the liftover is low.  One novel feature from the original Santa Fe that didn’t carry over to this one (or the 2013 model) is the separate glass hatch for smaller items.  The entire hatch does have to be opened but the good news is that this Santa Fe does feature what could arguably be the best liftgate grab handle in the industry.  It’s a meaty, grippy design that fits the hand perfectly and has the  release button integrated.  To compliment that, the inside of the liftgate has an easy to grab tether for those of us who are vertically challenged.

DSCI1204Driving the Santa Fe is much like the rest of the car; unexciting but pleasant and humble.  Performance from the base 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine is surprisingly sprightly.  Around town it feels capable enough to move away from stoplights with some authority and feels energetic while merging onto freeways.  It’s willing to rev and truly felt more like a V6.  It was surprising to open the hood and see only four runners leading up to the intake manifold.   There is a V6 available unit available on the upscale SE and Limited model offering 101 more horsepower than the four-cylinder’s 175 available ponies.  But for those on a budget, the four-cylinder is more than adequate at carting the SUV around and never feels out of breath.

The four-cylinder is teamed with a six-speed shiftable automatic whose shifts were smooth and timely.   Downshifts would come in unobtrusively while climbing grades or passing.  I tested out the manumatic feature briefly and it works fine, but the system’s gearing in automatic mode was good enough to not even bother.

Some engine noise is noticeable during accelerations and wind and road noise are apparent at highway speeds. DSCI1207 The main culprit to this is probably the Santa Fe’s upright truck-like stance.  Even though this Santa Fe”s platform is based on the smooth and sophisticated Sonata, it felt very trucklike overall.  The ride is very firm and any bumps, even at parking lot speeds, are pronounced while cruising around.  Some folks may complain about that, but I felt it added to the nostalgic SUV feel and reminded me of an old Land Cruiser; tough and rugged.

DSCI1212Although our Santa Fe was solely two-wheel drive and isn’t designed to be an off-road vehicle, I did take it on some light trails in the mountains around Los Angeles where it proved to be very capable .  It has enough ground clearance to get the car’s body over rough patches and the minimal overhangs helped the Santa Fe get clear over obstacles.  New for 2012 is standard hill-descent brake assist.  It  is activated by a switch at up to 25mph and will hold the car back from gaining speed while negotiating steep and rugged downhill grades.  On the steeper parts of the trail it worked wonderfully, kicking in without hesitation and emitting a light “tappity tap tap” noise, much like a woodpecker, and some brake pedal vibration.  Overall, the Santa Fe is a satisfying and adept companion if the pavement ends.

DSCI1219Handling is decent through windy roads and the car holds tenaciously on sharp corners.  Push it to its limit at higher speeds and the back end can swing out.  However, most drivers won’t intend on driving the car to that extent.  Otherwise, the Santa Fe continually felt stable in tight corners and the firm suspension prevented body lean from kicking in.  The steering feel is a little too light and artificial which takes away from road feel and driver confidence, but it doesn’t take long to get acquainted with the car’s capabilities.

The 2.4 liter is rated by the EPA at a respectable 20 city and 28 highway.  We hit those numbers spot on- withDSCI1210 24mpg during mixed driving and 28 on the highway.  Very good for a comfortable, larger SUV.

Our Santa Fe had 19k miles on the odometer and had no mechanical or cosmetic defects.  The only noticeable annoyance was an intermittent rattle from the console.

DSCI1208Prices on the Santa Fe start at $23,225 and that’s exactly where our base GLS model stood.  It had no options but still came well equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, roof rails, heated mirrors, keyless entry, cruise control, full power accessories, air-conditioning with rear seat vents, a height-adjustable driver seat, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, a trip computer, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.  With the destination charge- ours cashes in at $24,035.  It’s not bad value for a comfortable, versatile, and roomy family hauler.

DSCI1223Even though it’s the end of the line for this bodystyle and it can be a tad bland, the Santa Fe is easy to like.  It doesn’t offend or do anything wrong.  On the contrary, it’s a well designed machine that is affordable, practical, and can even be fun.  Don’t let the plain appearance fool you, there is a lot that the Santa Fe offers.  Sure, there’s more exciting choices for a one-night stand, but if you’re looking to commit to something long-term, this would be a great partner to settle down with.  Absolutely deserving of 4.0./5.0 boomerangs.

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