The 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe is the second model we've seen from Hyundai with a navigation system, reinforcing the fact that the company is seriously upping its tech game. But unlike the 2009 Sonata, the tech in the Santa Fe is more of an add-on, forcing the buyer to make some trade-offs. And while we aren't surprised that Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available, the lack of even an auxiliary input for the stereo is a big disappointment.
Stylewise, the Santa Fe fits in with the general run of small SUVs, competing with the Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav-4, Nissan Rogue, Saturn Vue, and Mitsubishi Outlander, to name a few. The small-SUV buyer doesn't lack for choices. With the Santa Fe, you get an exterior that checks off many current styling boxes, including wheel arches, rising belt-line in conjunction with decreasing side-window height, and molded bumpers. The headlight casing design is the only place where it steps to the lead in styling, incorporating an interesting curved shape.
Test the tech: In search of the westward passage
Because of the 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe's supposedly rugged character and its navigation system, we took it on a search for a new route to the Pacific Ocean. This trek wouldn't be as dramatic as it sounds--we frequently test cars out in the Santa Cruz mountains, driving from the San Francisco Bay side across to Highway 1, on the coast. We've driven the obvious routes time and time again, so we went looking for roads we hadn't tried.
It is difficult to use a navigation system for this type of exploration because the size of the screen dictates how much of the map you can see. Fortunately, the 6.5-inch touch screen in the Santa Fe redrew the maps quickly as we scrolled along promising-looking roads. Although we could see more of the map when we zoomed out, the map wouldn't show the smaller roads.
The first road we found that fit the bill was called Bear Gulch Road, heading west off of Highway 84. We set the Santa Fe on course, figuring that its all-wheel-drive would get us through any adversity. But a mere quarter-mile along our route we were met by a security gate and many signs telling us how we would be prosecuted, and potentially shipped off to Guantanamo Bay, if we even looked up at the secure community beyond the gate. The Santa Fe's navigation system hadn't warned us about that.
We scrolled the map further south and found the Old La Honda Road, which would take us from the bay side all the way over the mountains, hooking up with the (new) La Honda Road, with which we were very familiar, before it hit the coast. According to the navigation system, we wouldn't be on unfamiliar roads the entire way, but it was as close as we could find. On the map screen, we touched a few points on the Old La Honda Road, saving them in the system as marked points and setting one of them as the destination.
The navigation system guided us up the road, which proved to be incredibly narrow. The 3.3-liter engine didn't struggle getting the Santa Fe up the hills, and we found the manual shift mode for the five-speed automatic useful with the steep rises and falls along the road. The Santa Fe's high seating position gave us confidence on one narrow stretch where we had a 100 foot cliff with no guard rails on our right, as we had to carefully maneuver around the heavy equipment being used to keep the brush from growing down the mountain on the left.
Although the Old La Honda Road turned into the standard La Honda Road, forcing us to take a known route for part of the trip, we made our final foray to the coast on Bean Hollow Road, another one we hadn't been on before. And to our delight, the county had just laid a thick layer of gravel down, giving us an opportunity to test out the Santa Fe's all-wheel-drive. We powered along the up-hill curves, feeling the wheels keep their grip nicely as gravel spit out from beneath. The Santa Fe felt very sure-footed for this stretch, handling the up and down hill portions without a problem. The wheels dug in, keeping the car from sliding around, while its stability and traction control helped us stay in control.
In the cabin
As with many automakers just beginning to embrace car tech, Hyundai uses a double-DIN navigation and entertainment unit that plugs directly into the 2008 Santa Fe's dashboard, the black plastic faceplate making it look distinct from the metal trim surrounding it. Our test car also had a hodgepodge of trim elements, from a brushed aluminum look to grained soft plastics to glossy faux wood. It would look better if the designers just kept it simpler. The cabin incorporates some nice blue-tinted monochrome displays around the interior, one for climate control, with a nice graphic showing where air is flowing, and one on the speedometer for the trip computer.