Our Santa Fe was the top trim level, the Limited, fully optioned up with the navigation system, which isn't available on any of the lesser trims. This navigation system, although DVD-based, has very nice-looking maps and route guidance graphics. The touch-screen interface works well, although the system has limited destination input methods. It offers the basics, such as address, point-of-interest, and even phone number, but it doesn't have things such as freeway entrance.
It doesn't have advanced features, such as traffic or text-to-speech, where it could read out the names of roads, but it does show 3D maps and has a preview feature we haven't seen on other systems. With preview, you can enter a destination and have it play through the route, kind of like a movie. We occasionally found the system slow to calculate or recalculate a route. The whole system is functional, but not spectacular.
The navigation unit also serves as the stereo system, providing the sole means (besides buttons on the steering wheel) to select music and adjust the audio properties. The LCD flips open to reveal a single-disc player that can read MP3 tracks, which is the only means by which you can bring music into the car. There is no iPod integration or even an auxiliary port, the last a surprising omission. For MP3 player and cell phone integration, you will have to wait for 2010, when Hyundai will launch a Microsoft-based system similar to Ford Sync. But the Santa Fe does have XM satellite radio, expanding broadcast reception beyond the terrestrial.
Hyundai also uses a pretty impressive Infinity-branded audio system, with 650 watts of amplification and 10 speakers, including a centerfill and subwoofer. While not the best, it is definitely above average for car audio, offering powerful audio projection. Qualities such as separation and clarity come through very well. Our main complaint about the system is how much rattle you get with even a moderate bass track. With our more intense test tracks, it felt like the entire interior door panel would come off.
Although Hyundai has also stepped up its tech game with automatic headlights and an electrochromic mirror, the Santa Fe lacks a rear-view camera or parking aids, especially useful in any kind of SUV.
Under the hood
The engine in the 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe is determined by trim level. Our top-of-the-line Limited trim came with a 3.3-liter V-6, the same engine that goes in the midlevel SE trim. The low-end GLS trim comes with a 2.7-liter V-6, designed to be more economical than the bigger engine. The engines dictate the transmission choices as well, with the 3.3-liter V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The 2.7-liter V-6 can be had with either a five-speed manual transmission, something we don't see offered in many SUVs, or a four-speed automatic.
The 3.3-liter engine makes 242 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of torque, plenty to get the Santa Fe moving, although it won't throw you back in the seat. In a fast start, we found the car meandered more than rocketed up to 60 mph. But it performed well enough on the road with reasonable passing power. The five-speed automatic transmission doesn't show much character in its shifting, and pops into passing gear a little slow when you hit the gas, it does have a manual mode. We found it useful to keep the car in third gear for some steep mountain roads.
Steering is reasonably tight on the Santa Fe, but the car just isn't built to be thrashed around the corners. Similar to other cars in its class, cornering feels wobbly because of its high center of gravity. On the roads we drove, the car didn't feel comfortable going much over the speed limits, settling into an easy cruising speed of about 70 mph on a 65 mph freeway.
Fuel economy turned out to be a major disappointment with the Santa Fe. The EPA gives it 17 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, believable numbers for a 3.3-liter engine, but in our testing we averaged 16.5 mpg. We gave it plenty of freeway time to try and make up for the trip computer showing economy dropping below 15 mpg in the city. But the average never climbed into the territory we expected. By contrast, the Santa Fe GLS, with its 2.7-liter V-6, is supposed to get 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. We would expect that one to break over 20 mpg averages in real world testing. Hyundai makes up for the fuel economy with a superior emissions rating of ULEV II from the California Air Resources Board.
Our 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited with all-wheel-drive had a base price of $29,630. The navigation system, which displaces the six-disc CD changer, added $1,750. Add in $120 for carpeted floor mats, and our total came to $31,470, putting it on par with other small SUVs. Given that price, we would opt for a fully loaded Mitsubishi Outlander, which can be had with better cabin tech for less than the Santa Fe.
In our ratings breakdown for the Santa Fe, we give the cabin tech a moderate score. It earns points for offering navigation and a decent audio system, but drops a bit for making us choose between navigation and a six-disc CD changer. For performance we face similar decisions, the 2.7-liter engine might be preferable, as we got poor fuel economy with the 3.3-liter V-6, but we couldn't get navigation or the Infinity audio system with the smaller engine. More bad choices. We did appreciate the engine's power and good emissions rating. Among the performance tech, the all-wheel-drive system was the only standout.