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 navigation system fails to tell us that Bear Gulch Road runs through a gated community.
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.
We work our way along this narrow road, with a huge drop-off on the right.
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.
With the ocean in view, our journey is complete.
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.
The navigation system shows some decent-looking route guidance graphics.
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.
The Infinity audio system includes a centerfill speaker in the dashboard.
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 five speed automatic transmission comes with a manual shift mode, useful in the mountains.
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.
The all-wheel-drive system includes a differential lock, an uncommon feature on small SUVs.
The suspension felt a little on the soft side, but not nearly so much as the Hyundai Sonata. It handled road imperfections about on par with other small SUVs, neither standing out for smoothness nor being particularly rough. All-wheel-drive is available at all trim levels, and seems worthwhile. Our ride over the gravel road showed that the Santa Fe could grip in on slippery surfaces. The Santa Fe also included a differential lock, for those really nasty places where you want torque fixed at 50-50 percent between front and back wheels.
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.