Compared with the aggressive looks of the Hyundai Sonata and Tucson, the Santa Fe appears a bit dull and anonymous. It's not an unattractive vehicle by any means, but it also doesn't challenge our sensibilities or push the design envelope. In a parking lot full of Volkswagen Touaregs and Toyota Highlanders, it's content to merely blend in.
On the inside, the Santa Fe's interior appears equally dull at first, but thanks to a good assortment of standard cabin technologies behind its blue, backlit, monochrome displays and a pretty good level of fit and finish, we can't really complain.
But don't let the ho-hum nature of the Santa Fe put you off, because what it lacks in visual excitement and presence, it makes up for in value. Then again, it's definitely sexier than a minivan.
Not bad for a basic stereo
For most manufacturers in this price range, the basic cabin tech package usually includes only a single-disc CD player and an AM/FM radio. The Santa Fe's standard equipment list includes all of that, but then goes on to add an analog auxiliary input, USB connectivity, and Bluetooth. XM Radio is also standard with a six-month trial subscription included.
The Bluetooth system pairs with a compatible phone with a four-digit PIN using the vehicle's voice command system. Once paired, the hands-free calling system will download the paired phone's address book and create voice tags for your contacts. This process takes only a few moments and allows you to initiate calls simply by saying, for example, "Call Bob Loblaw." Once paired, Bluetooth audio streaming is also available, which allows you to wirelessly stream music and podcasts from your phone's media player. The system doesn't appear to be AVRCP 1.3-compatible, so any transmitted metadata (artist, title, etc.) will not be displayed on the system's screen.
The standard USB port and analog auxiliary input round out the Santa Fe's audio input options and live at the base of the center stack between a pair of 12-volt outputs. The USB port supports portable storage devices, such as USB keys, and allows you to browse your folder structure for MP3 files. We were also able to successfully play MP3s stored on a USB-connected Motorola Droid.
In order to use the Santa Fe's iPod control function, you must purchase ($30) and utilize Hyundai's combo iPod dock connector cable to connect your iPod or iPhone to both the USB and auxiliary inputs simultaneously. Once connected, you will have full-speed access to the iPod's taxonomy, including search by Artist, Album, Genre, and Podcasts, among others.
The basic audio rig pipes its sound through a six-speaker audio system of undisclosed wattage that includes two A-pillar mounted tweeters, but no subwoofer. Sound quality is good, but bass-heavy tracks or high volumes did produce noticeable distortion and buzzing from the door speakers.
Users can upgrade to a premium audio system that outputs 360 watts and bumps the speaker count to seven, presumably adding a subwoofer to the mix. However, the top-of-the-line setup is the in-dash navigation system--available on all trim levels--that features XM NavTraffic and a 6.5-inch color touch screen, integrates the voice command system, and is powered by 8GB of flash memory. We've seen this system in the Genesis sedan and coupe and in the Sonata SE, so check out those reviews to see our thoughts on this setup. When you spec a Santa Fe with the navigation option, you also get a rear-view camera system that utilizes the color screen for displaying what's behind the car when reversing--a great feature to have on a vehicle of this size.
At the GLS trim level, there are two transmission options: a standard six-speed manual transmission and an optional six-speed automatic. There are also two drive-train configurations: front and all-wheel drive. However, there is only one available engine: a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that outputs 175 horsepower and 169 pound-feet of torque. One hundred and seventy five horsepower is nothing to thumb your nose at, but in a 3,725-pound vehicle like the Santa Fe, it's merely an adequate amount of thrust. Highway merges required a good deal of preplanning, and hustling from 0-60 took more time than we cared to measure.
Our 2.4-liter makes up for its lack of go by making slightly further between fillups than other SUVs of its size. The four-cylinder, automatic transmission configuration's EPA-estimated 20 city/28 highway mpg with front-wheel drive makes it the thriftiest of the Santa Fe's various setups. Interestingly, stepping down to the front-wheel drive manual transmission reduces your mpg to 19 city/26 highway, proving that the Santa Fe's automatic gearbox is surprisingly efficient.
Then again, a side effect of the engine's lack of torque is that it makes the automatic transmission work harder to find power when needed. Simply attempting to maintain a 60 mph cruising speed up a slight grade would often result in moments when the transmission would have to downshift briefly to maintain vehicle speed. More power (specifically, more torque) would eliminate this hunting for gears with the benefit of a smoother ride.
Fortunately, more power is available, just not at this trim level. Stepping up to the SE or Limited trim levels replaces the four-banger with a beefier V-6 engine that outputs a more appropriate 276 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of twist. You'll pay for that extra power at the pump, but not as much as you'd expect, losing only two highway miles per gallon and no city miles.
An all-wheel-drive system is also available on the Santa Fe at all trim levels. Most of the time the system behaves like a front-wheel-drive one, sending 95 percent of the power to the front wheels until slip is detected. At that point, up to 50 percent of the power can be sent rearward on demand. Because of its clutch-type transfer case, adding all-wheel drive doesn't actually reduce fuel economy that much. Oddly, city mpg actually increases with the all-wheel drive system, resulting in an EPA-estimated 21 city/27 highway mpg.
The Santa Fe GLS isn't a vehicle that makes waves. It looks fairly anonymous and performs only adequately. The fit and finish of the interior at the GLS trim level is good, but it's nothing to write home about. No, the Santa Fe is not a vehicle that is concerned with appearances.
However, it is a vehicle that is concerned with value. For your $22,995 you get a car with plenty of space for a small family, one of the best warranties in the business, and a standard cabin technology package that includes features like Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, voice command, and USB connectivity. Our tester included carpeted floor mats ($125), bringing the as-tested price to $23,120.
There's only one optional package at this trim level, a Premium package that rolls in the upgraded audio rig, the touch screen navigation system, rear view camera, and a power moon roof for $3,450. If you're a techie, this is a heck of a bargain. While you're at it, add $35 for the iPod cable--that's a no-brainer.