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Hyundai Santa Fe (2001)

SEE ALSO: Hyundai Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig


MODEL:  Hyundai Santa Fe 
ENGINE: 2.7-liter DOHC V6 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 181 hp @ 6,000 rpm/177 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm 
TRANSMISSION:  Four-speed automatic with shiftronic function 
WHEELBASE: 103.1 in. 
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 177.2 x 72.6 x 65.9 in. 
STICKER PRICE:  $20,079 

I always find it interesting when a car surprises me. I've driven quite a few vehicles over the years, and I usually have an idea of what the vehicle is going to be like and how it will perform and what it will do for me. I have to admit, though, that the Hyundai Santa Fe was a surprise.

First it was a surprise because it's a sport utility from Hyundai. Of course, Hyundai is known for its economical sedans and station wagons. So one wouldn't necessarily expect a sport utility from this manufacturer.

Secondly, I would have expected something on the order of the Toyota RAV4 or the Honda CR-V, or maybe even the Suzuki Vitara or Grand Vitara. But the Hyundai is bigger than its competitors, or at least it feels bigger than its competitors. Actually, it is bigger than the RAV4 and Suzukis, but slightly smaller than the CR-V.

It offers great comfort for the front and rear seat passengers. There is excellent legroom so that even the tallest passengers can sit in the rear seat and not feel cramped. Behind that rear seat is an excellent storage area that you can use for luggage or anything you want. And as with most good SUVs, those rear seat backs fold flat to increase the cargo capacity significantly. The utility of the Santa Fe sport utility is there. Which is, of course, what you want.

A 2.7-liter DOHC V6 engine that is rated at 181 horsepower powered the Santa Fe tester. The base engine is a 2.4-liter inline four rated at 149 horsepower. In our tester it drove the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission with a sequential Shiftronic function, meaning it could be shifted as a manual if you wanted to. This was another surprise from the Santa Fe. Not the automatic necessarily, but the sequential shift option. We used the Santa Fe primarily on Interstates and long runs. We had to take a trip to New York and primarily the traffic was decent, for a change. But when we were in the city and trying to negotiate city traffic, I shifted into the Shiftronic mode, and was able to drive the Santa Fe as if it was equipped with a manual. This is important in "urban guerilla" driving, because you want to have the ability to downshift quickly to gain any advantage you can over taxicabs. For this reason, I like manual transmission-equipped cars in the city.

The Santa Fe felt at home on the Interstates and offered a smooth ride. This was another surprise, because small cars are supposed to ride rough. But the Santa Fe has a 103.1-inch wheelbase, and the longer the wheelbase, the better the ride. In general.

The Santa Fe also cornered reasonably well when we took it on our favorite winding roads. On the Interstate runs it wasn't noisy, as we have felt with some much larger sedans lately. The engine wasn't silent, but it wasn't buzzy either. Since this is Hyundai's first V6-equipped car in the United States, it bodes well for the future.

Another surprise from the Santa Fe was its looks. Hyundai vehicles have decent design, but a few are more utilitarian. The Santa Fe, however, has excellent lines, a good, taut muscular look to it, and it's a vehicle you aren't embarrassed to have sitting in your driveway, unlike a Yugo I had several years ago.

The final surprise with the Santa Fe came with the sticker. The bottom line was $20,079. Now $20,000 for anything is a significant piece of change, but not necessarily in today's car market. But when the competition, in either four- or two-wheel drive, can cost between $23, 000 and $25, 000, the Santa Fe is an economical choice for a small sport utility, an economical choice that gives decent performance, a good run, and plenty of surprises.