Review: 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

Over a decade on, auto makers are still sorting out what car buyers are looking for in a crossover. In what ways should a crossover be more like a car, and in what others should it more resemble an SUV? Two rows, or three? Older members of the class are like time capsules, capturing what manufacturers were thinking at that point in time. And so we have the Hyundai Santa Fe, refreshed for 2010 but last totally redesigned for the 2007 model year.

In recent years Hyundai’s designers have become (or at least been allowed to be) much more adventurous. The Santa Fe’s sheetmetal was crafted earlier, so it’s tasteful but conservative, cleaner but less chiseled and less visually intriguing than more recently designed Hyundais like the half-size smaller Tucson crossover. The interior is much the same, with a simple design and, in a conventional ploy to appear upscale, plentiful faux timber. Also no trendy panoramic sunroof; a single conventional roof portal above the first row will have to do.

The conservative design makes for a much better driving position than in the Tucson. From the driver’s seat it’s possible to reach the base on the windshield, much less the center stack. In the Tucson it’s hard to reach the radio tuner. With a high seating position, conservatively raked windshield, and a relatively low, compact instrument panel, the view forward is very much old style SUV. Such outstanding visibility is the primary reason people who will never venture off-road started buying SUVs in the first place. On the other hand, this driving position makes the Santa Fe feel dated.

The Santa Fe was originally designed to have a third-row seat. Consequently, there are a couple inches less second-row legroom than in the smaller Tucson. Adults will fit, but there’s no room to stretch out. For 2010 the third row is no longer offered, perhaps because the Veracruz now exists to better serve that need. Shoulder room is more plentiful than in the Tucson. Cargo room even more so. Fold the second row and the Santa Fe will hold 78 cubic feet of your stuff; the Tucson only 56.

The base engine in the Santa Fe is the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder that powers most Tucsons. If you’re only seeking 175 horsepower, you might as well buy the more up-to-date Tucson (unless you want to be able to easily reach the radio). The best reason to buy a Santa Fe over the Tucson: the larger crossover’s available 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. Given the Santa Fe’s very retro curb weight of just over 4,000 pounds, the strong six can move it quite swiftly, and not use too much gas in the process. The EPA ratings are 20/26. I observed about 24 on the highway, so these might be a little optimistic.

The Santa Fe’s center of gravity is high and its suspension tuning is much softer than the Tucson’s, so it’s not going to be the enthusiast’s choice. While the Tucson was designed with the European market in mind, the Santa Fe was designed for Americans. But though the Santa Fe lacks the Tucson’s taut “seat of the pants” feel, it handles intuitively and its steering, though loose on the highway, seems more fluid and natural. The steering might even communicate a bit much—minor impacts make their way through to your fingertips. Though the Santa Fe is truly midsize in width, it’s a few inches less lengthy than the typical midsize crossover, so (especially in combination with the driving position) it feels a little more maneuverable. Ride quality is smoother than in the Tucson, and cushier than the average crossover, but not the most composed. On the highway there’s a moderate amount of wind and road noise. No Lexus, but hardly loud, either.

The Tucson might be much more current, but the “dated” Santa Fe continues to outsell it nearly two-to-one, with 76,680 shifted during calendar year 2010. (Even with the Santa Fe removed from contention in the three-row contest, Hyundai only managed to sell 8,741 people on the Veracruz.) Part of the reason could well be the Santa Fe’s more conventional driving position, its more upscale appearance, and its available V6.

Price also clearly plays a role. The MSRP of the fully loaded tested example (V6, AWD, leather, sunroof, nav) might not seem low at $33,340, but (non-Korean) competitors tend to be thousands higher. A further indication of value: Hyundai has only priced the Santa Fe about $1,500 above the Tucson, and even with the V6 it’s only about $3,000 more. This is before incentives. Hyundai currently has $1,500 of rebates available for the Santa Fe, but none for the Tucson. So with the four-cylinder, the larger, more luxurious SUV is priced about the same as the smaller one. The related Kia Sorento is priced about $1,000 higher, but includes about $2,000 in additional “stuff” (based on comparisons using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool), most notably the third row and attendant rear HVAC no longer offered in the Hyundai.

The Santa Fe doesn’t have trendy styling, sharp handling, or an especially roomy back seat. Compared to more recently designed competitors it both looks and feels dated. But it provides the upscale styling cues, commanding view from the driver’s seat, and easy to reach and operate controls many buyers in this segment apparently want, all at an attractive price. So maybe the latest crossovers aren’t heading in the right direction?

Hyundai provided an insured, fueled vehicle at a drive event.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car reliability and pricing data.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • Tyler Armstrong Tyler Armstrong on Feb 01, 2011

    i for one appreciate the older less "flowing" styling of recent Hyundai's. We know for sure the next generation will have poor visibility and not age as well as the current one.

  • Michel1961 Michel1961 on Apr 23, 2011

    Well, I just cross-shopped 12 vehicles, test drove 9 (some twice) and surfed the Internet back and forth for weeks (thanks TTAC and TrueDelta !) I've just bought a Santa Fé Limited V6 AWD over my final 3 contenders: Toyota Venza (a sea of cheap plastic and rides like a 1980s GM), Subaru Outback (can't get an iPod or the Nav to work properly in a 45K car) and a Mazda CX-7 (smallish, so-so reliability, expensive). Tried the CR-V, the Rav4, the Equinox, the Rogue, the Murano, the Edge, the Tiguan and the Veracruz. Ultimately, the Santa Fé offers one of the smoothest rides (ok, maybe not that crisp), lots of space and storage, good visibility, ok reliability, all the current conveniences, decent mileage, an outstanding Infinity sound system with surround and full iPod integration at an amazing prize. It was almost 10K cheaper than a comparitively equipped Venza over 5 years. Who cares about depreciation and a slightly dated look (in the eye of the beholder) at the price !

    • Westcott Westcott on Apr 24, 2011

      Congratulations on your new acquisition. I think you made a smart choice since we both seem to have come to the same conclusion. although for maybe slightly different reasons. I have not had to take the vehicle back for a single issue. Hope you have the same experience.

  • Scott Miata for the win.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X On a list of things to spend my time and money on, doing an EV conversion on a used car is about ten millionth.
  • TheEndlessEnigma No, no I would/will not.
  • ChristianWimmer If I want an EV then I’ll buy an EV. For city use a small EV with a 200-300 km range (aka “should last for a week with A/C or heater usage”) is ideal. But I only have space for one daily driver and that daily driver also needs to be capable of comfortable long-distance cruising at high speeds and no current EV can do this without rapidly draining its battery charge.
  • SCE to AUX I prefer original, no matter what the car is. If the car has some value, then an electric drivetrain lowers its value. But if it's just a used car, why spend a fortune to install an electric drivetrain?
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