Does anyone remember the Hyundai Pony? I do. Introduced in Canada in 1982, it was a homely four-door hatchback that featured rear-wheel-drive, a Mitsubishi-built four cylinder engine, bare-bones creature comforts, and not much else.
Nonetheless, it exceeded Hyundai’s wildest expectations and sold in vast numbers in Canada…..but not down south….. not being able to meet U.S. EPA emission standards.
Despite or perhaps, because of its reasonable price tag, it was a pretty dismal automobile…..unreliable, under-engineered, poorly assembled, and underpowered. In a word: cheap. Canadian buyers’ enthusiasm for the tinny Korean import quickly waned and it disappeared into automotive oblivion within seven years.
But it did get Hyundai a toe-hold in North America, and these days the company has a full roster of sedans, SUVs, and coupes on the market – both in Canada and the U.S. - and between itself and Kia (which it owns) it consistently grabs around 10 per cent of market share. It also builds many of its North American models in Alabama. Despite its humble beginnings in North America, Hyundai has gone on to become a serious player.
One of its more popular offerings is the Santa Fe, which first hit the market in 2000, and has gone on to become one of the company’s best selling models.
Not hard to see why. This is as good as anything else in this market, and can match Japanese and North American rivals, such as the Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Chev Equinox feature for feature, with a very competitive pricing structure.
That, as much as anything else, has been the key to the company’s success: high content value and seriously competitive pricing. It’s doubtful any other carmaker pays as close attention to pricing as does Hyundai.
Speaking of which, the 2017 Santa Fe starts at just over $32,000 for a base front-drive model, going up to just under fifty large for a fully-loaded Ultimate AWD. By way of comparison, the Rav4 starts at around $27,500, but has a two-and-a-half litre four cylinder compared to the Santa Fe’s 3.3 litre V6. The Santa Fe is also available in FWD "Sport" trim, with a 2.4 litre four cylinder engine and fewer goodies....Hyundai seems to be marketing it separately from the V6 version.
But pricing is just half the battle. Let’s face it, Hyundai has learned its craft at the feet of Japanese manufacturers….and it’s learned it well. Driving the Santa Fe is much the same as driving the Rav4, and that’s saying something, considering that Hyundai has reached this level of refinement in just 15 years.
And the most important takeaway Hyundai has gleaned from Toyota, Honda, et al is: don’t piss off the customer. Don’t make the driving experience weird or convoluted; engineer in straightforward ergonomics and switchgear and appeal to mainstream buyers, as opposed to judgemental nit-pickers. There just isn’t much to complain about with the Santa Fe, and when you slide behind the wheel, you know you’re going to get an easy-to-get-along-with driving experience.
My tester, a middle of the range XL AWD, has a price tag of $42,200 before taxes and extras, which is not really a bargain, but you do get a full roster of convenience features and modcons, including the aforementioned all-wheel-drive, steering wheel-mounted controls, heated seats, heated steering wheel (yes!!), heated rear seats, a huge sunroof, leather upholstery and on and on. In most respects, the Santa Fe has evolved into an upscale SUV, with as comfortable a ride as you can find in this market. I might quibble about noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) shortcomings, and a rather unresponsive transmission, while I’m at it…..but nothing outrageous.
Which leads me to observe - without stating the obvious - that Hyundai is no longer just a maker of economy cars. My XL was nice, no argument, but forty-two large – make it almost fifty after taxes and levies – is a lot of coin and puts the Santa Fe in a whole different league.
And it’s not going to get your blood pumping....it's not that kind of vehicle. It is, above all, sensible transportation and is pretty much in line with everything else in the mid-size SUV market. As good as the competition? Sure. Better? Not really.
But definitely a step up from the Pony.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 3.3 litre V6
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 252 ft. lb @ 5200 rpm
Price: $32,199 (base); $42,199 as tested.
Fuel Economy: 13.9 L /100 km (city) & 10.8 (hwy.) Regular fuel.
Alternatives: Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Chev Equinox, Ford Escape, Kia Sorento, Jeep Cherokee, Mazda CX-9, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Outback.