Hyundai Santa Fe: Diesel Power Makes It Exactly Right

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Hyundai Santa Fe: Diesel Power Makes It Exactly Right

Since the Santa Fe was launched last summer, this sports utility vehicle has been selling fast. In the United States, where the SUV craze shows absolutely no signs of abating, Hyundai dealers can't get enough of them: Aided by rave reviews and a bulletproof 5-10-year warranty, the Santa Fe has become the hottest selling model on the lot. Hyundai underestimated domestic and overseas demand and all of the first-year production is spoken for. Plans are already afoot to boost capacity and output.

In December, Hyundai augmented the Santa Fe lineup by offering a diesel engine option that has been long awaited by domestic and European customers, a move that will surely add customers .

Cutting to the chase, this engine is a small gem. Turbocharged and intercooled, its 2 liters rouse up 115 horsepower at 4,000 rpm but the real fun begins at a low 2,000 rpm where 26.5 kg.m. of torque pours out. What do those numbers mean? Elation, pure and simple. Takeoff isn't exactly a neck-snapping experience but output is perfectly adequate for the vehicle's 1,840 kg weight.

Recognizable by the distinctive air intake scoop on the hood, the Santa Fe diesel delights with smooth and quiet power delivery. Valve train clatter, vibration and the usual giveaways of a diesel engine are almost gone. This one will have you wondering, as it did me, what exactly is under the hood: diesel or gas? It's that hard to tell. Just as the Hyundai America tagline says, driving is believing.

More good news comes at the pump. This diesel is a great alternative to the 2.0-liter DOHC gasoline engine and albeit slightly more expensive up front, the diesel is much cheaper to operate over the longer term thanks to the Korean government's skewed fuel tax regime that creates a two-to-one price differential between gas and diesel. But don't expect that to last forever.

What's also noteworthy is that this engine is a proprietary Hyundai design. Diesel technology is notoriously tricky to master and to date, despite its technological independence in the realm of gas engines, Hyundai has been relying on Mitsubishi for its diesel know-how.

But with the arrival of this first small proprietary diesel, Hyundai no longer pays royalties and is unencumbered by Mitsubishi's restrictive licensing terms. Expect to see more diesel offerings popping up fast across the entire Hyundai model range.

A special word of praise for the H-Matic gearbox. Developed with Porsche's assistance, the H-Matic is impressive, providing the best of both worlds, the choice of fully automatic or clutchless manual shifting. In automatic mode, upshifts are nearly seamless and are practically devoid of shift shock. The shifter slides through an H-style gate with the left bank in the usual PRNDL configuration and the right bank reserved for clutchless manual shifting, a useful feature when negotiating steep ascents or descents.

You could fall in love with the Santa Fe on its looks alone. Rippling with muscular lines, it's the most testosterone-laden car in the Hyundai lineup. But as an off-road machine, let's just say that compromises have been made. First, it's not a purpose-built SUV but derived from the Sonata platform. So while it lacks some of the off-road ruggedness and sure-footedness of more expensive purpose-built SUVs, it more than makes up for that in civility and pleasing road manners.

Up front, the Santa Fe is fitted with Macpherson struts, coil springs and stabilizer bar while the rear axle rides on tried-and-true double-wishbones with trailing arm and coil springs for a pleasantly firm ride. Power is distributed between the front and rear axles in a 60:40 ratio through a Kia-made viscous coupling delivering full-time four-wheel drive.

The test unit was a domestic specification four-wheel drive model finished in top-end gold trim that includes faux wood accents, leather seats (heated up front), power sunroof, automatic "set-and-forget" temperature control plus a premium audio system with a multi-CD changer. Performance enhancements included a traction control system.

If you're not a bushwhacker but more of a pussyfooter when it comes to driving an SUV, there's a two-wheel drive version that's priced at just 15.86 million won ($13,220). For aficionados of LPG, there's a money-saving 2.7-liter DOHC but what you save in fuel costs you'll lose in time looking for LPG fuel stations, which are scarce outside the city.

In summary, as a latecomer to the SUV scene, Hyundai had the luxury of time to get this one exactly right. The Santa Fe will do well against such tough competitors as the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.

Price as tested: 25.16 million won.

by Oles Gadacz

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