2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD
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Story and photos by Paul Williams

SUVs are having a rough ride these days, in more ways than one. The criticisms are well known: excessive fuel consumption, truck-like handling, being too big, and costing too much. But they’re still popular, and that’s because many people require the cargo capacity, interior flexibility and toughness of this type of vehicle. Others just like the looks and the image.

Some of the criticisms have merit, however, and new buyers are becoming sensitive to them. Is it possible to buy a kinder, gentler (and cheaper) SUV? An entry-level Hyundai Santa Fe might do the trick.

The 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL is a front-drive version of this popular SUV from Korea. The base GL model is powered by a thrifty, 2.4 litre, 138 horsepower four-cylinder engine. Its base price is $21,050 plus freight/pdi of approximately $800.

2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD

2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD

2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD

2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD
Click image to enlarge

According to Brian Kim, Product Planning Manager for Hyundai Canada, initial research showed an almost a non-existent demand for a front-wheel drive Santa Fe. However, for 2002, the company sensed that demand was there, and put the vehicle into limited production. The response exceeded expectations in Canada and the US, and for 2003, Hyundai has increased production for the front-drive version. There’s a two-month wait for this model at some dealers.

Helping to keep the sticker price low, the GL is only available with a five-speed manual transmission. Anti-lock brakes are not available, so they won’t add to your cost either.

Frankly, after being spoiled by a recent Infiniti FX-35 test drive, I expected to be somewhat underwhelmed by this “base” version of the Santa Fe. Couldn’t have been more wrong! It turned out to be surprisingly useful, comfortable and inexpensive to drive. It wasn’t what you’d call an all-terrain, off-road, mega truck, but as a practical, urban-dweller, it definitely walked the walk.

I can skip to the end of this review and say that for the money, you’ve got to look at the Santa Fe GL if you’re interested in an SUV on a budget. You get a lot.

Let’s look at the positives first, and there are several. The first Santa Fe had a kind of “running shoe” look to it that’s been softened in the last couple of years. Its edges are still rounded, and the vehicle is easily recognized, but it’s not quite as radical as before. I think this is a positive move on Hyundai’s part. Many people love the new look Santa Fe, and all comments I received during this test drive were complimentary.

On the road, the instrumentation is clear, the controls easy to use, and the ride was quiet and smooth. The Santa Fe is built on the Sonata platform and its four-wheel independent suspension gives a car-like ride that’s surprising in a vehicle of this type. Really, it’s pretty much like driving a sedan, only you’re sitting higher. Ground clearance is 20.5 cm (8.1″) yet vehicle height is 80 mm (3.2″) less than a Ford Escape, giving a more streamlined look.

Power from the four-cylinder motor was quite sufficient, with fifth gear giving a low engine speed and excellent gas mileage. The GL is rated at a low 7.8 litres/100 km on the highway, and on a trip to Toronto from Ottawa, our tester arrived with plenty of gas to spare. The frugal gas consumption of the Santa Fe GL was both unexpected and appreciated.

The brakes were fine, too. Although lacking ABS, they are four-wheel discs, and the Santa Fe stopped straight and without fuss. A rapid stop may require you to practise your threshold braking skills, but that’s okay, as you should know how to do that anyway.

Traction from a standing start was also sufficient, although it’s clearly not going to give you the bite of an AWD vehicle.

Our Santa Fe came with all season tires, I should point out. They had deep treads and gave reasonable grip, but in the winter, I’d bet a good set of snow tires would improve traction significantly.

Although this Santa Fe is not fully optioned, don’t get the idea that you’ve got a “stripper” here. The following features, among others, are standard: power windows, power door locks, an in-dash CD player, heated power mirrors, 16″ alloy wheels, roof rack side rails, DC power outlets, digital clock, rear-seat heating ducts, seatbelt pre-tensioners and speed-sensitive steering.

And as I say, it is an SUV. There’s a pile of room in the back, and with the rear seats folded you can transport truly big items. You do get the “command” driving position favoured by SUV lovers, and this substantial (1585 kg, 3494 lbs) truck feels solidly built. Towing capacity with the optional trailer hitch is 1200 lbs.

Add air conditioning at $1622 and it’s a good, honest vehicle; great value for what you get.

But I do have issues; maybe not enough to sway you against the GL Santa Fe, but they have to be mentioned.

The interior is functional, but basic. The seats are great for local drives, but were less impressive on the long haul. You’re a bit stiff after sitting in these seats for a few hundred kilometers. The heater, although rheostat controlled, seems to have only two settings: slightly too hot or slightly too cold. The rubbery, matte finish of the dashboard trim and center console attracts dust and is hard to clean.

The speedometer in our test vehicle was calibrated at about 8% too slow. Indeed, you’re unlikely to get a speeding ticket if you travel at a displayed 100 km/h, but traffic will be zooming by continuously. Cruise control would be useful, but it’s not available on the GL. The heater and speedometer irregularities were likely peculiar to our test vehicle, but the interior is where you’ll be all the time, so I’d take the Santa Fe for a long test drive if you’re considering a purchase. Get a good feel for it.

You do have some other options in the low-cost SUV sector. The lighter, taller, Ford Escape XLS, for example, can be had for similar money, with similar options (smaller wheels, with ABS optional, and a more traditional look). With air conditioning, destination and delivery charges, the Escape XLS is $23,640, only slightly higher than the Santa Fe GL, but there are clear differences in the size, weight and features of each vehicle.

As I said above, skip to the end and you’ll find a positive recommendation for the Santa Fe GL. There are some reservations, but you’ll have to decide whether they concern you enough to look elsewhere.

Technical Data: 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe GL FWD

Base price $21,050
Price as tested $23,472 includes optional air conditioning, freight/pdi
Type four-door, five passenger compact SUV
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, dual overhead camshaft
Horsepower 138 @ 5500 r.p.m
Torque 147 lb.-ft. @ 3000 r.p.m.
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires 225/70R-16
Wheelbase 2620 mm (103.1 in.)
Length 4500 mm (177.2 in.)
Width 1820 mm (71.7 in.)
Height 1675 mm (65.9 in.)
Ground clearance 205 mm (8.1 in.)
Cargo capacity 864 litres (30.5 cu. ft.) seats up; 2209 litres (78.0 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 11.7 l/100 km (24 mpg); Highway 8.1 l/100 km (35 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km; 5 yrs/100,000 km powertrain

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