2003 Hyundai Santa Fe
2003 Hyundai Santa Fe. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Hyundai’s Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle is in its fourth year now, which means two things: 1) it has a track record worth noting for the used car buyer; and, 2) Hyundai can be expected to offer some significant upgrades for the 2004 model year.

Item 1 is a given and the Santa Fe’s track record is surprisingly good from an overall quality perspective. As for item 2, for 2004 the Santa Fe now comes with a third engine choice, a 200 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 mated to a five – speed automatic transmission. This version of the Santa Fe also comes with an electronic all-wheel-drive system – versus the purely mechanical one sold with less expensive models.

And, of course, since the Santa Fa was launched in the fall of 2000, Hyundai changed the centre stack, enlarged the air conditioning vents, improved the map light and overhead console design and illuminated the power window switches and glove box. Other improvements over the last three model years have included gas-charged struts, a revised seat anchor and the availability of a power glass moonroof on GLS models.

The Santa Fe was a very, very important vehicle for Hyundai back in 2000. This attractive, roomy SUV marked Hyundai’s entry into the fast-growing ute segment, where it could do battle with established players such as the Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Tracker, Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara, Toyota RAV4 (itself completely re-invented for 2001), the extremely unrefined Kia Sportage and Subaru’s Forester. And back then we also had the arrival of two other all-new players: the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.

Obviously there’s plenty of choice out there for anyone who wants a nearly-new compact SUV. The top-seller among this group has been the Honda CR-V. No surprise, then, that the Santa Fe literally took the CR-V’s measure. That is, in most dimensions it’s almost identical to the 2001 Honda. But keep in mind the CR-V itself grew larger when it was renovated for the 2002 model year.

The well-equipped 2001 Santa Fe also out-weighs a similarly-packaged 2001 CR-V: 1687 kg (3,720) to 1,474 (3,249). In fact, the Santa Fe has been the heavyweight in its class during these years.

But in V6-form, the Santa Fe has also enjoyed a power edge over all its rivals save the 200-horsepower Escape and its cousin, the Mazda Tribute – even though the 181 horsepower figure Hyundai originally released was inflated. The 2.7 litre V6 is actually rated at 173 horsepower. (Note: Starting in 2002, Hyundai began selling a 138 horsepower four-cylinder model with front-wheel drive. And yes, the original four-banger horsepower figure was 149 but has dropped.) For comparison, a 2001 CR-V is rated at 146 horsepower (160 for 2002), the re-made 2001 RAV4 is at 148, and the V6 Grand Vitara is at 155 (165 for 2002).

The Santa Fe needs the power because it’s heavier than almost all its rivals. With the V6, though, there is more than enough get-up-and-go for a family station wagon – which is exactly what the Santa Fe and these other small-utes are…except the family wagons of the ’60s and ’70 didn’t come with all-wheel drive (AWD). The Santa Fe’s AWD system is similar to what many others offer in this class of vehicle. In most driving conditions this truck carries on front-wheel drive mode, until sensors indicate slick roads are causing a wheel or wheels to slip. Then power is sent to the rear wheels – up to 40 per cent in this case. The driver doesn’t do anything.

Problems? A couple of transaxle issues are noteworthy in Buyer’s Alerts and the only recall is for a bad crankshaft position sensor.

So a three-year-old Santa Fe can be had for a pretty reasonable price. And given that Hyundai has made huge strides on the quality front, this vehicle is worth a look for the buyer on a tighter budget who wants a compact ute.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Connect with Autos.ca