2003 Hyundai Santa Fe Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D 2WD (4 Cyl)

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2003 Hyundai Santa Fe
Tom Lankard

The Hyundai Santa Fe drives well on and off paved roads. It's an inexpensive, compact sport-utility with a tall seating position and generous cargo capacity. Its curvaceous body looks friendly, yet ready for the outdoors. All of this belies the Santa Fe's car-like ride and handling.

2003 Santa Fe models come standard with side-impact air bags. New interior upgrades include a revised dashboard center stack, larger air conditioning vents, and a revised overhead console, and GLS and LX versions come with a new 218-watt Monsoon stereo.

The Santa Fe is backed by Hyundai's long and comprehensive warranty, making it one of the most attractive small SUV's on the market.

Model Lineup
Hyundai Santa Fe is available in three models: base, GLS, and LX ($21,799).

All come standard with four-wheel-disc brakes, air conditioning, power-assisted steering, power door locks and windows, power heated outside mirrors, tilt steering wheel, an AM/FM/CD stereo with four speakers, an illuminated glove box, carpeted passenger and cargo areas, three power outlets (two front, one rear), rear seat heating and air conditioning ducts, an eight-way manually adjustable driver's seat, and reclining rear seatbacks.

The base Santa Fe ($17,199) is front-wheel drive and powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated 138 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard; a four-speed automatic transmission ($800) is optional. An option package ($495) adds cruise control, remote keyless entry, a rear-window wiper-washer, cargo convenience net, retractable cargo cover and a first aid kit (comprising sunscreen, poison ivy balm, bandages and a thermal blanket).

GLS and LX models get a 2.7-liter V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission with Hyundai's Shiftronic manual override. Both are available with front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive ($1500).

GLS ($19,599) comes standard with fog lamps, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, and color bumper accents. 2003 GLS models come with a 218-watt Monsoon AM/FM/CD/cassette system. A GLS option package ($1190) adds anti-lock brakes (ABS) and traction control and a power glass sliding sunroof.

LX comes with ABS and traction control and adds automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, a Homelink transmitter and an electrochromic rear-view mirror. The Monsoon stereo also gets an in-dash six-CD changer. Leather upholstery and brushed-stainless scuff plates bolster the LX model's up-market image.

A new power sliding glass sunroof ($595) is available for the GLS and LX.

The Hyundai Santa Fe was designed to look different from other sport-utilities. Its visage is softer, more subdued than the demi-brutish, jut-jawed facade prevalent on today's quasi-off-roaders (think Ford Escape). Yet the Santa Fe still looks forceful and its curvy lines continue to draw attention as it enters its fourth season.

Santa Fe's proportions are nicely balanced. The friendly front end blends smoothly into gentle flanks. The design suggests sufficient robustness for off-road capability. Large wheel arches reinforce this impression of strength. The glasshouse is adequately sized.

Open the engine hood on a 2003 model, and you'll find that gas-charged struts have replaced last year's prop rod. But the windows in the rear doors still don't roll all the way down, a shortcoming shared with other small SUVs.

The Santa Fe's rear liftgate works well. Hyundai avoided the mistake made by the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, whose tail doors swing to the right, blocking access from the curb. That design is not convenient at U.S. airports. By hinging the hatch at the top, Hyundai provides a universal solution. Opening the rear hatch is a cinch with its pistol-grip latch handle and gas struts. Closing it is just as easy with a pull-down grip mounted inside. When open, the liftgate easily clears six-foot foreheads.

Getting in and out of the Hyundai Santa Fe is easy, thanks to its low step-in height. You don't have to climb up to get in or climb down to get out. And rear-seat passengers don't need to turn their feet sideways to clear the doorjamb.

Once in, the interior is friendly to the touch. Large controls for the stereo and heating/ventilation/air conditioning offer easy adjustment. Climate controls look and feel and plasticky, though.

For 2003, Hyundai revised the center-stack section of the instrument panel, and moved the Santa Fe's digital clock from the overhead console to the middle of the dashboard where it's easier to see. The center air conditioning vents are larger now. Bright trim dresses up the inside door releases and parking-brake handle. On GLS and LX, the shift knob and shift quadrant are brightened by chrome trim. On all Santa Fe models, Hyundai has added illumination to the power window switches and glovebox interior, improved the map light, and revised the layout of the overhead console.

Front seats are quite comfortable, and the driver's seat adjusts eight ways to accommodate different body shapes and preferences. Space-wise, the Santa Fe equals or betters the competition. Only the Ford Escape tops the Santa Fe by more than a half-inch in front-seat headroom or hip room.

Rear-seat headroom equals or beats all its competition, except for the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Rear legroom in the Santa Fe equals or tops everyone's. Rear-seat cupholders are molded into the door-mounted map pockets. The rear seatback reclines, and last year's awkward reclining mechanism has been redesigned for 2003.

Hyundai has added ISOFIX child-seat anchors at both outboard seating positions to the 2003 models. Head restraints and three-point seatbelts are provided for outboard passengers as well, while the center-rear passenger must make do with a lap belt only. The outboard shoulder-belt anchor loops are fixed, not adjustable (though we sometimes wonder whether anyone actually adjusts the adjustable kind). The restraining loops for rear seat-belt buckles don't appear to be very durable (but that isn't a safety item).

The Santa Fe provides as much or more cargo space than any other compact SUV except for the Ford Escape, and offers as many as nine tie-down loops to keep your gear from shifting around. Sub-floor storage bins help hide your more valuable cargo, provided it can fit in one of the bins: in other words, nothing too tall, too wide or too thick.

Driving Impressions
The Hyundai Santa Fe offers excellent handling, with minimal top-heaviness in corners. The brakes are refreshingly responsive, even before the ABS steps in.

We preferred driving the two-wheel-drive version. The front-drive Santa Fe proved to be much more fun, and more responsive, freed from the 203 pounds and whatever friction the four-wheel-drive system adds. EPA estimated fuel economy is 20/26 mpg city/highway for a front-wheel-drive V6 Santa Fe, and 18/24 for a V6 with four-wheel drive.

The available 2.7-liter V6 produces 173 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. Those are good numbers when compared to the V6s offered in other compact SUVs. Indeed, only the Ford Escpe and Mazda Tribute, which share an optional 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6, offer more power in this class. The V6 Santa Fe can accelerate more quickly than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, which offer four-cylinder engines only.

With its standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder and optional automatic transmission, however, the base model accelerates with far less vigor. Getaway from a stoplight is about as quick as a Toyota RAV4, but lags behind the CR-V, Tribute and Escape. Slamming down the throttle at highway speed brings on a smooth and prompt downshift, but acceleration that's less than fulfilling. We don't doubt the rated towing capacity, but we suspect that a 1500-pound load would be taxing.

The Santa Fe's full-time four-wheel-drive system is compact and clever, and was developed by Austrian four-wheel-drive specialists Steyr-Daimler-Puch. A planetary differential inside the front transaxle splits the drive torque equally between the front wheels, and 60/40 between the front and rear axles. The latter figure is not arbitrary, but based on the Santa Fe's 60/40 front-to-rear weight distribution. A viscous coupling overrides the differential if the wheels at either end begin to slip. The system combines proven engineering in innovative ways.

We found the four-wheel-drive Santa Fe more than up to some light off-road driving at a sometime-motorcycle circuit in Southern California. The system appears to do a good job of sending the torque where it's needed, even without the optional traction control. We jacked up the back tires, then stood on the accelerator, and our Santa Fe raced eagerly ahead.

The Hyundai Santa Fe is fun to drive, particularly with a V6 and front-wheel drive. The optional four-wheel-drive system improves traction in slippery conditions, but places a burden on the V6 engine. The standard four-cylinder engine works best if it isn't burdened by an automatic transmission.

All Hyundais come with one of the best warranty/service plans in the business: 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain, five-years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, five-years/60,000 miles on corrosion, and 24-hour roadside assistance for five-years with unlimited mileage.

Overall, the new Hyundai Santa Fe is worth a look if you are already considering the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Honda CR-V, Suzuki Grand Vitara or Toyota RAV4. Take a look. You might like what you see.

Model as tested
Santa Fe GLS 2WD ($19,599)
Basic Warranty
5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in
Ulsan, South Korea
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
ABS with traction control ($595)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
2WD: Santa Fe ($17,199), GLS ($19,599), LX ($21,799)<P>4WD: GLS ($21,099), LX ($23,299)<P>
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags with passenger-presence detection, front side-impact airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, front seat and rear outboard seat head restraints, side door beams
Safety equipment (optional)
2.7-liter dohc 24-valve V6
4-speed automatic with Shiftronic

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning; six-speaker AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo; power door locks, windows and outside mirrors; overhead console; first aid kit; tilt-adjustable steering wheel; front passenger seat under-storage tray; 60/40 split reclining and folding rear seat with folding center armrest; four under-floor cargo area storage areas; leather-wrapped steering wheel; power steering; tachometer; 4-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission; in-glass radio antenna; foglamps

Engine & Transmission
2.7-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
173 @ 6,000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
177.2/ 72.7/66.0
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

* The J.D. Power Ratings are calculated based on the range between the car manufacturer or car model with the highest score and the car manufacturer or car model with the lowest score. J.D. Power generates a rating of a five, four, three, or two. If there is insufficient data to calculate a rating, a dash (—) is used in its place.

J.D. Power Ratings may not include all information used to determine J.D. Power awards, visit the Car Ratings page to learn more about awards and ratings.

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