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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe SUV

In a budget-minded sport utility segment where power has been in the purchasing price, increasingly there's horsepower to burn.

Not one to let the competition take the lead, feisty little Hyundai that finally is carving a noticeable niche out of the American sport utility landscape with its award-winning Santa Fe, is right in the middle of the pack.

With '04 a year of adjustments rather than major revisions, adding gusto has bubbled to the top of the Santa Fe wishlist. Through something akin to popular demand, a 3.5 liter V-6 engine brought in for a power boost last summer, now is standard on some models. (Santa Fe owners mandated a power moonroof option and got it, as well. Score another for consumers' power.)

Korean auto maker Hyundai has been refining its car-based SUV prize since its introduction to U.S. buyers four years ago, kicking competitors in their pride in the process by winning some major awards. Although somewhat larger than some entry levels contenders, a base around $18,600 plus solid capabilities, cargo room, a truly handsome package, luxury touches and solid safety and handling features show why Santa Fe is claiming title as one of the big kids on the block -- to be beaten if possible, or held in tow if not.

Hyundai studied the market before stepping out on the proverbial dance floor, using the company's California Design Center to make sure the result would mirror American expectations of what a car-based, small and affordable sport utility should be. Now, it's upping technology to broaden the Santa Fe's appeal.

Besides the 3.5-liter, 200-horsepower Signa engine, a five-speed "Shiftronic" automatic transmission and new electronic four-wheel-drive system are high tech boosts. That's the same engine Hyundai uses in its luxury XG350 sedan. And besides its ability to let someone "play" at using a manual trans, the Shiftronic actually learns how one drives and quietly adapts in the background.

The Santa Fe isn't really meant to go into the trenches, despite a distinctive sport utility appearance. The idea, as with other car-based versions, is to get the best of both worlds in terms of driving comfort and sporty handling with sport utility usability and interior room that could suffer on a heavier, space-encroaching truck foundation. But, surprise. Depending on the model, there's a fully-stocked first aid kid with poison ivy balm, bee sting ointment, sunscreen, bandages and even a thermal blanket for those with adventurist spirits.

Certainly Hyundai has managed to put luxury into a lower-end sport utility market obviously ready for a trendy-looking bargain. And those fading memories of earlier quality problems? While online ownerboards suggest buying with long-term intent instead of leasing, Hyundai's extended warranty could be just the thing to seal the deal.