Hyundai's Santa Fe

Thursday, July 26, 2001 at 1:00am

America needs another sport utility vehicle, the anti-car, about as much as we need another war, right? There are so many SUVs on the road now, you wouldn't think there would be room for another one, right? Wrong. There is always room for anything that is better for less money. Don't laugh. If you can tear yourself away from your computer screen, go check out the new Hyundai Santa Fe.

It's made in Korea, and war clouds are forming on the Pacific rim. Korea, you might remember, is a country that was overrun by Japan back in 1910, and they're still peeved about it. This Korean-made Santa Fe (cleverly named after the ever-so-artsy cultural center of a remote American state somewhere past Texas) is Korea's latest shot at Japan's car industry. Japan's economy is not in the best of shape right now and new Prime Minister Heizo Takenaka -- looking like a 1970's Woodstock hippy -- may be vulnerable to a well-armed and mounting Korean assault.

If you don't count Desert Storm and Bosnia as wars, the USA hasn't won a war since 1945, when we overwhelmed Germany and Japan. Since then we whelmed Korea and were chased out of Vietnam.

While following this situation, I'm developing a theory. Losing a war seems to be the best way to become a car-exporting nation. Then the loser can sell its cars to the winner. Too bad for Vietnam they didn't consider this. Can you name one Vietnamese SUV? I didn't think so.

Look at the evidence I'm assembling. In the 1860s in North America, the Southern states lost a war to the Northern states. Now UAW membership cards come with a recipe for grits.

In the 1940s, Germany and Japan lost wars with the USA, and now Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche are in a race with Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Isuzu and the rest for the right to get their names on our sports arenas and baseball stadiums.

If you thought South Korea built nothing but tiny economy cars of sub-Yugo quality, wake up and smell the "catalyticly-cleansed" exhaust fumes. The Hyundai XG300 mid-size sedan equals or surpasses Accord and Camry for thousands less. The little Hyundai Elantra is incredible. The Hyundai Equus in development is longer than a Cadillac DeVille and heavier than a Lincoln Town car. But for now, the Santa Fe is South Korea's next threat to overrun Japan in its biggest market. That's right, America. And if you question their quality, read their warranty.

On first drive, the Santa Fe is as comfortable and familiar as an old shoe. It's as if you've been here before. It seems everything is just where it ought to be without having to look for it. It's eerie, as if the Koreans know us. Fit/finish and comfort/convenience are Japanese-class at Wal-Mart prices.

In overall size, SF is bigger than Chevy Tracker, Ford Escape, Isuzu Rodeo Sport, Jeep Cherokee and Toyota RAV4. The Santa Fe is nearly identical in length/width/height to a Honda CR-V. Comparing these two, with rear seats folded down, the Santa Fe has a bit more cargo room. The price range starts lower than CR-V (circa $16,500 vs. $17,600) and goes up to about the same top figure as CR-V; both top out just under $23,000. My SF-GLE has 40 more horsepower than CR-V, 181 vs. 146, and will tow 1700 more pounds, 2700 vs. 1000.

The Santa Fe offers two engine choices, 2.4 liter 149 horsepower four cylinder with a standard 5-speed manual or optional automatic, and standard front wheel drive or optional full time four wheel drive. They sent me the stronger GLE with 2.7 liter 181 horsepower V-6 with standard automatic and a manually-controllable "shiftronic" sport shifter and standard full-time four wheel drive. Disc brakes all around, alloy wheels w/225/70R-16 B.F. Goodrich tires, roof rack, trailer-hitch-ready and 21 city/28 highway fuel economy. Tailgate is hinged at top, and you can open the whole thing or just the glass part. Seats (fabric) are supremely comfortable with lots of adjustments but no power.

Around town, the Santa Fe is nimble, quick and delightful. At highway speeds, it's quiet, smooth and fast. On mountainous interstates, the automatic transmission does very little "hunting," even at extra-legal speeds.

As for off-road service, I never took it off-road. (In fact, the last time I took anything off-road was when I lost control of an Italian sports prototype racer on the banking at Daytona at 175 mph in the rain and wound up axle-deep in infield mud ... but that's another story.)

For a three-car nuclear family, I recommend a Hyundai trio of XG300 mid-size "near-luxury" sedan, Elantra compact-size sporty runabout and Santa Fe all-purpose SUV.

For once, there is a war going on without us, and however long it lasts, we don't much care. There is no evidence, however, that a Japanese manufacturer is going to name its new SUV "Albuquerque." "Gallup" might be worth considering, but "Almagordo" is totally out of the question.

Hyundai Sante Fe GLS

Base price, $19,299

As tested, $19,759

Bill Pryor is a longtime Nashville resident.

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