It would be inaccurate to say the RAV's variable-valve timing four (from the Camry) misbehaves. Drive it friendly, and it's mostly quiet and smooth. But keep up with 70-75-mph traffic, and it exhibits a brassy side. In top gear, 70 mph is a busy 3400 rpm. One tester describes the RAV's powertrain as "scrappy with a nice, high-pitched rasp." Fortunately, with the peppy four and the five-speed manual (a four-speed auto is optional), you can quickly spool up the power when necessary. That's easy with shifter gating this loose and friendly. We found we could get loose and friendly with the speed limit as well, casually creeping up to 80.
The Santa Fe's 2.7 V-6 and four-speed automatic is no hot-rod setup. But it works to a high standard of noise and vibration control. Around town and during 70-mph highway commutes, the engine is quietly pleasant, and the shifting is grade-A. Even full-throttle ratio swaps during passes are quick and relatively quiet. Hyundai has done its homework. From about 50 to 60 mph, our test unit made a whine that could have been either a tire or a final-drive harmonic. But to be fair, in most of the competition, we probably would've lost this low tone in the louder ambient powertrain and road noise. The same tester who describes the RAV as scrappy calls the Santa Fe plush.
Speaking of plush, both all-wheel-drive systems are ultra-quiet and operate transparently, with no buttons, switches, or levers. When the center differential of either the Toyota or Hyundai senses slip, the system steps in seamlessly to direct more power to the wheels with the most grip. Both have single-speed transfer cases and simple center differentials (the Santa Fe also sports traction control for added capability and has a bit more ground clearance). Remember, these are lightweight runabouts for low-stress off-roading and slippery roads. Just say "no" to big-rock trails and winching.
At the track, the RAV was the decisive winner of our high-speed handling test. It carves quite crisply despite its high center of gravity and it exhibits no odd handling behavior-even when driven fast. The Santa Fe has less tire grip and rolled severely when pushed hard through the slalom. Both vehicles have sweetly benign behavior far above their limited tire adhesion. That's worth noting, since many old-design sport/utility models get spooky at higher speeds.
Although the Santa Fe took a beating on the handling course, it doesn't beat up its driver or passengers on the open road. Soft springs and bushings, appropriate damping rates, and decent wheel travel provide a smooth ride over deep ruts and expansion joints. The Hyundai is the calmer, quieter commuter of the two, and it steers precisely up to its somewhat low grip limits.