The first Hyundai vehicle fully designed at its Southern California studio, the 2007 Santa Fe has softened the humpback whale fins over the front fenders and awkward side-panel curves. The SUV has grown as well, due to a longer wheelbase and wider track, both increased by three inches. Inside, designers removed the blocky center pod that always made the interior look excessively compartmentalized. They also removed a lot of the swooping curves, instead opting for a more traditional, integrated dash that appears as a single unit. Gauges are simplified and backlit, with a few stylized touches. For the first time, the Santa Fe offers an optional third-row seat; however, it'll be used more for grocery storage or toting the neighbor kids (certainly not your own) than carrying adults.

Power options for the 2007 Santa Fe come in two sizes. All entry-level GLS units are equipped with a 2.7-liter, 24-valve V-6 producing 185 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 183 pound-feet of torque at 4000. SE and Limited models are equipped with a 242-horsepower/226 pound-foot, 3.3-liter 24-valve V-6 (from the Sonata). The smaller V-6 comes standard with a five-speed manual, with an optional four-speed automatic, all Santa Fes equipped with the 3.3-liter V-6 will have a five-speed automatic with manumatic mode, also from the current Sonata. All three models can be ordered in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations.

A run through the local mountain passes with both engines made us believers, considerably less buzz and vibration than previous V-6s. And where the 2006 model had a numb on-center feel and a jumpy throttle, the new vehicle offers crisper steering responsiveness with a smooth and progressive throttle feel off idle. Likewise, the difference between FWD and AWD handling dynamics is much less pronounced, more balanced now, than is typical for this class. Still, we'd like to see the Hyundai engineers tighten the suspension for flatter, more controlled cornering.

All Santa Fe models come standard with electronic stability control and six airbags, including a side head curtain that protects passengers in all three rows. Base models will start at just over $21,000, with AWD Limited models pricing just over $28,000. Audio/video options and the third row could put it over the $30,000 mark, a first.

This could be a value-packed shot on target, at a time when a lot of mid- and full-size-SUV buyers are looking for alternatives.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe
Price range $21,000-$29,000
Layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 7-pass, 4-door
Engine 2.7L/185-hp V-6, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Opt engine 3.3L/242-hp V-6, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Transmissions 5-spd man, 4-spd auto, 5-spd auto
0-60 mph, sec 9.2 (est)
On sale Currently