Comparison Test: Hyundai Santa Fe LX vs. Toyota RAV4

College-bound: price-smart sport/utility vehicles

Todd Lassa
Oct 18, 2002
Contributors: Jack Keebler
Photographers: David Freers
Dude...are you ready for a pop quiz in four-wheeling economics?
PROBLEM: Sport/utility vehicles costing $30,000 are everywhere. But do you really have to spend that much, putting your portfolio and grad-school funds at risk, to get into a useful SUV?
2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx top Engine View
  |   2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx top Engine View
MULTIPLE CHOICE: If you can't spend a ton, but you still want the load capacity and all-weather capability of an SUV, there are rationally priced solutions. But before we turn our papers over and get started, ask yourself a few questions. Is "off-road" just a hard-packed dirt path to your favorite fishing spot? Will you be driving mostly cleared winter highways and not steep, unplowed grades? Is a lighter-duty, unibody vehicle tough enough for your needs? Can you live without a full frame and big-bore torque for towing giant, 3000-lb trailers? And is five-passenger seating adequate? Can you do without a third-row bench?
2005 Toyota Rav4 top Engine View
  |   2005 Toyota Rav4 top Engine View
If you answer yes to each question, you've targeted a segment filled with tidy, fuel-sipping models like the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Subaru Forester, Pontiac Aztek, and Honda CR-V. And of course, the Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe LX. The second-generation RAV4 and the new Santa Fe are pretty smart answers-each costs less than $25,000. The first-gen RAV4 pioneered this car-based segment in '96. The Santa Fe, with its quirky styling, is fresh meat in this market, but it checks in with lots of standard features and a smooth V-6. How do these two score on our VATs (Vehicular Aptitude Tests)?
MT's lesson plan takes our diminutive duo to the track and out on the road. With our minor in-sand and dirt-road studies, we have a handle on capabilities and personalities. Here's the report:
At the test track, with instruments suction-cupped in place, we confirmed what we suspected after street cruising: The RAV is faster. Despite its additional 658cc and two extra cylinders, the 181-hp Santa Fe lost at the dragstrip. The RAV4 was almost 2 sec quicker to 60 mph. How? The RAV's 2.0L/148-hp DOHC four enjoys two big advantages: a five-speed manual transaxle (only the four-cylinder front-drive Santa Fe is available with a manual) and 875 lb less weight to shove around. But the Santa Fe's street manners give it the on-road edge.
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.
2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx front Interior View
  |   2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx front Interior View
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.
2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx cargo View
  |   2005 Hyundai Santa Fe Lx cargo View
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.
The Toyota felt solid and agile during lane changes and while maneuvering through low-speed traffic. The tradeoff is in everyday driving. Even flattened tar strips report into the cabin with a strong thud. Drivers hear every road-surface grain change and feel all road imperfections. We'd blame the RAV's MacPherson struts, but the Santa Fe uses the same front suspension hardware-obviously with different tuning.
As in the powertrain contest, the Hyundai appears on paper to have a braking advantage with its four-wheel discs versus the Toyota's front discs/rear drums. But at the track, the RAV4 showed off with a 117-ft stop from 60 mph versus the Hyundai's 132-ft best. (There's that weight advantage again.) Both posted their brake-lane performances with the aid of anti-lock equipment-$590 extra in the RAV and $595 extra in a package with traction control in the Santa Fe.
One nice surprise is that both these modest-buck SUVs have full-featured well-detailed interiors. From full instrumentation to full-size spares, these are no strippers. The Toyota seats are covered with two patterns of attractive cloth, and the Hyundai features leather seats with heaters. Each has hard pockets in the doors for papers or magazines, and the center consoles have dual cupholders and hinged-top storage. Both have well-laid-out controls and readable instruments, but based on its light-faced gauges, cargo-area grocery-bag holders, removable rear seats that free up interior volume, and a low 22-in. rear-gate liftover, the RAV4 wins the interior contest by a nose and one less strained back.
Asked to choose which they'd buy with the first paychecks from their post-University of Michigan, entry-level jobs, the brothers of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity and their co-ed friends overwhelmingly picked the Hyundai. Only one of the brothers dissented, saying he'd pick the Toyota because of its reputation for quality. The young men and women looked the RAV and Santa Fe over carefully, but didn't get to drive them. On-road testing, and perhaps the perspective of years, produced different grades.
FINALS: Todd: Perhaps it's the generation gap-I'm twice the age of the college seniors-but I'd take the RAV4 hands down over the Santa Fe. It drives like one of Toyota's sportier '80s hatchbacks, but with more space. I could deal with the rougher ride to get better handling, and I'd just turn up the stereo to drown out the chassis thrum. The Hyundai is a good buy for small families who want all the amenities they can get for not much money, but it's not as much fun to drive.
Jack: I'd choose the sportier driving RAV in black with its handy, removable rear seats and low lift-over height. But I wish Toyota would give me a tad more suspension travel and sound attenuation. I'm impressed with the Santa Fe's on-road quietness and ride. But the test numbers are weak, and its styling is just weird. Class dismissed.
Numbers, Numbers
  Hyundai Toyota
Step-in height, in 17.0 18.7
Ground Clearance 8.1 6.7
Payload, lb 1476 1113
Approach angle, deg 28.0 28.0
Departure angle, deg 60.6 29.0
Ramp breakover 21.0 22.0
Gate height, empty, in 28.3 22.0
2005 Toyota Rav4 front Interior View
  |   2005 Toyota Rav4 front Interior View
2005 Toyota Rav4 cargo View
  |   2005 Toyota Rav4 cargo View

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Toyota RAV4

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MSRP: $23,680
Mileage: 24 / 31
Engine: 2.5L I4
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