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Something interesting is going on in the new car market. A little known import brand is quietly gobbling up sales with products that are modern, fuel efficient, of good quality, very competitively priced, and offer an outstanding warranty. The company’s products are so successful, that so far this year their sales are up almost 50%. That’s on top of a near doubling of sales last year. Is this another Japanese import car brand? No, but you are in the right half of the world. The company is Hyundai, and its the largest Korean car maker. In America currently, Hyundai is actually outselling far better known Japanese brands such as Acura, Isuzu, and even Mazda.

Now, Hyundai has been in the U.S. market for well over a decade, and paid its dues early on with cars that were nothing like their current products. However, once they keyed in on the wants, and needs of American buyers, sales began improving. Now, those sales are on a fast pace. A pace that should turn into a stamped with their latest offering, the 2001 Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle.

The Santa Fe is the firms’ first sport-utility vehicle designed, engineered, and developed by Hyundai. The Santa Fe has virtually the same wheelbase and overall length of the popular Honda CR-V, but is wider with a more stylish and robust exterior appearance. Based on the mid-size Sonata chassis, the Santa Fe’s standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is rated at 149 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. The optional 2.7-liter V-6 will be among the largest engines in a small sport-utility vehicle, with 181-horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Power levels of both engines are more robust than either the CR-V, or the Toyota RAV4, which are 4-cylinder only. That should allow the Santa Fe to do well here.

As will the Santa Fe V-6’s available full-time 4-wheel drive system and traction control. Traction control is not offered on its main competitors, and is not a common feature in the small sport-utility class. Without four-wheel drive, the Santa Fe is front-wheel driven and handles much like a similarly sized front-wheel drive sedan.

A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on the 4-cylinder, with a 4-speed automatic optional. The automatic is the only transmission available for the V-6, and it includes a manual shift override feature for more precise driver control in bad weather and off-road.

Even the base Santa Fe is well equipped with air conditioning, stereo with compact disc player, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, power locks and windows, and alloy wheels standard. Besides base, Santa Fe models include the volume GLS and luxury LX. Major Santa Fe options include anti-lock brakes, a limited-slip rear differential, power driver’s seat, premium stereo, and even fully automatic climate control. Add in the longest warranty available on any SUV, including 10 year powertrain coverage, and very competitive prices, and the Hyundai Santa Fe looks to be a strong mini-ute alternative for those buyers worried less about a quality heritage and more about initial value for the dollar.

Given the distance each Santa Fe has to travel to get to American buyers, there is little risk that it will become a top seller in its class, at least not right away. However, Hyundai is considering building an assembly plant in America, just like many of the Japanese importers that came ashore decades ago. So, it would be no surprise if Korea’s Hyundai continues to follow the well worn footsteps to success pioneered by other Asian automakers, with the Santa Fe a very important step along the path.