SANTA BARBARA – Cross/utility vehicles, quasi-SUVs built on passenger-car platforms, are such a common presence it’s hard to imagine how America ever got along without them.

Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. had the foresight to recognize the CUV trend in the 1990s, and by 2000 it had launched the Santa Fe in the U.S.

Even though its styling was polarizing, featuring more bulges than Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky heyday, Hyundai Motor America officials say the Santa Fe succeeded in attracting younger, more affluent buyers, transforming the brand’s customer demographics.

The second-generation Santa Fe should further that process.

Riding on an all-new platform, (not shared with the new Sonata sedan, despite both being built in Montgomery, AL, HMA officials are quick to point out), the ’07 Santa Fe gains 6.9 ins. (17.5 cm) in length, 1.7 ins. (4.3 cm) in width and 1.9 ins. (4.8 cm) in height, and its wheelbase now is 106.3 ins. (270 cm) vs. 103.1 ins. (262 cm) for the first-generation model.

The suspension setup of the Santa Fe remains the same: MacPherson struts up front, independent links in the rear. However, the Santa Fe’s front suspension now has increased the caster angle for improved stability.

Two driveline configurations again are available: front-wheel drive and electronically controlled full-time all-wheel drive. There is a driver-selectable AWD lock that splits torque 50/50 between front and rear axles.

The Santa Fe has power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, which senses engine RPMs in determining the optimum level of assistance. Hyundai says its engineers in California and Michigan tuned the CUV’s steering for American tastes and better dynamic control.

However, one of the FWD Santa Fes we tested was so over-assisted the steering felt rubbery and vague. Oddly, the steering on another FWD model we drove later in the day felt much more responsive to driver inputs.

Still, the 5-seat AWD model’s 4,022-lb. (1,825-lb.) curb weight makes the Santa Fe’s handling and acceleration sluggish compared with some of its competitors.

While the ’07’s sleek styling makes the vehicle look sporty, it’s no lightweight: the 7-passenger SE and Limited trims with AWD come in at 4,121 lbs. (1,869 kg). The lightest trim is the FWD base GLS 5-seater with manual transmission, which, at 3,727 lbs. (1,691 kg), still is heavier than the new Mazda CX-7, which is 3,710 lbs. (1,683 kg) with FWD, 6-speed automatic transmission and turbocharged 2.3L DOHC 4-cyl.

The Santa Fe is available with two engines, a base 2.7L DOHC V-6 – not tested but already on duty in the new Kia Optima – and a larger 3.3L V-6. The new 2.7L DOHC V-6 makes 185 hp and 183 lb.-ft. (248 Nm) of torque.

The CUV’s upgrade engine is the same 3.3L DOHC V-6 found in the Sonata sedan. Installed in the Santa Fe, the larger V-6 cranks out 242 hp and 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) of torque.

The all-aluminum mill is quiet and provides plenty of power in the lighter FWD Santa Fe, but the added heft and AWD system of the Limited model seems to sap its strength a bit.

The Santa Fe’s European and Korean versions get a turbodiesel, which Hyundai says it is working to adapt to U.S. emissions standards. It can’t come soon enough, as the characteristic low-end torque of a turbodiesel would be a big help in motivating the heaviest Santa Fes.

Three transmissions will be offered, although the 5-speed manual is available only for the base GLS trim with 2.7L V-6. A 4-speed automatic is optional for the 2.7L Santa Fe, while the 3.3L V-6 is linked only with a 5-speed automatic.

While the steering and powertrain are not impressive, the Santa Fe really shines inside.

Levels of fit and finish are first class, as is material selection, most notably the woven headliner fabric and sharp Berber-carpeted floor mats, a $99 upgrade.

Like Volkswagen AG, Hyundai will begin using blue interior lighting in all of its vehicles, a color the auto maker says is easy on the eyes and is closely associated with technology. It adds an upscale aura, as do the stitched leather seats and three headrests in the second row.

Another notable interior feature: One of the best front-seat cupholders in the business. It boasts retracting, spring-loaded, solid-plastic tabs that firmly grip varying-diameter bottles.

No 7-seat models were available to drive, but one was on hand to test third-row roominess. Surprisingly, the Santa Fe has one of the more accommodating third rows in the midsize-CUV kingdom; the knees of a 5-ft.-8-in. (1.7-m) occupant did not touch the back of the second seat.

The only downside is the third row is part of an option package, even for the high-end Limited trim.

With the addition of the third row, the Santa Fe’s passenger volume is 142.3 cu.-ft. (4.0 cu.-m), more than both the 3-row Toyota Highlander and RAV4. The 5-seater just edges out the RAV4 (108.3 cu.-ft [3.1 cu.-m] vs. 108.2 cu.-ft. [3.06 cu.-m]).

Thankfully, the Santa Fe’s exterior has been reshaped, with crisper, more sinuous styling and much of the past-generation’s bulk lost. Nonetheless, the asymmetrically located rear-hatch release remains.

The base GLS begins at $20,945 and is nicely appointed with power-heated, manual- folding mirrors and power windows/doors, keyless entry and windshield wiper de-icer.

Hyundai expects it to account for half of all sales.

Upgrades are available only for the automatic GLS and include the 7-seat Touring Package and a Premium Package with power sunroof, heated front seats and steering wheel audio controls.

Stepping up to the midgrade SE trim, which begins at $23,645, nets a buyer the larger engine, 18-in. vs. 16-in. wheels, fog lights, and front solar control glass.

There are five option packages, one of which includes a rear-seat entertainment system.

The top-end Limited trim adds standard leather seating, heated front seats, power driver seat, dual-zone automatic temperature control, and various appearance features.

Upgrades for the Limited trim include a power sunroof and an Infinity audio system.

XM Satellite Radio with 3-month free trial subscription, Bluetooth connectivity and a Hyundai first, a navigation system, will be available later.

The Santa Fe comes standard with Hyundai’s calling card: standard electronic stability control, six airbags and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

The second-generation Santa Fe is one of the most refined models yet seen from Hyundai. Despite some performance issues, chances are most buyers will prioritize the plentiful amenities and distinctive Hyundai value, with the Santa Fe checking in at thousands of dollars less than competitors.

The ’07 Santa Fe is on sale now in the U.S.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com