SAN DIEGO - The Koreans are getting pretty good at this game - borrow a page from the competition's playbook in designing a new vehicle, and then load it up with attractive standard features that consumers might find as optional on competitive vehicles. Add a price that usually undercuts by thousands.

The strategy must be working for Hyundai Motor America, which only two years ago was contemplating an exit from North America but now is making remarkable inroads in the U.S. market. At the end of June, all four of its cars - Accent, Sonata, Elantra and Tiburon - had contributed mightily to the No. 1 Korean automaker selling 123,471 vehicles in the U.S., up 74% from like-1999. And 1999 sales were 82% higher than 1998; of course, there was only one way to go from that rock-bottom year.

The recent success comes without a truck or SUV. Big Three product planners would be as giddy as Britney Spears if they could chart such sales growth in cars, especially small cars.

If Hyundai can succeed in the tight U.S. car market, company executives must be downright exuberant about the prospects for their newest product - the Santa Fe.

The company's better-late-than-never "Crossover Utility Vehicle" (XUV) arrives as higher gas prices are fueling speculation about a downturn in sales of large sport/utility vehicles.

Santa Fe's attraction is that it's larger than the cute-utes (Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V) and comparable in size to Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, Nissan Xterra and Lexus RX300. Yet Santa Fe's 78 cu. ft. (2.2 cu. m) of cargo space is 14% more than Escape/Tribute, 19% more than Xterra and 4% more than the more expensive RX300.

So if space is important, Santa Fe is a good value, given that 4-cyl. pricing for the XUV will start at about $17,000 (a fully loaded 4-wheel-drive version will sell for about $23,000). Four-cyl. Escapes and Xterras start around $17,600, and Tribute starts at $20,000.

Spend some time in Santa Fe, and you get the impression that this vehicle aspires to be less like Xterra and other trucky SUVs and more like the vehicle that pioneered its own segment - the RX300.

Like the RX300, the Santa Fe is based on a car platform (the Sonata) and has 4-wheel independent suspension, which eliminates the jarring ride that some SUV owners find distasteful.

Like the RX300, the Santa Fe is very refined; wind noise is minimal. Like RX300, the Santa Fe is attractively styled to look more like a car than a truck. The main difference is that the luxurious RX300 begins pricing at around $33,000.

Another big difference is power. Hyundai's biggest mistake was choosing 2.7L for the Santa Fe V-6, while Escape/Tribute and RX300 offer 3L powerplants, and Xterra offers a 3.3L. So Hyundai offers the smallest V-6 in what arguably is the largest vehicle in the segment.

Then again, in the home market of Korea, 2.7L is more power than most drivers will ever need. But in the U.S., it could be a detriment. The engine is rated at 185 hp at 6,000 rpm, with 189 lb.-ft. (257 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm. That sounds like enough power, but even on flat pavement and without cargo, I could not pass with confidence in the Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe V-6 actually does better off-road than on. Austria's Steyr-Daimler-Puch supplies the optional fulltime 4wd with a viscous coupling transfer case that provides a unique 60-40 power split to keep most of the power with the front wheels. At the nearby Carlsbad Raceway offroad course, the vehicle easily scales a 52-degree slope; it backs up the same terrain even easier.

Hyundai didn't forget its strategy of loading up Santa Fe with lots of standard goodies: side air bags, de-powered second-generation frontal air bags, seat belt pretensioners, 16-in. alloy wheels, air conditioning, black privacy glass, CD player and power windows. All standard, and most of them key selling points.

One problem: The prototype we drove - estimated price of about $20,000 - didn't have power side-view mirrors, which surely belong on the list of "standards."

Still, product planners contend that Santa Fe will help make Hyundai an "aspirational" brand, rather than an entry-level one, when it arrives in U.S. showrooms in September.