I recall a time when the folks at Hyundai had to add what’s known in the trade as a “pronouncer” to their signs at auto shows so folks would know how to say the company’s name. “Rhymes with Sunday” the sign said and the vehicle on the stand was an astoundingly unspectacular hatchback called the Excel. The year was 1986 and the idea of Americans driving Korean cars was as unheard of as…well…Americans driving Japanese cars in the early 60’s. And we are seeing the same pattern as then with an initially dull, cheap product gradually evolving and maturing into a high-quality, desirable machine.

And now Hyundai, which owns the other Korean giant KIA, builds a vehicle rated highly by J.D. Power for its quality and selling like cold beer in August on the basis of its design and price. And in 2002, Hyundai dipped a toe in the SUV market with the very stylish Santa Fe. Looking a bit like a cross between a tall wagon and a short sport ute, the Santa Fe probably owes a debt to the Subaru Outback, which showed drivers the value of making a handy station wagon more butch with a lot of off-road accoutrements.

But the 3rd generation Santa Fe has now added an element of style; some would say a dump truck load of style, to the Santa Fe that immediately made it a player in the small SUV field. Some thought the curvy, somewhat bulbous exterior was a bit much with swoops and lumps and add-on styling touches that overwhelmed at first. But it has grown into a stylish, very competitive ute. Its role in life is not to climb the Rockies, which is readily apparent when you visit the Hyundai website to look at the specs on the Santa Fe. You can find all the mechanicals, cargo room, legroom and the rest, but look for the all-important ground clearance figure and it’s not there. More proof that this is a “soft-roader” and its biggest challenges will no doubt come from gravel roads leading to the softball field or the lake house.

But that’s OK, because it is a very comfortable, very responsive partner for those activities.

The model we tested is the Sport. What makes it sporty? Well, it’s the short wheelbase model with no third row seat, which in most small utes amounted to an upholstered parcel shelf. In some trucks, the only way even kids could ride there is to leave their legs at home. If you want the room, Hyundai wisely made a long wheelbase model to accommodate you. That truck also has a 3.3-liter V6 with 290 eager ponies under your shift hand.

The engine choices are a 2.0-liter four cylinder twin-cam turbo with 240 horsepower, though the base engine is a 2.4-liter with 184 hard-working horses, that will all start to breathe hard the moment the road starts to incline. Go for the turbo, you’ll be much happier. The all-wheel-drive is a full-time system with no low range, yet another clue that you won’t be entering the next Jeep Jamboree in the Rockies.  Although, we got up a dirt road on Casper Mountain with very little drama.

But at a base price of $24,000 for the small four with only front-wheel-drive and the long-wheelbase, 7-passenger model with the V6 taking you into $30,000 for front-wheel-drive as well, the Santa Fe is priced right. Add all-wheel-drive to the Base Sport model and you start at $27,000. Our test truck had every bell and whistle and came in at just over $40-large.

And, as the J.D. Power ratings confirm, those old Korean car stereotypes are fading and Hyundai has joined the ranks of high quality Asian imports. Oh, great! Like American manufacturers need more of those. But such is competition and the Santa Fe proves once more that you may start out entry-level, but no one stays there. Hyundai is now a major player and a true alternative in the market. And no one wonders anymore how to say their name.


More From K2 Radio