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2007 Hyundai Santa Fe Mid-Size Sport Utility Vehicle

What was tested? 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited ($25,945).

Options: Rear cargo screen ($100), carpeted floor mats ($95).

Price as tested: $26,140.

Where Built: South Korea.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe Mid-Size Sport Utility Vehicle

Perception is an amazing thing. It has a way of clouding our judgment, especially about cars, so that we see things in a way that doesn't even remotely match reality.

Take Jaguar, for instance. In the mid '90s, Jaguar was still making cars that were absolute pieces of garbage, with 12-cylinder engines that leaked more oil than the Exxon Valdez and so many electrical problems that warning lights on the dash would flash like a New York City disco. There was no getting around the fact that they were terrible, terrible cars.

Yet when someone would drive up in one of these awful Jags, they weren't the least bit embarrassed. That's because people's perception was totally skewed to see Jag drivers as cool, sophisticated and wealthy. Never mind the oil slicks and disco lights -- the Jaguar had a high price tag, a yummy body, Connolly leather and a name that can be pronounced "Jag-you-ahh," so it must be a great car.

Thankfully Ford bought Jaguar and lifted it out of the quality doldrums, but that wasn't the end of automotive misconceptions. Oh, no.

Hyundai today suffers from the opposite problem of Jaguar. Despite making some absolutely amazing cars that match their Japanese rivals but cost a lot less, people still think Hyundai is a Korean word for "about to fall apart."

And that's just silly.

If you actually test-drive one of Hyundai's newest cars, like the Sonata, you'll see it drives just as nice and feels just as solid as the Toyota Camry. There's no quality tradeoff. The Hyundai is just as refined, just as supple, and just as well-made as the Toyota -- and owner surveys show their quality is on par with the Japanese big guns, too.

The Hyundai Santa Fe suffers from this same stigma. Although it's a wonderful SUV, especially for the money, it still has a Hyundai badge on the hood, so your uninformed friends will pity you for having to make due with something cheap and disposable -- even though that's not the case at all

The Santa Fe feels almost on par with more expensive, mid-size luxury SUVs like the Acura MDX. It's extremely quiet, very composed on the highway and wonderfully comfortable on the inside. The biggest difference comes not from the way it drives, but from little things like cheaper-feeling plastics on the dash. It's substantially the same as a luxury SUV for a much lower price.

And the pricing really is the story here. You can get a nice Santa Fe for around $21,000, or a loaded Limited model for around $27,000.

Even better, the Santa Fe is completely new for 2007. The biggest difference is in the interior, where a third-row seat can now be fitted in the back thanks to a little extra room and extremely efficient use of space. Hyundai brags that the Santa Fe is 2.1 inches shorter than the Lexus RX, yet it still has more head, leg and shoulder room than the RX and also offers a third-row seat, which the Lexus does not.

Hyundai also throws out some big names when comparing its third-row seat legroom to the Acura MDX, Honda Pilot, Volvo XC 90 and Mercedes-Benz GL. It has more room than the Acura, Honda and Volvo, and it matches the big Mercedes. That's impressive.

Hyundai accomplished this by building an all-new platform that it doesn't share with any other vehicles. While most crossover SUVs have inherent compromises because they must share the same basic architecture with several other vehicles, Hyundai says the Santa Fe was designed just to be the Santa Fe, which is why it was able to maximize interior space.

In any case, the Santa Fe is a fantastic SUV for the money.

If only Hyundai's reputation could catch up with it.

Pros: It's a great SUV for the money. It drives with the kind of poise you'd expect from a luxury car, and it has a comfortable interior that makes great use of the available space.

Cons: Hyundai has the opposite of brand cachet.

RATINGS (1-10)

Style: 8
Performance: 8
Price: 10
Handling: 9
Ride: 9
Comfort: 9
Quality: 8
Overall: 9