The Santa Fe is Hyundai's most well-known model. So apparently entrenched in the global psyche is the SUV's nameplate that Hyundai has resisted the urge to bring its monicker in line with the i-themed (i20, i30, i40 etc.) convention that defines the rest of its range. It's a vehicle the company cares about tremendously so it's understandable that it's lavished plenty of love on this third-generation model.
Aimed at well-to-do punters for whom a crossover is too small and an MPV too van-like, this latest edition promises an improved exterior design, better fuel economy, lower emissions and improved refinement. It goes head to head with the Chevrolet Captiva, Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan X-Trail.
The new Santa Fe is a far sexier beast than the outgoing model. This edition is 40mm longer, 45mm lower and 5mm wider than its predecessor, but is better proportioned with a more car-like stance. The old Santa Fe was rather MPV-like in its appearance but this edition looks sportier and more muscular thanks to a swept back windscreen and rakish rear window angle. The thick plastic skirt around the bottom of the car helps reduce the amount of metal, giving it a smaller, more coupe-like appearance, while a slightly thicker windscreen helps reduce road noise.
Smarter seat arrangement has seen the Santa Fe's interior space grow significantly. Front headroom and legroom has increased by 11mm and 38mm, respectively. The same applies for rear leg-room, which has jumped 45mm. There are no issues with rear headroom.
The Santa Fe is available in 5- and 7-seat guises. In the 7-seat option, the third row of seats lives in what would otherwise be the boot. Accessing them is fairly tricky, as you'll have to climb through the luggage hatch or fold the rear seats down and clamber across the seatbacks. Once in place, there's enough legroom for adults, though headroom is limited. If you're over 5 feet 10 inches in height, you'll have to slouch down in order to avoid being clouted with the boot lid as it closes.
The second row of seats are comfortable, with plenty of space for three. They even slide forward and backwards and recline by a good margin, so it's easy to get comfy on long journeys. Our only gripe where these are concerned is the fact the mechanism for folding the seats flat is a little stiff.
Up front, you get a redesigned cockpit area with comfortable seats and a nice, logical instrument layout. The electrically-operated driver's seat has huge amounts of adjustment – particularly in its height. It's possible to sit up so high you might get a sense of vertigo. Cubbie space is par for the course. There are plenty of cup holders front and rear, a centre storage bin, a large glove compartment and adequately-sized door bins.
Boot space is tiny with all seven seats in place – there's barely room for a single suitcase. However with the third row folded down, boot space jumps to 534 litres. Storage capacity leaps to 1,615 litres with the third and fourth row of seats folded.
Performance & Handling
The Hyundai Santa Fe uses the same 2.2-litre VGT diesel engine as the previous car, but this version's has been fettled for improved efficiency. Commonrail injection technology and a variable geometry turbo help produce 197PS (194bhp) and an meaty 422Nm of torque, available from 1,800rpm. It charges away from a standstill with urgency and, once moving, never feels breathless. It's refined, too, its noise levels never proving a nuisance inside the cabin.
Two six-speed transmission options are available. The automatic is a smooth-shifting, long-legged box that offers a calm, relaxed experience. Our choice, however, would be the six-speed manual, as it makes the car more enjoyable to drive and lets you make the most of what is a very capable engine.
On-road handling is par for the course. There's a fair amount of body lean through corners, as you might expect, and the steering (which features adjustable resistance levels to make it easier or harder to turn on a whim) is vague and slightly lethargic in its response. However, the overall on-road experience is a positive one. Hyundai has succeded in delivering a cosseting and relaxed ride for passengers and drivers alike. We'd happily drive or be driven in this thing on long journeys without complaint.
Off-road, the Santa Fe copes well. The car is driven by its front wheels forthe vast majority of the time, but its on-demand all-wheel-drive system engages the rear wheels when the system detects there is insufficient grip at the front. Permanent four-wheel-drive can be enabled at the push of a button up to 25mph. Great ground clearance, a centre-locking differential and hill descent controls all help inspire confidence when off the beaten track.
Economy & Environment
Emissions and economy are improved in the new Santa Fe. Hyundai claims fuel economy of 47.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 178g/km in the 4WD automatic model – both figures representing a 9.7 per cent improvement. The Chevy Captiva, for reference, returns 35.7mpg and spews 208g/km. Two-wheel drive versions of the Santa Fe deliver better CO2 numbers still, just 155g/km.
Equipment & Value
Being a Hyundai, the Santa Fe is absolutely dripping in equipment, much of it coming as standard. It's available in three trim levels – style, premium and top of the range premium SE. Style models get 18-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights, privacy glass, air-conditioning, heated front seats, drivers seat electric lumbar support, Bluetooth, a radio/CD player with six speakers, USB, aux and iPod connectivity.
Premium nets you roof rails, chrome door handles, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, heated front seats, a touchscreen sat-nav, a rear-view camera and proximity sensors that beep when you get too close to cars while parking. The top spec premium SE adds 19-inch alloys, automatic Xenon headlights, headlight washers, keyless entry with push button starting, panoramic glass sunroof, front parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring and Smart Park Assist, which parallel parks the car automatically for you.
The new Santa Fe has yet to be crash tested by Euro NCAP, but Hyundai expects it'll achieve a five-star rating with flying colours. To help it on this mission, it's built the vehicle of lightweight, ultra-high tensile steel and aluminium, fitted seven airbags, brake assist and stability management. It's even included a trailer stability assist feature that detects and counters the effects of any attached trailer that begins shaking during a tow.
Like all manufacturers, Hyundai makes good cars and mediocre ones, and the Santa Fe is definitely one of the good ones. It's good-looking, large enough to accommodate up to seven people and includes an inordinate amount of equipment. It also drives well. It doesn't take kindly to being hurled about – no car of this size would – but it's a comfortable, luxurious ride that makes its occupants feel at home even when scrambling over broken terrain.
Model tested: Hyundai Santa Fe Style
Engine: 2.2-litre VGT diesel
Acceleration: 0-62 in 10.1 seconds
Top speed: 118mph
Emissions: 178g/km CO2