Rory Reid heads out to the Scottish Highlands to test the Hyundai Santa Fe with free spirit and double-hard adventurer Andy Torbet.
“Is there anything out here than can kill us?” I ask, hopping out of the big Korean 4×4. The early evening sun had begun to dip below the mountains of the Glencoe pass and our once picturesque camp site was rapidly becoming a bit sinister – for a city boy like me. “There should be,” my guide responded. “But don’t worry, we’ve killed all our natural predators. A few years ago we’d have been out here with bears, wolves, lynx and maybe a few big cats that escaped after eating their owners.
“These days, you should be OK.”
I didn’t feel particularly OK. Even if I wasn’t to be savaged by some sort of grizzly wolf thing, there were plenty of other threats to my health; the lack of a broadband Internet connection, blood-thirsty midges, inclement Scottish weather and the fact that, for the next 48 hours, I’d be sleeping in the back of a Hyundai Santa Fe. In the wilderness. With only a lunatic for protection.
The lunatic in question was Andy Torbet – adventurer, extreme diver, kayaker, and former British paratrooper. Somehow he’d managed to blag a position as a Hyundai brand ambassador and convinced the Korean car maker to drag a bunch of journalists out to the middle of absolutely nowhere to have an ‘adventure’ in its flagship 4×4, the Santa Fe.
Fish out of water
To say I was concerned would be something of an understatement. Andy has spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and The Falklands. He is a man that doesn’t flinch in the face of evil, who thrives in the company of danger. The little patch of wilderness he’d chosen for us to camp in was a few hundred yards from Jimmy Savile’s former home, for goodness sake.
I’d arrived at Glencoe in relative luxury. The Santa Fe was pretty – far prettier than a seven-seater has any right to be — and comfortable. It acquitted itself wonderfully on the scenic, butter-smooth and delightfully twisty stretch of A82 that led up to the Glencoe pass. I wouldn’t call its handling car-like, but it’s no bus, and its 2.2-litre, 194bhp diesel engine is as keen as they come — 422Nm of torque isn’t too far removed from the sort of shove you get in a Ferrari California.
I found no real reason to slow down when the sat-nav instructed me to turn off onto a stretch of dirt track that led to our camp site. I ploughed along that little lane like a mentalist, kicking up dust, splashing through streams and sliding through mud in fairly irresponsible fashion, but the Santa Fe’s four-wheel-drive system coped with it all.
Four wheels, five stars
Upon reaching camp, I introduced myself to hard-man Torbet and his partner in crime, Dave Talbot. After some firm handshakes I was shown my quarters for the night – the same Santa Fe I’d driven up in.
It wasn’t all bad. Hyundai’s event staff took the vehicle away momentarily and made a few choice modifications. Both the rear rows of seats were folded flat to accommodate a double mattress, which was clad in clean, white sheets and a thick duvet. Atop the makeshift bed, they’d placed all the niceties one might expect to find in a five-star hotel: A fluffy bathrobe, chocolates on the pillows, Scottish shortbread fingers, strawberry preserve, Highland blend tea, slippers, a sleeping mask, a toothbrush and toothpaste, plus a glove compartment that had been converted into a minibar with gins, whiskeys and vodkas.
The strangest inclusion was a pack of luxury Molton Brown toiletries – strange because there was no toilet in our camp. Andy had organised a small tent for us to hide in should any of us forget our shame long enough to defecate into a plastic bag, but we were told urination would have to be conducted in a nearby bush of our choosing. You don’t get that sort of treatment in a Hilton.
Yes, I was disappointed with the sleeping and excretion arrangements; I’m a city boy through and through, but peer pressure is surprisingly sobering. I was asked to do something very much out of the ordinary and pushed myself. That night, I gutted and prepared my first fish, lit my first campfire and drank beer cooled by a nearby stream. Later, I flipped open the boot of my car-cum-bedroom, slipped into my PJs and drifted off as the stars twinkled through the giant panoramic sunroof. If I lived through the night, I’d be able to tell my kid that, for one short night, daddy was a man.
Up and at ’em
The Santa Fe passed its first test with flying colours – the door locks kept murderers and the ghosts of questionable 70s TV presenters firmly at bay. It was bloody comfortable, too. There was plenty of room to stretch out fully (I’m 5′ 10”) and there’d have been room for one or two others of my size if I’d pulled the night before. I even overslept slightly, although this may or may not have been something to do with the fact that I made use of the ‘minibar’. I’m nothing of not thorough in my testing.
After a hearty breakfast (some dead animal or other that Andy had killed and fried) we set off in a convoy of Santa Fes in search of adventure. The irony of this endeavour wasn’t lost on me. Most people, I presume, wouldn’t put their Santa Fe through anything more demanding than accidentally mounting a curb, yet here we were, carving through Glencoe, headed for Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles.
Of course, attempting to traverse big, bad Ben would have been foolhardy. Legend has it that Henry Alexander once conquered the mountain in a 20 horsepower Model T Ford back in 1911, a feat that was later re-enacted as part of a publicity stunt to prove the reliability of the car, but it took six weeks to lay down a custom timber road for the challenge. We wouldn’t have the same luxury, thank goodness – I didn’t fancy joining the dozens of people that were killed or injured on the peak each year.
What we could do, however, was drive the car through some fairly treacherous mountain roads that were generally only accessible by foot. At the end of this was a small clearing – a dead end that we’d inadvertently turned into the highest, most Hyundai-heavy car park in the UK. OK, it wasn’t the most demanding off road circuit in the world, but the Santa Fe had made it to this point with plenty of ability to spare.
High on life
My next step in the adventure involved walking lots — not a technique I often employ when testing a car. We left the Santa Fes and hiked for what felt like approximately five billion miles in a giant circle, only to return to the cars several hours later, exhausted, sweaty and, in my case, a little confused as to the point of it all. This activity, I was told, was something Andy did for fun. He calls it rambling, and he was using it as a warm up for something altogether more difficult and pointless: scrambling.
We loaded the Santa Fe up with enough helmets, harnesses, waterproof clothing to put Ann Summers out of business (that 534 litre boot is cavernous with the third row of seats folded flat) and headed out to our destination, Polldubh Crags.
Scrambling, it emerged, is an activity that is best described as climbing up rocks until you’re so tired you vomit. It’s a bit like climbing several hundred flights of very large stairs. Substitute the stairs for big, jagged rocks, and the banister for sheer drops to your doom and you’ll start to get the picture.
Once at the top, I met my nemesis, a sheer miniature mountain that, by my reckoning, must have measured several hundred metres in height. I made Andy promise to release me from my torture if I climbed the thing and set about scaling the ever living hell out of it. I jammed my boots firmly into nooks, gripped tiny crannies with my fingertips and hauled myself up that sucker, wondering what my life had come to. What sort of a man, I asked myself, goes out to review a car and ends up halfway up a mountain where one slip could instant death?
But it was at the top of that little mountain that I had a revelation. As the darkness closed in, and the sleet fell and the swirling wind threatened to pull me from the rock’s peak, I glanced across the valley and saw our Hyundai Santa Fes in the murky distance. And then it dawned on me. This is a car that does the majority of its work in the city. It lives primarily for the mundane, spending most of its life well within its comfort zone. But when pushed, it undergoes an impressive transformation and becomes a far more impressive animal, one that is capable of so much more than people give it credit for — a bit like me, then.
Read our full review of the Hyundai Santa Fe.