Published on Sunday 8 December 2013 09:03
Ten Second Review
With far crisper styling, impressive equipment levels, a chassis tuned for British roads and a punchy 200PS 2.2-litre diesel engine under the bonnet, the latest Hyundai Santa Fe punches its way upmarket on merit. Customers choose between five and seven seats, manual or auto transmissions and front or four-wheel drive. We opted to test the 7-seat 4WD variant most UK buyers want. You'll be hard pressed to find too much wrong with this one. No wonder it's been Hyundai's best selling car in this country.
You know, the cleverer car manufacturers out there might just have found market niches that at first seem completely unintuitive. The McLaren MP4 is the supercar for people who are embarrassed by supercars. The Ford S-MAX MPV sold to people who wouldn't be seen dead in an MPV. And this car, the Hyundai Santa Fe is an SUV for people who wouldn't normally entertain the prospect of one.
To date, most SUVs have been a bit showy; rather unnecessary vehicles that hint at pretences of rural affluence or urban bling. The Santa Fe has always been cut from rather different cloth. This third generation model, introduced in 2012, might be a sharper looking thing than both its forebears but it remains a vehicle that's about good ideas and common sense first and foremost. You'll buy one of these if you value its utility. That and the fact that there's nothing about it that's annoying. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but if you're going to spend three years in its company, it's a value you'll greatly appreciate.
Its rivals have looked and learned from the Santa Fe's quiet rise to success and have upped their game accordingly. Does the latest car have enough ticks on the plus side of its ledger to make a convincing case for itself? Let's find out.
How an SUV drives is usually pretty far down the priority list after how it looks, what it costs and how much room there is inside. We used to take it as read that an SUV would be about as sharp as serving of refried beans to drive but in recent years we've seen the pendulum swing back the other way with 'sporty' 4x4s with decidedly brittle ride quality. The Hyundai Santa Fe is different. While it's a long way from the lax body control of old-school SUVs, it's not in any way a sharp steer. Don't take that as a criticism. The UK makes up around a third of all Santa Fe sales in Europe and therefore Hyundai has spent some time and money tuning the suspension of the car to suit our frankly horrible roads.
Like many vehicles of its type, it's front wheel drive most of the time, but when sensors detect slippage, up to 50 per cent of drive can be diverted to the rear wheels. So far, so predictable. Unlike many 'part time' four-wheel drives, the Santa Fe can be locked into 4x4 mode at the touch of a button which is perfect for especially slippery conditions, such as muddy off-roading or driving on snow or ice. What's more you can do this on the fly at speeds up to 40kmh.
Engines? Let's try singular. We only get a 2.2-litre all-aluminium diesel powerplant but it's a solid unit. You've still got 196PS of power arriving at 3800rpm so it's reasonably quick. The sprint to 62mph is dispatched in 9.8 seconds in an all-wheel drive model though you'll go a little slower if you specify the six-speed auto gearbox.
Design and Build
The Santa Fe is one of those cars that has become progressively better looking throughout its existence and this third generation car hits all the right notes. The front end features a big grille and a high pedestrian-friendly bonnet line, with all of the lights and intakes a stylised trapezoidal shape. It looks agreeably expensive. Jump inside and the good news continues. We're getting used to some very smart Hyundai interiors these days and the Santa Fe doesn't deviate from that script one iota. There seem to be quite a variety of materials used on the fascia but the overall look and feel is attractive, the dash being dominated by a central screen flanked on either side by these big air vents. Then you've got stereo and ventilation controls below, with quite a few of these functions replicated on the steering wheel. The four-wheel drive running gear controls are mounted just here to the right of the steering wheel.
The three-berth middle row slides back and forth which is a boon when you've got adult passengers behind you but the middle row of seats don't tumble which means that if you do specify your car with the two occasional seats in the back, access isn't as good as in some rivals. On the plus side, those rearmost seats do fold very neatly away into the floor, which means a decent amount of space in the boot when you're travelling in five-seater mode. Luggage space has been increased by 37mm in depth over the previous generation model, yielding a capacity of 534 litres with the front five seats upright.
Market and Model
One inevitable consequence of the Santa Fe becoming better finished, better equipped and better engineered is that prices have crept up. That price rise is partially offset by the provision of the front-wheel drive models which start at less than £26,000, with the step up to an equivalent all-wheel drive car costing around £1,400. It's a £1,200 price step to go from a five-seater models to a seven-seater and around £1,700 to add an automatic gearbox. You can therefore see how it's easy to suddenly start spending around £30,000 on even an entry trim Santa Fe. Something like a Nissan QASHQAI+2 with seven seats, a diesel engine and an automatic gearbox will run you around £3,000 less which shows that this Hyundai has moved into a serious section of the market.
Still, you do get a lot of gear for your money. Even the entry-level trim will net you cruise control, rear parking sensors, three-stage heated front seats, Bluetooth with voice recognition, steering wheel mounted stereo and phone controls, AUX-in and USB connections for the stereo and a trip computer. There's 18-inch alloy wheels, front and rear skid plates, a rear spoiler with an integrated brake light and body-coloured doors and mirrors. Go for a range-topper and you'll get gear like 12-way electrically adjustable driver's seat trimmed in leather, keyless entry, touch screen satellite navigation, a ten speaker premium sound system with separate subwoofer and amplifier, and a smart parking assist function.
Cost of Ownership
As well as offering decent value for money, the Santa Fe isn't going to break the bank when it comes to day to day running costs. With no petrol engine in the range it's hard to come up with a model that is anything other than saintly in terms of economy and emissions. There is one slight caveat though and that's the automatic gearbox. Compare manual and auto versions of, say, an all-wheel drive seven seater and the manual will register 46.3mpg and 159g/km whereas the automatic fares markedly worse at 41.5mpg and 178g/km. Still, it's worth putting even that worst case figure in perspective. Getting better than 40mpg from a seven seat four-wheel drive vehicle really isn't that bad is it?
Residual values look extremely good in part thanks to the Santa Fe's increasingly strong reputation for reliability. Owners also take advantage of Hyundai's excellent Five Year Triple Care deal. This includes a five year unlimited mileage warranty, five year RAC roadside assistance and five year annual vehicle health checks from your dealer
The Hyundai Santa Fe has improved and improved fast. Its predecessor was a really solid vehicle that now looks a great used buy, but this one has stepped it up more convincingly than we thought possible.
In fact it's a great choice if you've never really considered an SUV before. It's not showy or offensive. In fact it marries all the best bits of SUVs, namely their space, versatility and ease of ownership with the refreshing lack of drama of a normal big family car. Although there's no choice when it comes to engines, UK buyers can decide whether they want front or four wheel drive and five seats or seven. Plus there's auto or manual transmissions and a range of trim levels, so Hyundai have most customer eventualities covered off. If you've got a family, have room in your life for one car and need one that'll discreetly go the distance without a hiccup, you need to try the Hyundai Santa Fe. Then try its rivals. I'm guessing you'll be back at the Hyundai dealer before too long. It's that good.