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Does this new Hyundai Santa Fe build on the recipe for success of its forebear?

The previous generation of the Hyundai Santa Fe was as easy to like as it was to live with. It wasn’t the most glamorous of Far Eastern SUVs – far from it, in fact. But therein lay some of the appeal. The Hyundai was big, it towed well, it could seat seven, it came with a long warranty and it was well priced.

Little wonder, then, that the UK – which likes that sort of thing – accounted for a third of all European Hyundai Santa Fe sales.

Hyundai’s pricing structure doesn’t allow a great deal of room for personalisation.

The Autocar road test team even ran one for a while, drawing the conclusion that, if we were in the market for a car like this, the Santa Fe would come very close to the top of our shortlist.

Little wonder, too, that Hyundai has taken the UK market very seriously with its replacement. Because although the Santa Fe is a global car that’s selling – and selling well – in Hyundai’s major markets, the UK version has received its own, unique chassis tune to match these islands’ uniquely appalling roads.

As before, the Santa Fe is available in five and seven-seat configurations. However, it is fitted with just one engine is offered – a 2.2-litre turbodiesel developing 194bhp, in on-demand four-wheel drive configuration only – with either a manual or automatic gearbox, both with six-speeds.

The range is split across two core trim levels, with the five-seat model reserved just for the entry-level trim.

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So the question is this: will the latest Santa Fe retain – and deserve – the same popularity as its forebear?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Hyundai Santa Fé rear

Striking, isn’t it? Hyundai has become a great deal bolder with its styling and the Hyundai Santa Fe is a beneficiary of that confidence. It has a large, gaping grille that avoids making it look like it has been holed and instead presents the world’s rear-view mirrors with a thoroughly modern, but perhaps slightly derivative, take on soft-roading.

The rest of its profile is less dramatic but equally refreshed, with a rising window line towards the back end giving a greater sense of purpose than before. That’s part of a deliberate ploy: Hyundai has made the Santa Fe longer, by 30mm (to 4690mm), while width is down by 10mm and the height is reduced, too, from 1760mm to 1680mm, to give it a look of greater dynamism.

Hyundai calls its design theme ‘Fluidic Sculpture’, so the Santa Fe looks like it’s meant to be moving all the time.

It’s meant to take the Santa Fe from soft-roader to crossover. Has that worked? Moderately. To most of our testers’ eyes, it still looks like one of the more sensible, grown-up cars in this class.

The new Santa Fe’s shell is torsionally 15 percent more rigid than its predecessor’s, and although its underpinnings are new, the mechanical layout is the one you’d expect. There is MacPherson strut front suspension, with a multi-link set-up at the rear. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine is mounted transversely and drives all four wheels (although, for the first time, a two-wheel-drive variant will be offered).

The majority of UK cars feature the optional six-speed automatic gearbox which brings with it a big loss in efficiency over the manual. Throw in the 4WD system, which pushes power to the rear on demand when the front wheels slip, and expect efficiency and emissions of 46.3mpg and 159g/km.

But substituting the manual gearbox for the automatic increases CO2 emissions to 178g/km and drops the economy to 41.5mpg. Still, those figures would have been remarkable for a 194bhp 2.2 turbodiesel until quite recently, and they’re achieved without the adoption of contemporary efficiency options such as electrical assistance for the power steering.

INTERIOR

Hyundai Santa Fé interior

The UK market does without the long-wheelbase variant that the US market gets; Hyundai says there would be no demand. Instead, the Hyundai Santa Fe offered in the UK has three rows of seats, as before, and the same 2700mm wheelbase as its predecessor.

Given that the length is only marginally increased and the roofline has actually decreased, it’s a credit to Hyundai’s interior packaging that there is 11mm more headroom and 45mm of extra legroom in the middle row.

A messy bank of switches controls the off-road functions. Yes, they’re rarely used but they could look less like an afterthought

That the three-wide bench slides fore and aft is definitely an advantage. Occupants in the front and middle rows will have no complaints about spaciousness, but a failure to install tumbling seats in the second row means access is hampered.

The third row, located in the boot where the seats can fold flat into the floor, is fine for occasional use. Once folded, the boot retains a decent size; it’s over a metre long with the central row of seats in place, rising to almost two metres with them folded.

One of the things we liked about the old Santa Fe was its straightforwardness. Its interior wasn’t appealing in a conventional, perceived quality sense, but it was laid out very clearly and was comfortable over long distances. This new variant differs most from its predecessor on the inside, where little chrome-effect inserts and modern touches abound.

Material choices are better, too. There are perhaps a few too many different finishes but, by and large, the cabin’s perceived quality is vastly improved.

The functionality of old is mostly retained. The dials are clear and most switchgear is sited logically, although quite why the button to alter the steering’s weight is given such prominence is anyone’s guess, given how little it is likely to be used.

As for standard equipment, the entry-level Premium model includes 18in alloy wheels, auto lights and wipers, cruise control, electric windows, parking sensors and electrically adjustable, heated and folding door mirrors on the outside, with dual-zone climate control, an electrically adjustable driver's seat, premium sound system, heated front seats and a touchscreen infotainment system with sat nav included on the inside. Opt for the seven-seat version and besides an extra row of seats, there is climate control in the rear and adaptive suspension included in the package.

The range-topping Premium SE models come with luxuries such as 19in alloys, blind spot detection system, heated steering wheel, xenon headlights, lane departure warning system, panoramic sunroof and ventilated front seats.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Hyundai Santa Fé side profile

The engine and automatic gearbox of the Hyundai Santa Fe are well matched. The motor’s 322lb ft motivates two tonnes of family SUV in a thoroughly obliging fashion, although that's true whether you opt for the six-speed manual or the elastic delivery of the torque converter auto.

When pulling away from a standstill, you don’t need to push the right-hand pedal very far to get the seven-seater’s mass moving; apply about half throttle, wait for a second or so and a healthy wad of urge is provided to the wheels.

You don’t have to work very hard to exceed the Santa Fe’s grip levels

The torque converter ’box thoroughly justifies its selection in some 70 percent of models sold in the UK. It slips a little initially, but in a predictable fashion and only when useful, and thereafter seems to deliver every last bit of motive power from crankshaft to road. It also seldom asks for a longer pause than you’re willing to allow it in doing so.

The manual six-speeder feels mechanically robust and is light and easy to use, and will be the prefered option for motorists on a budget as running costs are significantly lower.

The torquey character makes the Santa Fe surprisingly effortless to drive for one so big – one of the reasons why it’s such an agreeable car. It’s no more engaging or sporting to drive than the previous one, but that’s something we’d celebrate. It’s quietly effective but, more important, it’s well mannered, unobtrusive and easy to drive – which is exactly the kind of temperament you want in a family car.

The engine is as well isolated as any you’ll find in this class, and both wind and road noise are low.

Those who tow will approve of the way this car eases up to speed, using that little bit of transmission slip to its advantage. The auto option reduces this car’s braked towing capacity (2.5 tonnes in manual, just 2.0 in auto) but not enough to matter to most people.

In slippery conditions, the 4x4 system shuffles drive seamlessly. You never detect excess slip at either axle until the going gets very tough indeed. It’s so good that locking the centre diff seems to add little to the car’s ability to drive over mud and sand.

RIDE & HANDLING

Hyundai Santa Fé cornering

The dynamism that has been injected into the Hyundai Santa Fe’s exterior styling has leached only slightly into the car’s motive character. For the most part, this car is – just as it was – the soul of day-to-day usability, which is probably as Hyundai intended.

For those trading out of an old Santa Fe, a difference will be detected in this version’s slightly higher ride rates, which trade a little low-frequency compliance at town speeds for better body control at higher speeds. But while it doesn’t quite glide along at 30-50mph like the previous one, this Santa Fe remains more supple than most large 4x4s over an uneven B-road and is well within its comfort zone bowling along more quickly.

The ESP system is always on and quickly tames any oversteer

Moreover, the ride seems to improve with load – as if Hyundai’s dynamicists had tuned the suspension to attain its most comfortable state at a swift but legal cruise with four occupants on board and a half-full boot.

The standard-fit FlexSteer power steering system allows you to cycle through three assistance levels to find the one that suits you. Even in Sport mode, there’s little feedback available through the rim. Comfort seems to work best; in harmony with the rest of the car, it just makes the wheel that bit more obliging, and willing to self-centre more slowly.

Our test car's secondary ride – the ability of its chassis to deal with rough surfaces and small lumps and bumps – was good, thanks in no small part to the healthy tyre sidewalls wrapped around 18in wheels. Fully loaded Premium SE models come on 19s, so be sure to test drive a car on the largest rims if you want to be certain that the same is true in every case.

Those caveats aside, though, we’d position the Santa Fe midway between competent and accomplished in the way that it behaves on most British roads. It’s far from outstanding and there are plenty of cars in the class that an interested driver might prefer, but many fewer that you’d prefer to live with.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Hyundai Santa Fé

Although the Hyundai Santa Fe 4WD auto’s CO2 emissions are the highest in the range, Hyundai has engineered a useful boost in efficiency (197g/km to 178g/km) over the previous-generation model, which is also superior to, say, a 2.2-litre automatic Land Rover Freelander that has 50 fewer horses.

There's a significant finacial penalty for choosing the auto 'box over the manual. The official combined average of 46.3mpg sinks to 41.5mpg when choosing the auto over the manual, while emissions grow from 159g/km to 178g/km. Two-wheel drive models emit 155g/km.

A five-year warranty helps depreciation that’s a cut above the budget brand norm

During our tests, the Santa Fe – with four-wheel drive and an auto 'box – returned a satisfactory overall average of 31.4mpg and a best on a touring run of 37.5mpg, which is reasonable for a two-tonne SUV. Hyundai claims 41.5mpg on the combined cycle for automatic models and 46.3mpg for 4WD manual versions. Two-wheel drive models improve this figure to 47.9mpg.

Most buyers choose the seven-seat option, although that configuration carries a £1400 premium, even if a number of other bits of kit are bundled. The car itself is more expensive than the old model, in part due to the increase in perceived – and actual – quality, and in part to distance the Santa Fe from the smaller Hyundai ix35.

The Santa Fe tends to fare reasonably well in customer satisfaction surveys. In addition, the model is well known and in strong demand on the used market, so it will hold its value as well as most of its peers. Our experts predict that it will continue to do so in this latest guise, even though it has experienced a hike in its list price. It comes with a five-year warranty, too.

 

VERDICT

4 star Hyundai Santa Fé

The continued success of the Hyundai Santa Fe is easy to understand. Through three generations, it has stayed true to its hallmarks of versatility and practicality, but the third generation adds a little bit of quality, desirability and dynamism into the mix.

This car has gained a lot and lost very little. Hyundai’s bold exterior styling and smart cabin have answered two of our major criticisms of the old car.

We’d go for the Premium version rather than the base Style, because it adds niceties such as folding mirrors, dual-zone climate control and heated seats.

The one fly in the ointment is that it’s no longer quite the bargain it used to be. On like-for-like equipment, the previous Santa Fe represented a saving of between £3000 and £5000 on rivals such as the Honda CR-V and Land Rover Freelander. With this new one, that financial advantage has been halved.

Hyundai points to the increase in desirability and general driveway appeal as justification for the narrowing of the price gap between its rivals, and they have a point. This is now a car that can legitimately be compared to more premium opposition. Is the Santa Fe really a cut-price Freelander? Quite possibilty.

Any saving is still an advantage, of course, and now it’s one of even more reasons to buy – something that will surely make the Santa Fe’s UK popularity continue for at least another generation.

 

Hyundai Santa Fe 2013-2018 First drives