Hyundai Santa Fe: Stepping up to the quality plate

Hyundai Santa Fe: Stepping up to the quality plate

Hyundai’s latest Santa Fe is further proof that Korean marques are starting to step on the toes of their European rivals. The big SUV isn’t quite in the premium league yet, but it’s getting very close, for a lot less money, and with a full house of features.

Value is still the most compelling reason for buying a car — especially when times are as tight, and the future is as uncertain, as now.

Upper-end buyers might not have the same concerns about affordability, interest rates and running costs, but most motorists will have these aspects at the very top of their list when it comes to replacing their ageing family steed with something newer.

Like the brand itself, Hyundai’s Santa Fe has come a long way. Now in its fourth generation, the generously proportioned SUV tops a soft-roader line-up that also encompasses the compact Creta, the lifestyle-focussed Kona, and the mid-sized Tucson.

In 18 years, the Santa Fe has gone from bland to bold, from ordinary to attractive, from cheap and cheesy to smart and aspirational. And that progress is mirrored by most of Hyundai’s other models.

In latest guise, the Santa Fe line-up spans three models, starting off with the Premium and progressing to the Executive and Elite version. The latter is the flagship, and also the only one equipped with all-wheel drive.

Not surprisingly, the most distinctive view of the newcomer is from the front. The large, near-vertical grille is still unmistakably Hyundai, but the unusual lighting arrangement creates an altogether different look.

The main headlight clusters live in deep recesses on either side of the grille, while slimline LED daytime running lights are completely separate slivers of brightness, placed close to the bonnet line. Small fog lamps have their own, deep slots below the main headlights.

The result is a front end with a stern, almost aggressive appearance that’s proudly individual and not in the least derivative.

The Santa Fe’s designers have tried to get rid of some of the slab-sided blandness so typical of large SUVs by drawing a crisply creased shoulder line, scalloping the flanks and broadening the sills, while boldly outlined wheel arches embrace the alloy wheels.

The profile confirms that this is a large SUV with substantial front and rear overhangs, but the silhouette also shows some welcome streamlining, including low-profile roof rails and a slimline spoiler integrated into the tailgate.

That tailgate dominates a rear garnished with curved tail-light clusters and a stylish scuff plate that’s home to twin exhaust tailpipes.

The overall impression is smart and purposeful, if not necessarily rugged. The relatively modest ground clearance of 185mm confirms that the Santa Fe is more soft-roader than all-terrainer.

At 4.7m long, the new Santa Fe is substantially larger than its predecessor: 70mm longer and 10mm wider, to be precise. The wheelbase has grown by 65mm, most of which is devoted to creating a roomier cabin.

That cabin is the Santa Fe’s real showpiece — and considering that it’s the place where owners spend most of their time when in the Hyundai’s company, it’s arguably more important and more relevant than the exterior.

The latest Santa Fe retains a three-row seating arrangement, with the two front bucket seats and a three-seater middle row augmented by a third row with seating for two. It’s the latter that’s benefited most from the extra cabin space, offering much improved headroom to better accommodate adults.

Legroom has improved in all seating positions, further boosted at the rear by the absence of a transmission tunnel. However, the third-row seating remains compromised, and is still better suited to youngsters than adults.

With the third row of seats in use, luggage capacity is also restricted, with only 130 litres of cargo space on offer — albeit five litres more than the outgoing model. Stow the third seating row, however, and luggage space jumps to a useful 547 litres.

Practicalities aside, the cabin execution is downright impressive, and a big step up from the previous Santa Fe. Hyundai has succeeded in creating a premium ambience that convinces in both visual and tactile terms.

The perforated leather upholstery looks and feels the upmarket part, with quilted detailing that wouldn’t look out of place in a top-end luxury sedan. Soft-touch dashboard cladding with contrasting stitching, and smartly restrained chrome accents add to the sophisticated ambience.

The control and instrument layout is ergonomically sound if not particularly intuitive, with too many buttons and switches sprinkled around the cabin.

An infotainment system fronted by a colour touchscreen is standard, bringing with it the benefits of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, although it only works if your smartphone is cable-linked to the system via USB.

Standard equipment is comprehensive across the range, with even the Premium featuring a level of kit that would satisfy most.

Leather, infotainment with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, electric windows and mirrors, climate control, remote central locking, and rear park distance control with reverse camera are among the key features.

Safety is equally comprehensively addressed via six airbags, ABS brakes, electric stability control, hill descent control and hill start assist. The Santa Fe also received a five-star rating in the Euro-NCAP crash test evaluation.

Spend the extra on the mid-range Executive and the list grows to include a powered tailgate, keyless entry with pushbutton start, LED headlights and electric adjustment for the driver seat, as well as safety extras such as blind spot warning and cross traffic alert.

The range-topping Elite extends the spec list even further, adding electric adjustment, heating and ventilation for both front seats, a panoramic glass sunroof, an LCD-based virtual instrument cluster, front and rear park distance control, and gearshift paddles.

Which brings us to the Santa Fe’s drivetrain, which is almost identical across all three models. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine is carried over from the previous range, but it’s linked to a new, more refined auto transmission with eight gears, rather than six.

The new gearbox adds a lower first and a taller top gear ratio, improving get-up-and-go, and enhancing efficiency at constant cruising speeds. Premium and Executive models feature front-wheel drive, while the Elite is fitted with Hyundai’s HTRAC all-wheel drive system.

The latter varies power between the front and rear axles, depending on driving conditions and the selected driving mode. In Eco mode, most of the power is kept on the front axle, while Comfort and Sport modes gradually increase the rear power bias for added traction.

With 142kW of maximum power and a healthy 440Nm torque peak, the Santa Fe feels eager on the move, thanks to a broad torque band that keeps the horses galloping with enthusiasm across much of the rev range.

There’s plenty of midrange tractability, ensuring safe and incisive overtaking, as well as effortless cruising at highway speeds, even in top gear. Gear changes are slickly executed, and while a manual override is on offer, it’s better (and more convenient) to leave the ‘box to its own devices.

Despite a kerb weight of around 1.9 tons, depending on actual model, the Santa Fe still sprints to 100 km/h from rest in well under 10sec, while maximum speed tops out at just more than 200km/h.

Most owners are likely to be more interested in fuel consumption, however: Hyundai claims an average figure of 7.8 litres/100km for the front-wheel drive models, and 8.2 litres/100km for the heavier AWD version.

A generous 71-litre fuel tank should allow a range of around 850km in mixed driving conditions, and could even approach 1,000km when cruising long-distance.

For a large and relatively heavy SUV, the Santa Fe feels surprisingly nimble. It responds to steering input with enthusiasm and contains body lean well. The suspension feels composed without compromising the ride, and drivetrain refinement is admirable.

While the Santa Fe is by no means an off-roader in the gung-ho, go-anywhere sense of the word, it’s not intimidated by twisty gravel. Even the front-wheel drive model tracked the chosen line on rocky, sandy surfaces, and never felt in need of any extra traction.

Of course, the all-wheel drive Elite model displays greater poise and achieves higher cornering speeds on the slippery stuff. It will also cope with rougher terrain best avoided in the front-wheel drive models.

In refinement terms, the only blot on the Santa Fe’s copy book was some sporadic but invasive wind noise around the exterior mirrors at highway speeds. Admittedly, it was a windy day, and we turned up the wick on occasion, but it wasn’t in line with the overall class of the Santa Fe package.

The cost of owning a Santa Fe starts at just under R600,000 for the Premium model. That’s keen, considering the Hyundai’s seven-seater space, and its high comfort and quality levels.

They may be better equipped, but the Executive and Elite versions have to deal with some tough competition at their respective price points. For not much more than the Executive’s R659,900 asking price, you can opt for a Volvo XC60 with similar power, all-wheel drive and premium appeal.

The Elite may find the going even tougher: at R749,900, it’s in the thick of the premium category, competing against the likes of the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Land Rover Discovery Sport.

That might sound like lofty company for a Hyundai, but remember that the Santa Fe is larger, with three seating rows, and a longer standard spec list than those fancy-pants SUVs. Besides, it has another trump card up its sleeve: a five-year/150,00km warranty, linked to a five-year/90,00km service plan.

For me, the Santa Fe Premium is the pick of the bunch, offering a well-balanced package of comfort and safety features, sprightly dynamics, seven-seater space and tactile quality, all for a smidgen under R600,000.

That combination spells strong value — and in motoring terms, value is arguably the most compelling feature of all. DM


Santa Fe 2.2 Premium AT R599,900

Santa Fe 2.2 Executive AT R659,900

Santa Fe 2.2 Elite AT H Trac R749,900


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