IT’S TAKEN almost 20 years but the Hyundai Santa Fe has finally crossed the threshold to desirability.
Acting as a metaphorical flag-waver for the Korean brand’s credibility, Hyundai’s fourth-gen large SUV debuts a purposefully handsome shape and backs that up with a much more sophisticated interior. Overstyled plastics, undersized rear-window apertures, and overbearing ride firmness are now distant memories for the newly mature, more practical TM Santa Fe.
With a near-flat second-row floor, plus an extra 30mm of second-row seat travel, greater third-row access space and headroom, and a massive 41 percent increase in glass area for anyone imprisoned back there, the Santa Fe is no longer a five-plustwo seater. Adults can actually fit there, though the Hyundai still cedes packaging prowess to the larger, class-leading Mazda CX-9. And the same applies to boot space – 810 litres (CX-9) versus 547 (Santa Fe) in five-seat mode.
What Santa Fe’s comparatively compact dimensions do achieve is unexpected agility. Improvements in body strength and torsional stiffness of around 15 percent combine with new rack-mounted electric power steering and standard (on-demand) all-wheel drive to give this elegant bus the legs of a power lifter. Extensive Australian suspension tuning results in a much more wellrounded driving experience – one that now manages to achieve both ride and handling adeptness, without one discipline being detrimental to the other.
Not surprisingly, it’s the petrolengined Santa Fe Active that feels lightest on its 17-inch-wheeled feet, blending delightfully keen turn-in (and 2.6 turns lock-tolock) with crisp steering response and layers of inherent grip and balance. Pity its carry-over engine – the 138kW/241Nm 2.4litre direct-injection petrol four from the base Sonata, tied to an ageing six-speed auto – is such an unsuitable foil to its dynamic talents. The lack of torque means the transmission hunts through its stunted ratio set like a stray pooch pining for scraps.
Involving to drive; terrific diesel powertrain; welcoming interior
PLUS & MINUS
Torque-deprived petrol; unremarkable refinement; deserves a V6
Model Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander CRDi
Engine 2199cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
Max power 147kW @ 3800rpm
Max torque 440Nm @ 1750-2750rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Weight 1995kg 0-100km/h 9.5sec (tested)
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The 147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel is far better served. Mated to an excellent new eight-speed auto, its seamlessly muscular operation is the perfect antidote for atmo-petrol frustration. The heavier CRDi may feel slightly less wieldy as a result, but the performance benefits far outweigh any reduction in frontend point. There’s really very little to complain about dynamically, apart from merely competitive levels of tyre noise.
Three model grades are available – Active ($43,000 petrol; $46,000 diesel), Elite diesel ($54K) and Highlander diesel ($60,500).
All are pricier than before, but this is far outweighed by Santa Fe’s likeable new interior and enticing levels of kit. Even the base Active gets comprehensive safety gear, tyre-pressure monitoring, a rear-view camera with parking sensors, LED running lights, rear temperature control, and a ‘walk-in’ switch on the second-row backrests that electrically flips and slides the seat forward for rear deck access.
The Active’s slight tinge of entry-level motoring won’t spoil the new Santa Fe’s ascension among the large SUV ranks. In AWD diesel form, it’s a really strong contender, right-sized for families and driving enthusiasts alike who don’t need the acreage of a full-size seven seater.
01 Conservative cabin gives a strong quality impression and seat comfort is bloody good. Only options on lavishly equipped Highlander are leather colour ($295) and metallic paint ($695).
02 phone charging, heated/ vented seats, a TFT instrument cluster, 14-way driver’s seat, panoramic sunroof, adpative LED headlights and classy 19s all part of Highlander’s persuasive kit list.
03 Sante Fe leapfrogs its Kia Sorento cousin in platform geneology, though even with an extra 65mm between its axles, it still trails Sorento in wheelbase. Otherwise, they’re identical in size.