Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe
Premium feel to high-end variants, advanced driver-assist technology, smooth new automatic transmission, accomplished ride and handling
Room for improvement
Not as roomy as it appears, curtain airbag only covers window areas, higher-than-expected diesel consumption
Hyundai’s fourth-generation Santa Fe marks a major shift for the large SUV
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5 Jul 2018
By TERRY MARTIN
WE LIVE in times where the relationship between Korea and the United States are captivating, and while Hyundai’s connections with Santa Fe, New Mexico, are not in the same league as Kim-Trump and Pyongyang-Washington, a significant shift has just occurred.
Entering its fourth generation, Hyundai’s seven-seat large SUV is bigger, broader, bolder, more upmarket and, at first glance and arguably for the first time in almost two decades, seems to really fit the built-with-America-top-of-mind ‘Santa Fe’ moniker – a name the South Korean car giant appropriated for its first SUV way back in 2000.
This sees the Santa Fe size up in overall terms a little more evenly with key rivals such as Toyota’s Kluger and Mazda’s CX-9, both of which have a strong following in Australia.
But does bigger and brassier necessarily mean better?
With every new generation of vehicle, Hyundai is moving further upmarket and away from an image that linked its models more with lower prices – and, as a result, lesser quality – than its major rivals, particularly the dominant Japanese brands.
What’s more, Hyundai Motor Company’s determination to underscore this shift by creating its own standalone luxury marque, Genesis, following the likes of Toyota (with Lexus) and Nissan (with Infiniti), has seen its flagship model, the Hyundai Genesis large sedan, deleted from the mainstream range and redirected to the forthcoming new stable, where it will be called the G80.
This now sees the Santa Fe resume its position as the flagship model of Hyundai’s entire line-up, and the South Korean brand’s Australian subsidiary has brought the fourth-generation model to showrooms with a four-variant range that starts more than $2000 higher at $43,000 plus on-road costs at the entry level and travels all the way up past $60K, plus extras.
You can be the ultimate judge on the design of the new Santa Fe, but there is no doubt it cuts a distinctive figure with its big and now “brand signature” cascading grille and a split lighting design with narrow slits with LED daytime runners at the bonnet edge and beefier main lamp units positioned further down in the chunky front fascia.
Hyundai is quick to highlight the bigger dimensions of the new model that contribute to its stronger stance and, most importantly, claims of increased room in the seven-seat interior.
However, the Santa Fe has not, all of a sudden, increased in size to match the likes of the American-built Toyota Kluger, Mazda CX-9 and Nissan Pathfinder, but remains a rung down in terms of sheer cabin spaciousness.
We could labour over detailed specification points – the legroom measurements, for example, show no extra space up front, a mere 1mm more than before in the second row and, surprisingly, 19mm less in the third row – but our lasting impressions are of a cabin that is nicely accommodating for five people, with the two seats in the third row best left for only occasional use.
There is plenty of headroom in the first two rows, legroom is not an issue in the second row when the sliding mechanism is set as far back as possible, and all-round amenity in the Elite and Highlander variants we sampled, in the first two rows, is excellent.
This is particularly so in the cockpit, where the driver and front passenger are propped up in comfortable seats and presented with a distinctive and heavily sculpted dashboard that wraps its way almost seamlessly around into the large doors, which are even recessed near the sill for an almost tongue-and-groove effect.
In the upper-end models, the new Santa Fe certainly imparts a premium feel and air of sophistication through its soft touchpoints, higher-grade materials, neat centre console layout, central 8.0-inch multimedia screen and user-friendly instrument cluster with, on Elite, large backlit gauges and a 3.5-inch LCD display that contains all the relevant trip computer details, safety-assist settings and so on.
The Highlander’s larger 7.0-inch binnacle screen can transform the instruments with a digital layout, allowing other information (such as navigation, cruise status and speed limits) to be projected onto the front glass via the clearly presented full-colour head-up display.
All controls are easily mastered given a bit of time and a full range of adjustment for the driver’s seat and steering wheel is provided.
Further astern, the second-row occupants are similarly treated to comfy seats, a good view of the road ahead, generously sized air vents, a couple of power sockets and various small-item storage facilities. Three child-seat tether strap points are also included.
That said, we are always concerned that manual pull-up sunshades for the rear windows are ripe for mistreatment, while the buttons on the right-hand side of the front passenger seat for electric backrest angle and fore/aft adjustment – meant to allow an easier exit for rear occupants – will surely prove irresistible for kids (and annoying for parents) when the vehicle is on the move.
A handier feature is the one-touch tilt-slide button on the kerb-side rear seat portion (provided on both the seat squab and backrest) that is designed to enable quick access to the third row.
It works well, but the relatively tight space provided means getting into the rearmost seats is more of a clamber rather than step-in process – even with useful grab-points moulded into the plastic trim.
Once there, the seats are a good size but legroom is at the mercy of the second row’s positioning and headroom is limited. Another power socket, more cupholders, a storage container and air-conditioning controls are included, not to mention more buttons – this time for electric folding down of the centre row backrests – that are, once again, all too easily accessible for children.
There are no child seat tether strap points for the third row, and the curtain airbags only extend as far as the window, leaving areas of exposure for occupants here.
Folding the third-row seats is a simple manual affair that involves a strap at each seatback, and liberates a useful amount of cargo room. It’s not a cavernous area, with less space between the floor and roof than we expected, but there’s a good distance from the tailgate to the second-row seatbacks. A full-size spare wheel is also provided underneath the vehicle.
Hyundai argues that what the Santa Fe still lacks in space compared to some of its key rivals in this segment in turn provides it with an advantage in the driving department, including its performance, handling and manoeuvrability.
While we might have anticipated that a full-scale model redesign such as this one would have brought significant improvements to areas such as powertrain and chassis dynamics, the previous Santa Fe was already quite a proficient performer – and nothing much has changed with the new one.
A drive with two adults on-board in the diesel-powered Elite from Coffs Harbour to Dorrigo and surrounding districts in New South Wales basically reinforced what we already knew – that the 147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre R-series diesel is a relatively strong and refined unit, and in concert with the new eight-speed automatic and HTRAC on-demand all-wheel-drive system, makes for easy progress winding up and down through forested roads.
Gearshifts come smoothly and cleanly, the transmission is responsive to driver inputs for quick downshifts and, when Sport mode is selected, will delay upshifts when the driver lifts off the accelerator, which is just what is required in snaking downhill sections.
In these situations, on bitumen and dirt surfaces alike, the Santa Fe’s accomplished dynamics was plainly evident.
While some long stretches of winding road tended to emphasise the SUV’s high centre of gravity and, despite initial impressions to the contrary, a lack of seat support, we had ample opportunity to appreciate the predictable and confident handling, good levels of grip from the Elite’s 18-inch tyres, the absorbent and accomplished ride quality, accurate steering and solid braking performance.
The Elite’s 235/60-section Kumho Crugen HP91 tyres proved to be noisy at times on B-grade bitumen and dirt roads, and quite a bit of wind noise was noted on a short stretch of open-road highway, but otherwise refinement levels remained high. Even heavy corrugations were kept well isolated from the cabin.
The turning circle is a little bigger than before but the new Santa Fe does not feel unwieldy to move in and out of carparks.
The driver-assist features, many of which were introduced in the previous generation, are all welcome and add an important layer of reassurance to the driving experience, although we note that the traffic sign recognition relies only on the satellite navigation, lacking the accuracy and reliability of a more sophisticated camera-based system.
We did not drive the petrol engine variant or have an opportunity to test the new Santa Fe’s off-road ability, Hyundai preferring instead to concentrate on its perceived strengths – ride and handling in the clearly more advanced premium variants.
Perhaps as a result, fuel economy over our drive program came in at an unremarkable 9.9 litres per 100km – well above the claimed 7.5L/100km combined-cycle figure.
We’ll reserve final judgement for when we have time to live with the new Santa Fe for a while, stacking in a full load of kids and spending more time in the suburbs, where Hyundai expects most of its owners will simply use the vehicle as a family runabout.
But from our first drive, it’s clear that a weekend escape for a family of five – in plenty of comfort – is a big part of the attraction.
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