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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - Elite 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Engine performance and economy, transmission smoothness, interior spaciousness and comfort
Room for improvement
Torque steer under hard acceleration, ageing design

30 Oct 2009

THE Hyundai Santa Fe is one of the older designs in the market that has not only grown but grown more competitive with fresh designs and even fresher nameplates.

Now the Santa Fe has been given a gentle spit and polish, with fresh nose and tail treatments.

However, the side profile is not so easy on the eye, with old-school side windows carrying a subtle link to the organic, rounded template Hyundai used in the 1990s. Times have moved on. A lot.

The Santa Fe’s styling may have aged quickly, but it is not the oldest soldier in this regiment. The Ford Territory – a vehicle that has been with us since 2004 – has clearly weathered the years much better, with the only real complaint about the Ford’s design being the ubiquitousness in the Aussie streetscape.

One thing that is every bit an up-to-the-minute Hyundai SUV design is the Santa Fe’s engine. The new diesel engine fires to a smooth idle, but it’s clear that it is not the quietest diesel around when cold. Once warmed up it settles down.

Performance in the mid-range – around 2000rpm to 3000rpm – is great. You only need to flex your right ankle slightly to get what feels like supercar performance – albeit yesterday’s supercar, and only in a small rev band.

This solid shove forward provided by the Santa Fe is appreciated when merging in city traffic or overtaking on a country road.

The only problem with this assertive mid-range is the Santa Fe’s off the mark performance, which by comparison feels hesitant and passive when digging deep for acceleration.

In isolation and at small throttle openings, it is acceptable, but it is hard to immediately come to terms with the two-stage performance – stage one to 2000rpm, where a soft build-up of acceleration occurs, and from 2000rpm or so, when all hell breaks loose.

That’s not to suggest that the Santa Fe’s performance is dangerous, but familiarisation with the transition is required to avoid the car ahead becoming your new bonnet mascot.

When the Santa Fe gets into its gung-ho groove, it can exhibit torque steer, with a tug at the steering wheel. Despite being all-wheel drive, the set-up favours the front wheels so it acts much like a front-wheel drive when suddenly confronted with a mountain of torque from the engine.

The six-speed auto is not the lush device some European self-shifters are, but it does not make itself obvious with clunky shifts.

Chassis dynamics expectation are not high with a family SUV, and here the Santa Fe does not disappoint family buyers with any sort of racy handling.

It is middle of the road (perhaps a bad choice of words), with prominent understeer, and while it doesn’t lean too much in corners or otherwise crumple under the pressure of average cornering speeds, its steering is nowhere near as communicative and well weighted as the Territory’s.

Where you might expect a mid-size SUV to shine is in ride quality. The Santa Fe is a little abrupt in its treatment of sharp bumps but becomes more diplomatic with highway speed undulations, smoothing them well.

Hyundai has moved its interior furnishings up a level in recent years, and the metallic and carbon-fibre look highlights help what would have otherwise seems a plastic-filled interior. Some plastic components still have a shiny lustre that most other competitors would finish in matt, and while some may like the faux carbon fibre strip across the dash, it seems an odd sporty flavour in this wholesome wagon.

The centre stack is clearly laid out with ventilation and audio controls, and the keyless start and the iPod/aux connectivity are nice touches for this class.

Front seats are easy to adjust to a comfortable position, and there is ample storage up front. The second-row seat is spacious and comfortable for two adults, but the centre position is uncomfortable, with the seatback tapering too much to provide much back support.

The split-fold second-row seat back folds on to the base to provide a flat loading floor. The third row is tight and access not ideal, but there is enough room for the most likely candidates here – sub-teens.

These seats fold down neatly into the load space floor, which then presents a low-loading height and generous load area.

The D-pillars are quite thick, so rearward vision is not ideal, yet to the sides and front there is no problem. Side mirrors are of a good size.

The Santa Fe has a good powertrain, its interior packaging is good and is well-featured.

Yet Hyundai appears to have been distracted by its huge outpouring of new, refined models to the point where the Santa Fe is not only beginning to look stale in its own class, but also in Hyundai showrooms.

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