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

Launch Story

30 Oct 2009

HYUNDAI’S stylish Santa Fe has been one of the stand-out Korean models in terms design, refinement and value.

The latest minor exterior tweaks, including new bumpers, lights and grille, and the addition of carbon and titanium-look interior highlights have done nothing to diminish the 2010 model’s sleek-for-an-SUV look.

Although some say sister brand Kia’s all-new Sorento SUV, which shares its platform with the Santa Fe, makes the seven-seat Hyundai suddenly look bloated and old-hat, we reckon it’s still one of the most cohesive SUV designs getting around.

But the midlife facelift for Hyundai’s mid-SUV entrant is all about the engine, and the fact that this much-hyped new 2.2-litre ‘R’ cast-iron-blocked diesel engine is now the only choice within an all-diesel, all-AWD, all-seven-seat range.

Truth be told, while the high-tech new engine is a vast step up from the same-capacity engine it replaces in noise, vibration, overall refinement and economy, as well as performance, it does not feel as if there’s really 145kW of diesel power and no less than 436Nm of torque - when mated to Hyundai’s slick new six-speed automatic transmission, which makes similar leaps over its five-speed predecessor.

No doubt, extracting that much performance from just 2.2 litres and four cylinders is quite a feat. Mitsubishi’s Pajero Di-D is the only rival to better the Santa Fe’s outputs, but it displaces a whole litre more and isn’t nearly as economical as a result.

Of course, fuel consumption is the 2010 Santa Fe’s other big improvement, and at 7.5L/100km as an auto it’s equal with the Sorento diesel as the most frugal medium SUV money can buy in Australia.

We didn’t quite match that during the Adelaide Hills launch drive, on which our Santa Fe returned 8.9L/100km, but that’s still relatively good for a near-two-tonne SUV and is likely to be envied by drivers of petrol-only SUVs like Toyota’s Kluger and (until 2011) Ford’s homegrown Territory.

Yes, weight is the enemy of performance and fuel economy and even Hyundai’s bullocking new diesel cannot overcome the Santa Fe’s mass, which makes us wonder how much stronger it would feel in a smaller vehicle like Hyundai’s upcoming Tucson replacement, the ix35, which should score a 2.0-litre R diesel engine.

That said, the Santa Fe R-2.2 is still as spritely as any mid-size diesel SUV this side of Land Rover’s 10MY 3.0-litre V6 and its relatively narrow torque band (peak pulling power is produced between 1800 and 2500rpm) means it can spin up surprisingly quickly during low-speed inner-city traffic snarls.

Although it’s super-quiet at idle and beyond 4000rpm, Hyundai’s four-cylinder diesel Santa lacks the step-off torque of its six-cylinder rivals and can be a handful for the ageing platform’s front-drive bias when its variable-geometry turbocharger spools up to full boost under hard acceleration.

Full-throttle mid-corner manoeuvres from low and even middling speeds soon have you winding off steering lock in an effort to counter torque steer as the front wheels scramble for traction.

Push hard without any throttle inputs and the steering, which feels slightly quicker and better weighted following a number of tweaks to better suit Australian roads, continues to offer little feel or feedback until being upset by surface corrugations that ultimately result in kickback and even more disconcerting front axle tramp.

Likewise, locally developed suspension upgrades make the freshened Santa Fe a little firmer and better controlled on undulating roads, but it still errs on the soft side for sporting driving and becomes choppy and brittle on sub-standard suburban surfaces.

The Santa Fe’s steering feels even more over-assisted and vague on unsealed surfaces and even with the stability control system on and the centre differential lock splitting torque evenly front to rear, you never really feel sufficiently confident to stretch the friendship of the standard 17-inch Kumho tyres.

No, if you’re in the market for a seven-seat SUV but don’t want to trade all the agility and communicative handling of a rear-drive sedan, Ford’s Falcon-based Territory remains the pick as the driver’s mid-size SUV.

The upgrades to the Santa Fe’s less compromised interior are more convincing, with striking new carbon and titanium-look highlights dominating a pleasant, spacious cabin that still comes with fairly flat, unsupportive front seats.

The cardboard-backed twin-seat third row offers more foot and knee room than some rivals, but still places the heads of their adult occupants against either the roof headlining or dangerously close to the rear window.

Elsewhere the Santa Fe remains a spacious, well thought-out place to convey five adults, with clever B-pillar and (beyond the base model) third-row air outlets and handy storage compartments. Only an oddly-angled driver’s footrest and fiddly foot-operated parking brake diminish the first-class ergonomics here.

The flat-folding third row stows to offer as much cargo space as most rivals and all models now come with a maximum five-star ANCAP crash safety rating following additional dashboard padding and, for the entry-level SLX that does without the Elite and Highlander’s keyless entry/starting system, softer steering column materials around the conventional key.

Of course, the Santa Fe continues to shine in the area of value for money, with a standard equipment list that few can rival. For the money, few entry-level medium SUVs catch match the base SLX’s extensive standard kit, which includes a trip computer, rear parking sensors, alarm, full-size spare wheel, active front head restraints and side and curtain airbags.

Similarly, the mid-range Elite, which should be the volume-selling variant, is a stand-out value proposition with all that plus a standard coolbox, rear air-conditioning and keyless entry/starting.

The Highlander tops the range fully loaded with an unrivalled standard features armoury that includes rain-sensing wipers, a sunroof, automatic headlights and, from the first quarter of next year, the option of satellite-navigation, Bluetooth connectivity and a DVD system.

Hyundai has addressed some of the steering and suspension issues that blighted the previous Santa Fe but appear destined to take the shine off an otherwise well designed, refined and undeniably good-value seven-seat SUV package.

A muscular yet economical new diesel has undoubtedly improved the breed, as have simple but effective new styling cues inside and out, while extra equipment and sharp pricing improves its value equation even further.

But there are better-handling mid-size SUVs on the market.

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