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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - Elite V6 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Large interior both for passengers and luggage, price, equipment
Room for improvement
2.7-litre V6 is asked to do more than it’s comfortable with

29 Aug 2006

IT SEEMS an awfully long time ago that Hyundai launched its first SUV, but it's really just six years since the US-inspired Santa Fe came to market in Australia. Before that, there was no such thing as a Hyundai 4WD.

But the Santa Fe has become a familiar part of our SUV landscape, even if it’s been nowhere as big a hit as, say, the Mazda Tribute it has so far most closely approximated. The Santa Fe was a bigger SUV than the likes of RAV4 until the latest, expanded Toyota came along this year.

Now there’s a new Santa Fe and new it is indeed, with a much larger, purpose-built structure, the possibility of seven seats and quite a bit of fresh running gear including a now part-time 4WD system as well as a redefinition of the rear multi-link suspension.

But the old 2.7-litre V6 remains as now the only power source, upped slightly in kiloWatts and torque via the adoption of variable valve timing and a variable intake system.

But, because the weight gains approach 200kg, it’s not something Hyundai makes a lot of noise about - except to say the official fuel figures are better than Ford Territory or Toyota Kluger, which are its main designated rivals.

The quoted figure for the four-speed auto (carried over with improvements from the original) of 10.6L/100km (10.4L/100km for the five-speed manual) sounds quite reasonable for a plus-or-minus 1.9-tonne vehicle, although it’s not that easily achieved. On test our auto Elite five-seater managed 11.9L/100km and that included quite a few freeway kilometres.

The bigger new body brings a major improvement in interior space, with more head, leg and shoulder room than before, even though space is also being provided for the optional third-row seats. The middle-row seats of the Santa Fe offer good legroom even for tall occupants in an airy, well fitted out and nicely finished cabin.

The new Hyundai comes in three models the base five-seater in manual or auto form, the seven-seat auto and the top-flight Elite, which lavishes exceptional care and attention on driver and passengers but comes only as an automatic-transmission five-seater.

And that just happened to be the specification we lived with for a week as our test car, in which we covered close to 1000km and got a good feel for how the new Santa Fe shapes up.

Two things became quickly apparent: The new Hyundai SUV rates closer to large than before, stretching ahead of the small SUVs which have been edging up in size and secondly, as a straight result of this, the Santa Fe’s 2.7-litre V6 has a bit of a struggle ahead of it keeping pace in city traffic and out on the highway.

The new 3.8-litre engine seen in the Grandeur would be a lovely fit.

Hyundai doesn’t talk about acceleration figures, but the Santa Fe responds reluctantly to accelerator demands and feels the lack of an extra gearbox ratio. The outcome is that the V6 needs to be worked hard much of the time, which doesn’t help fuel consumption and makes our 11.9 L/100km average quite a surprise even if it didn’t match the official figure.

And, probably because the new car is better insulated, the engine didn’t intrude on cabin serenity as much as we recall of the old model, which sounded a bit frantic when pushed towards the tachometer’s red zone. Better here to make judicious use of the sequential manual controller, which allows the driver to avoid frenetic automatic kickdowns and constant ratio hunting.

The new Santa Fe steers quite well, however, going from lock to lock in 3.2 turns and feeling quite responsive in an SUV sort of way. It feels quite solid on the road, even if it heels over noticeably on long highway bends.

It’s one of those cars that responds to a little pre-planning and careful setting-up of the cornering, in which case it will turn in accurately and follow the chosen line faithfully. Sudden direction changes are not comfortable in the heavy and lofty Santa Fe, although they are contained by the switchable ESP stability control system that is standard across the range.

That said, the ride quality is actually very good, nicely controlled and a big part of the car’s open-road serenity. With an aerodynamic Cd figure of 0.37 (0.39 previously) and well-attenuated road noise, the Santa Fe is a fine cruiser.

The off-road aspects are not as serious as they were before, making it more of an SUV than ever. Unlike the previous Santa Fe’s full-time system which used a viscous coupling to direct torque appropriately but fed power in a 60-40 ratio to all wheels under normal circumstances, the new on-demand system runs as a front-driver most of the time, kicking in the rear wheels if needed.

If you do look like getting hung up in a particularly nasty stretch, there is a 4WD lock that remains active up to 30km/h to help get you out of trouble. Just don’t expect it to tackle really rough stuff.

The interior is classy to look at, generous in dimensions and the seats quite comfortable even if they do lack a bit of side support up front. The rear seats also gain rake-adjustable 60-40 split-fold backrests to make the most of the newfound interior space. The backrests fold down quickly and easily, with the cushions simultaneously sinking towards the floor, Jeep Cherokee-style, to form a flat, expansive load space.

The Elite driver gets an all-way adjustable seat, which is excellent even if the range of adjustment is a bit limited and there are no memory buttons. The steering wheel adjusts for angle only, but that’s okay because the basic driving position is quite comfortable for most drivers, who will find the Santa Fe generally easy to live with.

Cruise control switches are located on the right-side steering column spoke and easy to use, and there are the usual radio controls on the left-side spoke.

The Santa Fe’s load area is accessed by a large, top-hinged tailgate that is easy to use because the (full-size) spare that hangs off many a 4WD rear door is located outside and under the rear floor.

The Santa Fe’s extra bulk means a generous 2213 litres of luggage space with all seats folded, and a decent 969 litres behind the second-row seat.

All models come with dual front and side airbags, as well as full-length side curtain bags and active, anti-whiplash front head restraints. Standard ESP stability control and four-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution help the Santa Fe driver retain control when everything goes wrong.

Hyundai says internal testing indicates a US NHTSA five-star safety rating in front and side-impact testing for both front and rear-seat occupants.

As the premium model, the Elite Santa Fe comes with a generous range of standard equipment including nicely soft, perforated leather seats, a glass sunroof, climate-control air-conditioning, a spacious two-level centre cubby with a chiller compartment and an MP3-compatible, seven-speaker, multi-disc sound system not to be ashamed of.

Then you look at the pricing.

Sure, it’s a Hyundai and you expect pleasant surprises here, but the Elite severely undercuts its most serious competition – Ford Territory and Toyota Kluger – with a starting price of $35,990 for the five-seat manual-transmission base model (add $2000 for auto), climbing through the seven-seat automatic version at $37,900 and topping out at the $42,990 auto Elite.

Particularly in seven-seat form, the Santa Fe leaves serious change in your pocket compared with Territory or Kluger.

This is a Hyundai that remains true to form.

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