Hyndai Sante Fe 4×4

The overriding impression is one of high value. There’s a standard of fit and finish, level of materials used, and visual and tactile appeal that is definitely going to cause a few raised eyebrows in rival design studios

Hyundai’s first Santa Fe – a medium-sized soft-roader rather than a compact one – was far from pretty, but its main shortcoming was a thirsty 2,7-litre petrol V6 mated to a four-speed auto gearbox.

With the all-new version, Hyundai has addressed all those issues with a thoroughly modern restyle, and an advanced 2,2-litre turbodiesel/5-speed trannie combo.

They’ve also come across all daring, and while it is hard not to be impressed by the vehicle’s intrinsic qualities, they’ve also been aggressive on the pricing – but not in the usual Korean sense. Instead of undercutting rivals, they’ve priced it at something of a premium in the sector, and the 5-seater, two-pedal version on test here is priced at R349 900. Opt for two extra pews in a third row and you pay R359 900.

The fact that it can seat seven is what makes flagship versions of the Santa Fe different from most other soft-roaders. But the 5-seater is going to be compared directly to the likes of the VX-spec RAV4 D-4D, baseline BMW X3 2.0d, and aged Freelander TD4, even though it is in a different class size-wise. The Toyota measures 4395mm overall and 2560mm between the centres of the wheels. The Hyundai is quite a bit longer at 4675mm and 2700mm respectively, offering more interior space.

The looks are dramatic, with a much more modern interpretation of the Santa Fe’s hallmark flowing styling. The grille is bold and quite upright, and not unlike what you find at the business end of a Forester or RAV.

Circular front fog lamps, slender headlights and scalloped front valance combine to give it a sporty bent, with more than a hint of muscularity. The shoulder line sweeps upwards, the flanks maybe lacking some of the athleticism of the nose, but the wraparound rear light clusters flow seamlessly into the tailgate – which like its predecessor’s has a prominent tailgate release, similar in design to the door handles.

With 17-inch alloy and 235/65 tyres, Hyundai subscribes to the theory that bigger is better, the dimensions of the rubber calculated to fill purposeful wheel arches.

Roof rails (with standard cross bars), tailgate spoiler and a pair of chromed, oval exhaust pipes protruding from both rear corners complete the exterior packaging. Hyundai terms the design theme Assertive Grace – and it is hard not to agree.

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★

A price of R350 000 requires quite some justification, but by and large the Santa Fe stacks up in this regard. The overriding impression is one of high value, thanks not only to the level of equipment, but even more so as a result of the impeccable quality.

There’s a standard of fit and finish, level of materials used, and visual and tactile appeal that is definitely going to cause a few raised eyebrows in rival design studios.

The mechanical specification is quite impressive, too: with 110 kW and 335 Nm it has class-leading under-bonnet numbers, the 4-cylinder oil-burner using a variable geometry turbocharger to ensure a wide powerband. High pressure, common rail fuel delivery keeps consumption and emissions down, and while we can’t quantify the latter, it certainly impressed with its frugality.

Hyundai say the dual-mode ‘box to which the engine is mated is not only at the technical forefront thanks to the number of ratios, but also in terms of its control systems and compact, lightweight design.

The final piece in the drivetrain jigsaw is an electronic four-wheel-drive system which supplies torque on demand. This means the Santa Fe is front-driven most of the time, but up to 50% of the torque can be diverted to the rear depending on conditions.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The cabin has an excellent ambience, with an impressive level of design flair. The instruments, for example, are very appealing, as is their soft, bluish lighting.

One of the key features of the cabin is the tasteful combination of maple-coloured wood inlays and brushed aluminium trim. The two are laid side by side, running from either door to the hang-down centre section.

An imposing structure, it houses the dualzone climate control, and the tuner/CD. Tactile quality is top-class, and both have blue-lit LED displays – a user-friendly and classy solution.

The dashboard plastics have a modern, soft-touch dimpled effect, and where there isn’t plastic, you’ll find leather instead. There are leather seats (electrically adjusted for the driver), and leather is also used on the gearknob and multi-function steering wheel. If the emergency brake wasn’t foot-actuated, it would probably be used there, too.

The seats look a little flat, but don’t lack anything in the way of comfort and support. The rears are much the same, and the reclining backrest allows the angle to be optimised.

Despite ride height which is higher than that of your average wagon, getting in to the rear is straightforward thanks to the generously proportioned doors. Once ensconced, there’s an acre of space in all planes.

Adding a sense of occasion is an armrest which folds down to reveal well-made cup-holders – just the place to store a chilled iced tea.

A compass in the electro-chromatic rear view mirror, twin roof-mounted sunglass cases, sunroof, and an impressive selection of storage compartments all contribute to an environment which is low on stress and high on convenience.

The luggage compartment is similarly well appointed. The cover retracts both fore and aft so that it remains tensioned irrespective of the angle of the backrests. Chromed tie-down hooks, a 12V power outlet (one of four, including the cigarette lighter), generous plastic-lined underfloor storage (which is where the additional seats disappear to in 7- seat versions), and a luggage net suggest a practical personality – as does a full-sized spare on an alloy.

★ ★ ★ ★

First impressions count, and the Santa Fe gets off to a good start. As one observer noted, the engine sounds as though it is purring at idle – not a statement you would normally make about a diesel!

As well as low noise emissions there’s little in the way of smoke to be seen, even under full-bore acceleration. Open the bonnet and there’s a massive engine cover, which Hyundai says acts as a sound-deadening device.

What impresses next is the fuel consumption. The vehicle used exactly nine litres per 100km in our steady 120km/h test, though the driving computer suggested a more optimistic 8,3. We’d expect it to average less than 10 litres per 100km overall, the combination of an auto ‘box and beefy kerb mass ultimately counting against it in suburban conditions.

When put to the test against the clock, the Santa Fe reveals yet another pleasing side to its personality. The 100km/h mark comes up in about 13,5 seconds, and “kick-down” overtaking manoeuvres with the lever left in Drive are executed briskly, with ready response from the gearbox.

Our only criticism is that the box is sometimes a little indecisive in choosing a gear in low-speed urban situations – a tendency which presents itself as a “flat spot” in the response curve. That aside, overall driveability is excellent, and it feels livelier than the performance numbers suggest.

Looking for a chink in the armour brings us to the brakes, but no weak spots here, either. ABS plus EBD result in stable stopping, and pedal feel is good, too.

Ride and handling
★ ★ ★ ★

There’s nothing exceptionally fancy in the Santa Fe’s wheelarches, but everything combines well to get the job done, both on and off the road. Front suspension is of the MacPherson strut type, with L-shaped lower control arms. At the rear, a multi-link arrangement is used, and Hyundai says the layout is more compact than before and also has repositioned shock mounting points.

Suffice to say that ground is covered smoothly, even rough surfaces able to be tackled at speed with a reassuring sense of suspension control and steering accuracy. While the set-up is reasonably sporty in terms of spring rates and roll bar stiffness, the long wheelbase seems to help it smooth out bumps for ride comfort that is hard to fault.

Off-roading duties are best tackled after pressing the “4WD Lock” button ahead of the gear lever, which locks the multi-plate clutch and distributes torque equally between front and rear axles. It starts to disengage at speeds above 30km/h and is inoperative at 40km/h, but kicks back in when speeds drop below these thresholds.

There’s also an electronic stability programme, and the traction control element helps off-road ability. While the road-biased tyres lacked grip in the dirt, the system ensured that drive was maintained to wheels which could use it. This is especially welcome considering that the limited rear suspension articulation soon had a wheel off the deck.

★ ★ ★ ★
This is without doubt the most holistic soft-roader to come out of Korea, and it has the ability to stand toe to toe with European and Japanese rivals in terms of quality, drivetrain and chassis dynamics.

The pricing is interesting, to say the least, and only time will tell whether the market is willing to accept it from this brand. The manufacturers would’ve made it easier to convince us if they had fitted a couple of extra airbags, and possibly a hill descent control system of some kind, but the Sante Fe certainly doesn’t want for much in terms of comfort and convenience.