First Drive: Hyundai Santa Fe

THERE are certain cars that have particularly loyal followers, and the Santa Fe is one of them. Owners of the last generation were so impressed with it that Hyundai has used their feedback as a major factor in the development of this, the new one.

It’s larger, sharper styled and immediately more modern than the previous, slightly dumpy model. UK versions span a huge range of potential buyers, from five-seat and seven-seat versions to those with four or only two driven wheels. The range of owners – let’s call them fans – is a broad one.

There are automatic and manual gearboxes according to driving taste, and the only defining aspect of the Santa Fe that is predetermined is the 2.2-litre CRDi diesel engine. Not that that’s a bad thing; it’s remarkably quiet and smooth.

The one thing all Santa Fe owners past, present and future have in common is an affinity with the things that make a car great to live with: things like comfort, ride quality, solidity, practicality and reliability. You get the idea, and boxes can be ticked off straight away with brilliantly shaped seats and a well laid-out cabin. Once you’re settled you stay that way.

It’s a rather large-scale car with undeniable road presence, and the luxury of space also means acres of legroom for a middle three to enjoy. For the rearmost two seats you’ll need to move the middle row forwards to get anyone but younger children in, but it’s possible thanks to the wealth of legroom that the middle bench can tap into.

Whichever part of the car you’re in at the time, eventually you’ll notice one thing: the materials quality. Styling is all subjective and it’s usually pointless to praise or criticise, but the dashboard and materials all around the car link their sharply-angled Japanese look to a remarkable sense of substantiality. It creates an atmosphere that scores big points before you’ve even delved into the detail.

Of course, the fact that the cabin seems incredibly well soundproofed helps. When pulling away from a standstill under a light throttle, the engine has been reduced to a whisper at the front of the car; nothing more than a rumour of the 194bhp within.

As for equipment, three levels are available. Style models can be yours with five or seven seats and two- or four-wheel drive, but each has heated front seats, air conditioning, four 12-volt power sockets (one is a cigarette lighter), electric windows and mirrors, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, cruise control and the list goes on. Sparse it isn’t.

But a lot of Santa Fe buyers want even more kit, so Premium spec adds exterior detail changes, a premium sound system, a rear-view parking camera, electrically-folding door mirrors, dual-zone climate control, automatic windscreen wipers and more. The final trim level, Premium SE, is only available as a seven-seat four-wheel drive model, albeit with a choice of gearbox. It adds a tyre pressure monitoring system, larger alloy wheels, a 12-way electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, xenon headlights, keyless entry, Hyundai’s Smart Park Assist and a few other automotive delicacies.

The automatic gearbox is a natural partner for the smooth and refined engine, and since the manual has quite a stiff, reluctant action from cog to cog the auto is really the better unit. Either way, there’s too little power to easily transport seven people with much gusto but its cruising ability is fantastic. The engine speed at 70mph sits higher than it could and fuel economy would be improved by a taller sixth ratio, but thanks to very good ride quality and soundproofing it doesn’t affect the mightily impressive overall comfort.

A minor frustration might come in the shape of the myriad electronic safety systems that are, perhaps, a little overbearing. The electronic handbrake will not release if the driver’s seat belt is unfastened or the fuel filler lid is still open. If you’re cleaning your new Santa Fe and want to shuffle it along your drive or the road, you won’t be able to move even an inch until you follow all the protocols.

But that seems a minor blip compared to the stately wealth of factors in the Santa Fe’s favour. It’s even surprisingly capable off-road, and while it’s not exactly designed to finish the Dakar rally it does have appropriate skid plates and more than enough ability to pull a horse box across a field in poor weather.

Prices have gone up since the last generation, but given its ability to compete on almost every level with SUVs costing £10,000 more, the Santa Fe is still something of a bargain.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRDi Pemium 7-seat, £31,895 on the road.Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel producing 194bhp and 311lb.ft.Transmission: 6-speed automatic gearbox driving all four wheels on demand.Performance: Top speed 118mph, 0-62mph in 9.8 seconds.Fuel economy: 46.3mpg.CO2 rating: 159g/km.

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