First Drives

05 July 2018

Review: 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe

Hyundai's cut-price Discovery rival is here. Can it really outdo Land Rover?

Ollie Kew
Car image

What is it?
A really big Hyundai, which in spite of its silly name is actually quite appealing on a practical, family-first kind of level. The Santa Fe is what they call a ‘D-segment’ SUV, which means it competes with the Skoda Kodiaq and Land Rover Discovery Sport. Two cars we like very much indeed.

Mid-sized SUVs like the Santa Fe appeal because they’re usefully smaller, cheaper, more economical and less brash than conventional SUVs like the Land Rover Discovery, Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7. But you still get seven seats – granted in most the two rearmost seats are good only for kids, but who sits fully-grown adults back there anyway? – a lofty driving position, a degree of off-road ability and the ability to tow caravans, horseboxes and so on. And of course, there’s the image, which nowadays is even more important than whether the car is, you know, any good.

Image is a thing Hyundai might have struggled with a decade ago, but times have changed. Before its release in 2001 it was known for building reliably cheap hatchbacks nobody really wanted or indeed deserved, but the chunky Santa Fe and its steady march upmarket (which continues with the new fourth-gen car) has overseen a revitalisation of Hyundai’s entire range and, therefore, image.

We always thought the last Santa Fe was a good-looking thing. Not good looking like a Jaguar F-Type, but in a refined, functional kind of way that somehow manages to look almost as modern now as the day, it was introduced. The new car wears Hyundai’s corporate look we think much more successfully than the little Kona crossover. Certainly less anonymous than the car it replaces – but who knows how it’ll age.

What is it like on the road?
In other markets, Hyundai will offer a choice between two diesels and one petrol engine. It’s the petrol and the lesser of the two diesels, the 2.0-litre, we miss out on, leaving us with the 2.2-litre diesel from the outgoing car. Soon, Hyundai plans to add a full hybrid and plug-in hybrid version to the range to drive its CO2 average down.

The 2.2-litre CRDi gets the option of a new eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, and as tested, it’s a powertrain that suits the Santa Fe’s semi-premium aspirations and general workmanlike remit. What we really like is how Hyundai has resisted any temptation to try to make it remotely sporty.
The marketing men must’ve been locked in a cupboard, while the engineers drove around in the current Audi Q7. The Santa Fe excudes the same sort of vanilla driving expereince but laced with excellent refinement. The engine stays well supressed, and though this big bus has to punch a large hole in the air, wind noise is relatively low, apart from some whip around the mirrors. This makes the Santa Fe a relaxing long-distance companion.

So does the ride, which, again, does a comfort-focused job, not a Cayenne-aping one. The Santa Fe is by no means an entertaining car - in fact, it’s quite dull to drive - but it’s endearingly fit for purpose and an impressive yardstick for just how far the Koreans have come in creating refined, polite family cars.
If you’re cross-shopping a Santa Fe with a Kodiaq (you should be), you’ll notice the Skoda is available with a much broader choice of engines. The lack of a lower-powered diesel or small-capacity turbo petrol might hurt the Santa Fe’s chances, though we’d put money on Hyundai eventually sticking its 1.6-litre turbo petrol in there.We haven’t tried the manual, but the eight-speed auto is decisive and smooth-shifting, which is as much as you can/should ask from a car like this.

On the inside
The old car’s interior was functional if plain. Entirely predictably the new one aims for even more space and a more “premium quality”. Taking care of the former is 40 extra litres of boot space (taking us to 625 litres in all), more legroom for second-row passengers and more headroom for those in the third, rearmost row. Access is brilliantly straightforward thanks to second-row seats that unlatch and spring forwards electronically.

Slide the second-row forwards and you’re left with enough knee room and headroom for an adult to sit, quite unhappily we’d imagine, for a short journey. Hyundai says it’s considering offering both five- and seven-seat versions of the Santa Fe, but that traditionally it’s the seven-seater than sells.

As for the premium-ness all carmakers seem to be obsessed with nowadays, the Santa Fe eschews a conventional centre-stack and instead goes for the very in-vogue tablet-like touchscreen setup. Screen size and functionality are proportional to money spent, naturally. The flagship eight-incher gets Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and much besides. Shame Hyundai didn’t give it the UI from the new Nexo, but the system is at least quick to respond and functional. Climate controls look a little low-rent but on the whole, the Santa Fe’s interior feels up to withstand the rigours of family life, even if material quality is a little mixed.

If the Skoda Kodiaq feels a little plain and a specced Discovery Sport is out of the budget, the new Santa Fe looks like it’d be a thoroughly decent alternative. Just don’t go expecting any real excitement – family crossovers typically fail in this regard, and the biggest Hyundai is no different.

It’s no longer priced as a conspicuous bargain, but that’s because this is a properly refined device with a brilliantly realised seven-seat cabin, handy tech and a relaxed gait. It’s an unpretentious SUV with some handsome styling touches and the prospect of a painless ownership experience.

Thought the rampant Hyundai improvement exercise would slow, as complacency set in, did you? Try one of these - it’s a very finely realised all-rounder. Chiefly, it feels worth the money.

Tags: bmw, skoda, hyundai, santa fe, audi, volvo, suv

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