A step ahead
HOW an SUV drives is usually pretty far down the priority list after how it looks, what it costs and how much room there is inside. We used to take it as read that an SUV would be about as sharp as a serving of refried beans to drive, but in recent years we've seen the pendulum swing back the other way with ''sporty'' 4x4s with decidedly brittle ride quality. The Hyundai Santa Fe is different. While it's a long way from the lax body control of old-school SUVs, it's not in any way a sharp steer. Don't take that as a criticism. The UK makes up around a third of all Santa Fe sales in Europe and therefore Hyundai has spent some time and money tuning the suspension of the car to suit our frankly horrible roads.
Like many vehicles of its type, its front wheel drive most of the time, but when sensors detect slippage, up to 50 per cent of drive can be diverted to the rear wheels. So far, so predictable. Unlike many ''part time'' four-wheel drives, the Santa Fe can be locked into 4x4 mode at the touch of a button which is perfect for especially slippery conditions, such as muddy off-roading or driving on snow or ice. What's more you can do this on the fly at speeds up to 40kmh.
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The Santa Fe is one of those cars that has become progressively better looking throughout its existence, and this third generation car hits all the right notes. The front end features a big grille and a high pedestrian-friendly bonnet line, with all of the lights and intakes a stylised trapezoidal shape. It looks agreeably expensive. Jump inside and the good news continues. We're getting used to some very smart Hyundai interiors these days and the Santa Fe doesn't deviate from that script one iota. There seem to be quite a variety of materials used on the fascia but the overall look and feel is attractive, the dash being dominated by a central screen flanked on either side by these big air vents. Then you've got stereo and ventilation controls below, with quite a few of these functions replicated on the steering wheel. The four-wheel drive running gear controls are mounted just here to the right of the steering wheel.
Market and Model:
One inevitable consequence of the Santa Fe becoming better finished, better equipped and better engineered is that prices have crept up. That price rise is partially offset by the provision of the front-wheel drive models which start at less than £26,000, with the step up to an equivalent all-wheel drive car costing around £1,400. It's a £1,200 price step to go from a five-seater models to a seven-seater and around £1,700 to add an automatic gearbox.
Still, you do get a lot of gear for your money. Even the entry-level trim will net you cruise control, rear parking sensors, three-stage heated front seats, Bluetooth with voice recognition, steering wheel mounted stereo and phone controls, AUX-in and USB connections for the stereo and a trip computer. There are 18ins alloy wheels, front and rear skid plates, a rear spoiler with an integrated brake light and body-coloured doors and mirrors. Go for a range-topper and you'll get gear like 12-way electrically adjustable driver's seat trimmed in leather, keyless entry, touch screen satellite navigation, a ten speaker premium sound system, and a smart parking assist function.
The Hyundai Santa Fe has improved fast. Its predecessor was a really solid vehicle that now looks a great used buy, but this one has stepped it up more convincingly than we thought possible.
In fact it's a great choice if you've never really considered an SUV before. It's not showy or offensive. In fact it marries all the best bits of SUVs, namely their space, versatility and ease of ownership with the refreshing lack of drama of a normal big family car. Although there's no choice when it comes to engines, UK buyers can decide whether they want front or four wheel drive and five seats or seven. Plus there's auto or manual transmissions and a range of trim levels, so Hyundai have most customer eventualities covered off. If you've got a family, have room in your life for one car and need one that'll discreetly go the distance without a hiccup, you need to try the Hyundai Santa Fe. Then try its rivals. I'm guessing you'll be back at the Hyundai dealer before too long. It's that good.