The Santa Fe was the car that turned Hyundai into a serious player in the UK car market. Before it the Korean firm was known for offering cheap cars that were pretty dire by Western European standards but by launching an eye-catching, chunky-looking but more importantly competent SUV the brand immediately gave itself some much needed street cred. Now we have a third generation model only this time it makes up part of a car range that doesn't really have a weak link. So is the Santa Fe still the pick of the Hyundai crop?
You only have to to look at the new model's rather impressive chrome nose to get the impression it has moved upmarket and become a rather more civilised and sophisticated beast. Stand next to it and imposing is the word that comes to mind. The detail styling is a bit too "USA" for my tastes but from my observation of the lesser spotted urban SUV driver I've come to realize that a smidgen of vulgarity is seen as a good thing. Switch on the tarmac-melting LED running lights and the Santa Fe is even more arresting from the front.
Like much of the current Hyundai range the Santa Fe is a pretty handsome beast. Gone are the days when the words "Korean", "car" and "style" were seldom seem together without the word "lacking" also featuring. The size of the Santa Fe - it is a pretty large motor, make no mistake - makes the new family look less fussy than on smaller models. I have to be honest and say I rather like the look of the thing and at the end of the week with I liked it even more.
The Santa Fe is powered by a four cylinder 2.2-litre turbodiesel to which you can add manual or automatic transmission with front- or four-wheel drive running gear. It’s a very good engine to use in a machine like this - smooth, willing and more than up to the challenge of hauling over one and a half tons of off-roader around. It's a wee bit rattly when cold but soon warms and once it has it's impressively refined.
The engine may only produce 194bhp but it's torque that makes something like this relaxing to drive and the Santa Fe has plenty of it, 322lb-ft at only 1800rpm to be exact. SUV's always fall down a bit when it comes to CO2 emissions and while the Santa Fe's 178g/km ain't bad it still means you will be paying a good few quid VED each year.
With a top speed of 118mph and a 0-62 time of just over 10 seconds the Santa Fe is not what you could call fast exactly but it moves along with an impressive degree of urgency once you put your foot down and if driven with even a modicum of restraint you will get over 40mpg which isn't bad for a motor this size.
The six speed automatic gearbox my review car came with was near enough seamless in operation and will let you permanently engage the four-wheel drive system if the going gets tough or slippery. There's no diff-lock but the limiting feature of the Santa Fe's off-road ability are its road tires rather than any drivetrain feebleness. It's all the off-roader that you, I or 99.9% of the other motorists living in the UK will ever need.
UK models of the Santa Fe have been given a unique suspension setup and this pays dividends - throw it into a corner and it holds its line with no lurch or wallow. In fact it handles more like your average family estate car than a high-riding SUV on the open road.
The upmarket vibe continue inside. Hyundai has rolled out some very impressive interiors in recent years and the Santa Fe continues the trend. The high driving position is very comfortable and gives a commanding view of all around. Seeing the four corners of the Fe is still a bit of a struggle (hardly an uncommon failing in a vehicle this big) but the parking sensors and reversing camera help out on that front.
The high-resolution colour display in the centre console is attractive to look at and the touchscreen works well. The dials are clear and high standards of interior fit and finish are matched by the impressively high standards of exterior build quality. Built like a brick out-house in short.
The cabin is a wee bit somber thanks to everything being in various shades of grey but all the switch gear falls easily to hand or finger and even the cruise control can be mastered without recourse to the truly vast owners manual.
Though it's available in either five-seat or seven-seat guise the latter is the best choice. The extra rear seats fold easily and completely flat into the boot floor and though the rather hide side shoulder-line blocks the view out at least you can use it 7-up for short trips. The other five seats are very comfortable and there's plenty of space in the cabin even when it's full of adults.
In every day use the Santa Fe is a very easy vehicle to drive. The controls are light, the doors and tailgate though big'n'heavy don't require you visit the gym before opening them and the steering is both direct and well weighted, something many SUV's get wrong.
The new Santa Fe range starts at just under £26,000 though my test car with all the extras had a sticker price of £34,890. Not cheap I grant you but you do get a lot for your money including 19-inch alloy wheels, several cows worth of leather, a very nice 10 speaker hi-fi system and one of the best factory-fit satnav systems I've ever come across. The Bluetooth connectivity was impressively reliable too. Add that to the standard five-year warranty and the Santa Fey is pretty decent value.
Verdict: Is the new Santa Fe the best full-size SUV you can currently buy? It just may be. It looks good, drives and rides well, is decent value and shouldn't need to visit the petrol station all that often. The chrome nose is an acquired taste but that aside it's hard to fault.
Price as tested: £34,890