Hyundai Santa Fe 2012 Road Test

Hyundai is clearly a company that listens when it comes to building a new car. And not just to its existing customers either. When it came to developing the third generation Santa Fe, the firm got feedback from current owners, but more crucially from people who didn't buy one. The views of customers who had shown interest in the Santa Fe but chosen something else highlighted areas where Hyundai was falling short.

It has paid dividends too because the new Santa Fe is a mightily impressive SUV. And it addresses the shortcomings of the the outgoing model. The good things remain though. The Santa Fe built up a reputation as a good value, reliable and well built 4x4, making it an ideal family car. The new model hasn't lost touch with these 'core' values but gets a much needed boost in the style and quality departments.

In terms of looks the new Santa Fe is a huge step forward over the old model. Gone is the boxy and ungainly profile, replaced by a lower and sleeker design. It's the next phase in Hyundai's family look, evolving the style seen on the new i30. You can expect to see the same look on the updated ix35, which is due next year. The front is certainly imposing with that large chrome grille and angular lights.

It hides its considerable size well, helped by the steeply angled windows at the side and the neat underbody guard at the rear. We think it's one of the best looking SUVs on the market and makes the latest Honda CR-V look quite bulky in comparison. But perhaps the key thing is that it looks like a Hyundai. After years of having a disparate design across its range, Hyundai is finally creating a cohesive look which means people recognise its models without looking at the badge.

But it's inside where the new Santa Fe is light years ahead of its predecessor. Those customers who didn't buy the outgoing Santa Fe had one main reason - interior quality. Well there are certainly no complaints with the new model. It feels as well screwed together as before and now the perceived quality is far superior. From the leather used for the seats to the plastics on the doors it all has a much premium feel. Even the buttons and switches are better. This is a cabin up to Honda standards.

Hyundai Sante Fe 2012 (2)

Everything is well laid out too. All the main controls such as the air conditioning and stereo are grouped together high on the central stack, while buttons are clearly marked so it's easy to work out what everything does. As user-friendliness goes the Santa Fe is perfect. It's advanced too. There's an electric parking brake rather than the foot-operated nuisance on the old model, a hill start assist system and Bluetooth as standard. The new sat nav system, standard on Premium and Premium SE models, is improved too and now takes full seven digit postcodes.

Of course this is all well and good but as a family car the Santa Fe has to be practical. Fortunately the new model has lost none of its versatility. There's the standard five-seat version but the majority of buyers go for the seven-seater which has two extra seats that neatly flip up from the boot floor. These seats are really only for kids and teenagers, plus you have to be fairly athletic to get to and from them, but once there, it's surprisingly comfortable with more than adequate space.

Compared to the outgoing Santa Fe, there's more legroom both in the front and for those sat behind. The middle row of seats slides, while the backs can be reclined, although the combination of rising window line and sloping roof means you do feel hemmed in when sat here, especially with three across. On the plus side you can fold this row down using levers in the boot, which saves having to go in through the side doors if you're halfway through loading something bulky into the boot. Elsewhere there's plenty of storage including a cooled glovebox and a large 537-litre boot.

There's just one engine in the Santa Fe range, the same 2.2 CRDi diesel that was used in its predecessor, but it's been re-engineered to improve refinement and economy. The big change is that the Santa Fe is now available with just front-wheel drive, for those that don't need the 4x4 ability. This returns a claimed 47.9mpg with emissions of just 155g/km.

Hyundai Sante Fe 2012 (5)

However, Hyundai reckons nine out of every 10 Santa Fe sales will be the 4x4 version. It makes sense as there's little difference in economy, with an official 46.3mpg and 159g/km of CO2. Whichever model you choose the engine produces the same 197PS and 422Nm of torque meaning brisk performance and strong in-gear acceleration when you need it. The six-speed manual gearbox has a nice positive change while the six-speed automatic delivers smooth, if not especially snappy shifts.

Refinement is impressive throughout the Santa Fe and thanks to extra sound proofing and thicker side windows there's little wind or road noise, making it a very comfortable car for long distances. It's ideal for towing too with manual versions capable of pulling 2500kg braked. One new feature is Trailer Stability Assist. If it detects a trailer or caravan beginning to snake it will automatically reduce engine power and if needed alternately apply the left and right front brakes to straighten-up the vehicle’s course. Seven-seat 4WD models get self-levelling suspension too.

While the Santa Fe is very much designed for on-road use, it is more than capable on rutted tracks and across muddly fields. The on demand all-wheel drive system usually sends 100% power to the front wheels but if it detects a loss of grip will switch to a 50/50 split. It's completely automatic so as the driver you don't have to do anything. If it does get very treacherous there's a lock button which permanently sets the system to 50/50 at up 25mph. There's also downhill brake control, which keeps the car below 6mph when going down steep slopes.

Handling is never a strong point for any SUV and the Sante Fe is no different. That said it feels safe and composed despite the lack of steering feel, while it corners tidily. The ride is very impressive and the Santa Fe glides along in a very relaxed manner. Hyundai has given the Santa Fe a bespoke suspension set-up for the UK with stiffer dampers which means less body roll in corners, but the downside is that it can be crashy over deep potholes.

The Santa Fe is a far better car than the model it replaces but it's also considerably more expensive. The cheapest model is £25,495 but the model we think will be the most popular - the Premium 4WD automatic seven-seater - is priced at £31,895. That's a hefty price tag especially when you think that the previous equivalent model was £3500 less. To justify this, the new Santa Fe comes with far more standard equipment and thanks to the lower running costs, Hyundai reckons it will save you £1700 over three year compared to the old model.

Is it worth it? Well it's a far superior model than before and easily good enough to consider alongside a Honda CR-V. The Hyundai name is also becoming more recognised for quality rather than just value plus the Santa Fe comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty and five years roadside assistance. It may have gone more upmarket but we reckon the Santa Fe is still the choice for savvy buyers.

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