Seeking accord and upmarket aspirations are laudable qualities of the latest SUV from the South Korean manufacturer, writes Iain Robertson, while retaining mere hints of its past but advancing technology through ingenious chassis design and touch-point developments.
The original Santa Fe was a turn-of-the-Millennium car, more Bluto than Popeye, organically bloated and eye-catching, if not entirely attractive, it was a soft headliner for a brand that was still asserting its world market presence. It was certainly recognisable but also highly polarising, a factor that any manufacturer with its eye on the prize knows is essential to gathering momentum and, with hope, building brand awareness.
I can recall breaking the story of the new model (for the Daily Telegraph) on the Spanish island of Majorca. Most obligingly, Hyundai had made arrangements with the local owner of a large olive grove, on the hilly north side of the island, for a 10-mile trek on tracks that looked more challenging than they were but which the Santa Fe’s four-wheel drive system consumed with ease. We resided at a swish but traditional island pad, which I believe was owned by Richard Branson’s growing prestige hotel group, on the rocky Deia coast. It is worth noting that the car’s on-road deportment was fair but uninspiring and the conclusion reached was that it would probably find some British homes but the next generation could be the one worth waiting for.
Seven years later, the second-generation Santa Fe arrived. It was a dramatic improvement overall but, then, it needed to be and it gave the company an early opportunity to explore the dark art of electrification. Breaking with the customary Nickel Metal-hydride type of battery, its development was with lithium-polymer, which was a portent of the future, at the end of the noughties. Yet, the car was still struggling with its identity, even though it was being assembled at two US plants, as well as in Egypt, Algeria, China, Malaysia, India and Russia. In 2012, the shapeliest third version made a stronger impact, followed by a much refined and influential ‘Mark Four’ only a couple of years ago. I cite ‘influential’, because the American-built Ford Edge now looks more Hyundai of that generation than ever!
Two years is very brief in product development terms but the latest iteration, which is set to make its debut this September, all things being well, features the first group application of an all-new platform that Hyundai believes to be a signpost to significant improvements in aerodynamics, performance, dynamic handling, fuel efficiency and safety. So, apart from the huge ‘guppy-gob’ grille that is now stretched ingloriously across almost the full width of its nose, the real headline is not so easy to see.
In fact, the platform features a clever system that controls the flow of air beneath the car, through the engine bay, and allows heat to be dissipated readily. While having the effect of enhancing vehicle stability, for electrified versions, the extra cooling is welcome, and positioning heavy elements (like battery packs) in the lower part of the vehicle also lowers the centre of gravity. Yet, the car’s aerodynamics have also been improved so that air resistance is minimised, which enhances fuel efficiency, and improves driving performance overall.
The fixed points for the steering arms have been positioned closer to the middle of the front wheels, which promotes more agile handling. The sub-structure has also been engineered for greater integrity not just to provide enhanced crash resistance but also to improve rigidity, which reduces noise, vibration and harshness; ‘NVH’, the ‘holy trinity’ of undesirable automotive traits. While the outgoing Santa Fe was much improved in the handling department, the new model is significantly better. Although more details of the powertrain options will be made available later this year, which will feature mild and full plug-in hybrid options, as well as total electrification (which will entail an important fuel cell announcement), in which Hyundai is becoming highly proficient, a central pillar of developments is to reduce emissions and extend efficient mileage ranges.
With up to 20-inch diameter alloy wheels filling the arches, complete with cheeky accents above them, the new Santa Fe is a most handsome machine and a slight break from the brand’s signature conservatism, a factor that is sure to attract both curious admiration and conquest business. There is a pleasing robustness to the overall design, which remains stoically SUV in its intentions.
Yet, once inside the spacious cabin, the extensive application of ‘soft-touch’ surfaces creates an impactful impression. Nappa hide seat and door card coverings (extended to dashboard in top versions) are not only tactile but reduce noise intrusion for even more comfortable cruising. The centre console is wide and features a new ‘floating’ section for the various shift-by-wire controls. Industry advancements in electronics have allowed Hyundai the opportunity to introduce a ‘terrain response’ selector for the first time, which also underscores its greater off-road potential.
The driver is fronted by a 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster, which allows even more information to be provided on the move, as desired. Other details and functions can be accessed using the 10.25-inch central touchscreen. The split-level dashboard moulding, especially in models featuring two-tone trim, introduces an airy environment enhanced by a large glazed roof section. Hyundai’s typically efficient climate control maintains cabin comfort regardless of weather conditions.
Hyundai’s aim is to continue building the class and style of its top European SUV. Naturally, it wants customers and critics to spot the ‘premium’ quality in evidence, certainly until its luxurious Genesis ‘sub-brand’ makes its debut (if ever it does) on our roads. While pricing strategy is going to be crucial and eyebrows have been raised already about the list prices of some lesser models in the range, the top EV versions of Santa Fe are sure to dip their toes into £50k territory, which might be a step too far for some of Hyundai’s core customer base.
Conclusion: Hyundai is reaching for the stars with Santa Fe, for certain, but its dealers will be forced into seeking plenty of corporate backhanders/bonuses to ensure a moderate turnover. The new car can certainly stand alongside several of the more upmarket SUVs but customers will continue to think of Hyundai as a ‘budget’ brand.