Hyundai’s US-market breakthrough SUV aims for greater European success

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The Hyundai Santa Fe might seem to European eyes like something of a bit-part player in the SUV market, but the Hyundai has a celebrated status within the car maker’s own internal company circles.

This car’s introduction was a watershed moment in the development of Hyundai’s fortunes in the all-important North American car market. When the first-generation version was introduced in 2000, the Korean firm sold just shy of a quarter of a million cars in the US; but, by the time it was replaced, Hyundai’s US sales footprint had almost doubled. Buyers on the other side of the pond instantly warmed to the value, practicality, comfort and convenience of this car in a way that made its reception elsewhere in the world of much less import.

Hyundai’s way to make this big SUV more attractive seems to be to add creases. They meet on the rear door to make a panel that looks as if it must be particularly complicated to press

So how do you update and change the Santa Fe in order to cash in on the global appetite for cars of its ilk without putting such established success at risk? It’s a question that must have been pondered more during the design and engineering process of this fourth-generation version than on either occasion when the Santa Fe has been replaced before. There are so many enlarged, seven-seat-adapted compact European SUVs encroaching on its patch, as well as a burgeoning set of premium-branded compact and mid-sized SUVs – therefore many more ways to spend a Santa Fe-sized budget on a family 4x4 than there was even five years ago.

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Hyundai’s answer, which the Autocar road test microscope is focused on here, broadly seems to be ‘steady as she goes’. The fourth-generation Santa Fe gets smarter looks, a stiffer, lighter chassis, and new suspension and driveline systems. And, though we’re testing it with the familiar 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, it will also be the first car of its lineage to depart from diesel power, with Hyundai preparing to introduce petrol-electric hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions in the medium-term future.

But is it enough to be regarded as one of the best SUVs for families?

Hyundai Santa Fe design & styling

The Santa Fe’s UK market success has, to a significant degree, been built on metal-for-the-money value. And so, while it was already one of the bigger SUVs on which you could spend £30,000-plus, the fact that it’s just got a little bit bigger probably won’t hurt its sales potential.

At 4770mm in length, the car is now within a few inches of a BMW X5, and splits the difference between a Land Rover Discovery and Land Rover Discovery Sport on occupied kerbside real estate almost exactly. And yet, as you might imagine, the Santa Fe is a long way from splitting the difference between those two Land Rovers so precisely on price. More on that in due course.

The car’s underbody construction remains an all-steel monocoque, although it has a greater proportion of hot-stamped, high-strength steel in it than any other Hyundai. The body is suspended independently, via struts up front and multiple links at the rear, above which you’ll find steel coil springs and a damping system that offers a self-levelling function for all UK-market specifications.

Four-wheel drive isn’t likewise standard on all versions; and, what’s more, this is the first time that Hyundai UK has offered a front-driven Santa Fe – although not the first time that the car has been without rear driveshafts in a global sense. There is, for now, only one engine on offer: a redesigned version of Hyundai’s ‘R’-family 2199cc CRDi turbodiesel four-cylinder motor, which mounts transversely under the bonnet and produces 197bhp and 325lb ft.

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In both cases, that’s precisely what the outgoing Santa Fe had – although Hyundai’s engineers may well have considered it a good result to reproduce those outputs on an engine that’s needed revised combustion control, reduced internal friction, a particulate trap, a selective catalytic reduction system and a lean NOx trap to satisfy current Euro 6d-TEMP emissions requirements.

Buyers can opt for a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic gearbox regardless of their choice on number of driven wheels – and if they do go for four-wheel drive, as was fitted to our top-of-the-range automatic test car, they’ll get Hyundai’s latest HTRAC four-wheel-drive system, which allows you to vary the default torque split from 50:50 front-to-rear (for loose surfaces and more balanced handling) through to entirely front-drive (for optimal fuel economy).

Even with four-wheel drive, however, the Santa Fe shouldn’t be mistaken for the most capable, dual-purpose utility car of its size. Ground clearance is pegged at a pretty average 185mm; several of the car’s off-road clearance angles are below 20deg; and, even though manual versions of the car are rated to tow more than autos, none will manage over 2.5 tonnes on a braked trailer.

Price £43,295 Power 197bhp Torque 325lb ft 0-60mph 9.3sec 30-70mph in fourth 9.8sec Fuel economy 37.5mpg CO2 emissions 164g/km 70-0mph 46.8m (damp)


Hyundai Santa Fe 2019 road test review - front seats

The Santa Fe’s cabin is one with more of the functional than the ornate. As such, you can expect to find seven seats as standard; a second row that can slide backwards and forwards and fold down flat at the touch of a button; and a boot that’s now larger than that of its already impressively roomy predecessor.

With those rearmost seats stowed away, boot space stands at 547 litres – a figure that can be increased to 1625 litres by collapsing the 60:40 split-folding second row. This makes the Santa Fe a considerably more useful load-lugger than a seven-seat Nissan X-Trail (445 litres), but not quite as voluminous as the Skoda Kodiaq (560 litres).

The instrument binnacles are a curious-looking mix of the analogue and digital with some fussy styling elements, but I’ll celebrate it for the sheer size and easy legibility of the fuel and temperature gauges

Still – with a handsfree tailgate offered as standard on Premium and Premium SE models; a large boot aperture (1100mm wide, 760mm tall) that’ll have little trouble swallowing particularly bulky items like bikes or furniture; and a flat load bay floor – there’s little ground for criticism over a lack of practicality.

The same can be said for passenger space. Even with the panoramic sunroof that comes as standard on our Premium SE model, head room in the second row is more than acceptable, as is leg room. An all-but-flat transmission tunnel makes the middle seat that much more accommodating than it might otherwise be, although this is still best reserved for children.

The same can be said for the third-row seats, though they make for more space than in most seven-seat SUVs at the price. A mass of USB and auxiliary charging points, meanwhile, will no doubt come in handy for keeping any tablet- or smartphone-obsessed family occupied on longer journeys.

Despite the focus the Santa Fe’s cabin places on ease of use and versatility, material appeal and overall finish haven’t been forgotten. The leather-upholstered seats look smart and are easily adjustable, if a little firm; and while plainer moulded plastics have been used fairly liberally throughout, there’s a pervading sense of solidity about the manner in which everything has been screwed together and some richer materials. Meanwhile, heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and a wireless smartphone chargepad add to the impressive roster of creature comforts.

Anyone familiar with other Hyundai and Kia vehicles will instantly recognise the software employed by the Santa Fe’s infotainment suite. On entry-level SE models, this is housed within a 7in touchscreen, while cars with Premium and Premium SE trim levels gain a larger 8in screen with built-in satellite navigation.

All the expected features are present and correct, with DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and multiple USB ports included as standard. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also feature on every Santa Fe, making up for the lack of factory navigation software in entry-level models. The software itself is intuitive enough to use but, as has been our experience of other Hyundai and Kia products, it’s not the most graphically sophisticated.

Mid-range Premium Santa Fe models and above get a wireless smartphone charger as standard, as well as a Krell premium audio system. The sound quality is perfectly acceptable but not particularly memorable.


Hyundai Santa Fe 2019 road test review - engine

The Santa Fe compares pretty well against other seven-seat SUVs against the clock. Fully fuelled and two-up, the Hyundai went from 30-70mph through the gears in a commendable 8.7sec. By way of comparison, the Land Rover Discovery Sport (188bhp, 325lb ft, 1863kg) we tested in 2015 was 0.3sec slower; the Skoda Kodiaq (148bhp, 251lb ft, 1751kg), on the other hand, was 1.4sec off the Santa Fe’s pace.

That the Hyundai can more than hold its own against two of our class favourites demonstrates that it’s certainly not wanting in terms of real-world performance. And while the manner in which that performance is delivered is as far from exciting as you’d expect it to be in a car of this kind, there’s enough of it to give this Santa Fe a gentle aura of strength, and to convince you that it could be put to work towing quite willingly.

Compared with the Santa Fe’s sprint time of 9.3sec, the less powerful but lighter Kodiaq hit 60mph from rest in 9.5sec, while the Discovery Sport managed 8.9sec

The eight-speed automatic transmission is, for the most part, smartly calibrated and allows you to tap into the Santa Fe’s 325lb ft well of torque – which is spread from 1750- 2750rpm – quite easily and with little delay. Hitting the kickdown switch while rolling will see it downshift in an urgent enough fashion, while the subsequent upshifts as the pace gathers are executed dextrously.

The only time the automatic ’box seemed to falter in its ability to direct torque to the driven wheels was off the line, where a heavy right foot would unearth a touch of slip before properly hooking up. That said, the Hyundai still managed 0-60mph in 9.3sec, which just about beats par when compared with its rivals.

Engine refinement and isolation are impressive, too. While there’s little here to mask the fact that there’s an obviously diesel-powered engine under the bonnet, at a steady 70mph cruise our sound gear measured cabin noise at 64dB. That same equipment, at the same speed, took readings of 67dB in both the Land Rover Discovery Sport and Skoda Kodiaq.

If you run the crankshaft all the way up to maximum revs in fourth gear, that sense of civility will be significantly diminished. The engine’s certainly not a rangey or particularly flexible one, but it’s not allowed to become too obstreperous by a gearbox that has shifted up before 4250rpm comes around.


Hyundai Santa Fe 2019 road test review - on the road front

Making gains in handling response and stability while improving rolling comfort, as Hyundai aimed to do with this car, wasn’t ever going to be straightforward.

The Santa Fe’s spring rates have been increased, but of greater significance is the fact that Hyundai has opted for longer-travel suspension here than it did with the last-generation car. When combined with the 19in alloys of our Premium SE test car, however, the Santa Fe delivered a low-speed ride that wasn’t quite as convincing as the accompanying marketing literature led you to believe it might be.

Santa Fe felt planted and secure through hairpins, but governed quite tightly, though subtly, by ESP

The car’s ride can feel slightly agitated around town, amplifying the impacts and vibrations imparted by rutted Tarmac to a degree that few testers considered appropriate for a big, comfort-oriented SUV.

Were this a properly capable 4x4, the heavy-duty, agricultural dynamic undertones would perhaps be easier to forgive; as it stands, though, the laid-back, comfort-first dynamic character of the old Santa Fe seems to have been lost a little here, and little of worth has been gained in the trade. Increasing the pace does smooth things out a bit. The Hyundai has settled vertical body control at open-road speeds, and deals with undulating surfaces with greater comfort and suppleness than it does low-speed ruts and bumps.

Yet it fails to handle with any greater composure or agility than the last Santa Fe, and compared with the current crop of seven-seat SUVs, remains a car that makes every kilogram of its considerable kerb weight felt when you hurry it along.

Body control is softer than the SUV class average and, while the Santa Fe’s stability is never in question and is well-marshalled by its electronics, the suspension holds surprisingly little grip or composure in reserve when you meet a mid-corner bump, or have to unsettle the car’s equilibrium to make a course adjustment under plenty of lateral load.

The Santa Fe isn’t alone among seven-seat SUVs in its failure to mask its considerable weight through the numerous bends, dips and climbs of Millbrook’s challenging Hill Route – yet it still struggles here. Faster directional changes are particularly adept at making the Hyundai’s mass felt, although the car’s stability control and suspension combine to keep roll from building too adversely.

The HTRAC four-wheel-drive system’s ability to shuffle 50% of the engine’s torque rearwards helps to quell the effect of understeer a little, but it was hard to detect the impact of that much torque vectoring in the car’s handling balance or response.

The ESP system wasn’t overly heavy-handed, though, and would gently rein in unintentional throttle on understeer without killing power entirely.


Hyundai Santa Fe 2019 road test review - hero front

Hyundai has, for a couple of model generations now, been pleasantly surprised at the amount of money Santa Fe buyers are willing to spend.

That doesn’t mean the firm doesn’t work very hard to provide value at all points within the car’s derivative line-up, of course. And so an entry-level, front-wheel-drive, manual Santa Fe will cost you a little more than £33,000 (nearly £2000 less than a Peugeot 5008 with its stoutest diesel engine) and comes with seven seats and touchscreen infotainment with smartphone mirroring.

An equivalent XC90 would depreciate only £30 more than a Santa Fe over a three-year, 36,000-mile ownership

At the top of the range, meanwhile, you can count on standard equipment such as 19in alloys, leather seat facings, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, an electric tailgate, a head-up display and a full suite of active safety and convenience systems, delivered for a price that no Volkswagen Touareg or Volvo XC90 could approach without a very hefty discount.

Hyundai’s introductory personal finance offers include a £2000 deposit contribution and a 5.9% APR interest rate, making the car available for well under £500 a month after a typical £5000 deposit and over a typical three-year term. That’s not stellar value, but it’s competitive with the current offers available on a comparable Land Rover Discovery Sport or Audi Q5 – which are, of course, smaller cars.


Hyundai Santa Fe 2019 road test review - static

The previous Santa Fe was a methodical improvement over its predecessor; one that sprinkled necessary additional dynamic and visual dressing over what was, in essence, a versatile, practical family car. A similar tranche of considered, incremental changes have, by and large, been applied here.

This is a car that’s more attractive, more practical, better-appointed and more refined than what went before, and that still has a likeably simple and direct positioning among its rivals. But it’s regrettable that Hyundai’s efforts to overhaul the ride and handling haven’t been as successful as those put in by its designers. Ride comfort has plainly been sacrificed for little apparent gain on handling composure, body control or drivability; and there’s a distinct sense of brittleness about the car’s low-speed ride that is quite unwelcome.

Better looks, a mixed drive, but little to help the SUV really stand out

Spacious, well-priced and generously equipped, the Santa Fe has plenty of bases covered and should retain a loyal, satisfied, rational following. But the sense that it needed to make greater strides to gain ground in a crowded European SUV market is unmistakable.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Hyundai Santa Fe (2018-2023) First drives