Technology being what it is, we can tell which cars are being researched most extensively on whatcar.com these days. Most of the time it’s the usual suspects, such as the Nissan Qashqai and VW Golf. Then there’s the odd curveball, such as the Mazda CX-5 – and the Hyundai Santa Fe.
I reckon Hyundai’s Santa Fe has always had a slight whiff of ‘too good to be true’ about it, which is why people are so curious to find out what our road testers think of it. The previous generation earned a reputation for being a spacious, if slightly rugged, people-carrier with the scope for seven seats.
The new edition has tried to build upon that by going a bit more upmarket, with more sophisticated looks, a plusher cabin – and a higher price.
That price was at the forefront of my mind when our own example of the latest Santa Fe turned up in December last year. You can only have a 2.2-litre diesel version these days, but front- and four-wheel-drive editions are available, and in order to get an example on the fleet as quickly as possible, we had to settle for the extra driven wheels.
We also went for the range-topping Premium SE edition, although we’d have to admit that Style spec (the entry-level trim) probably has everything that most people need.
Premium SE is pretty loaded – you get dual-zone climate control, heated leather seats, a reversing camera, a panoramic sunroof, larger alloy wheels and touch-screen sat-nav as standard – but then, it ought to be for more than £33,000. Throw in an automatic transmission, metallic paint and a load cover for the boot and you pay more than £35,500.
As a staff photographer, it doesn’t take me long to rack up miles or start putting my long-termers to the test on practicality. As always, snappers have to carry a load of kit (everything from tripods and camera bags to cleaning products), so I soon learned that the Santa Fe had more than enough space for my needs.
The boot cover was less impressive. For starters, I’m amazed that you have to pay for it on the seven-seat model in the first place (it’s standard on the five-seater). Second, it’s not that good; the seatbelts for the third row of seats get in the way when you pull the cover across, and while you can clip the belts out of the way, the cover still manages to dislodge them every time.
The rest of the Santa Fe’s interior is good, though. The middle row of seats is comfortable for both adults and children, and the rear doors open wide, so it’s easy to clamber aboard.
The dashboard is nicely finished and the standard sat-nav has a crisp, clear display that is easy to use. It drove me mad that I had to manually mute the sat-nav’s voice every time the system was switched on, though. DAB wasn’t available either, although it can now be retrofitted by dealers.
Fuel economy was pretty disappointing, despite the official combined fuel economy figure being 41.5mpg. Our overall average refused to go much above 31mpg.
The car’s soft suspension allowed the body to roll too much but couldn’t deal with surface imperfections, even at speed on the motorway, and the variable steering was utterly devoid of feel in any setting.
Fortunately, little went wrong with it in 19,000 miles. We had to replace the windscreen, but that was covered by insurance (just as well, because the bill would have been four figures otherwise). It didn’t get to a service with us but it did get a free health check at 10,000 miles and the dealer service was impressive — at least as good as with my previous car, a Honda CR-V.
One of the rear passenger door handles packed up completely, but as soon as I threatened the car with a return trip to the dealer, it miraculously cured itself. None of the interior trim fell off either, despite the fact that the Santa Fe was a popular load-lugger choice for any What Car? staffers who needed to shift stuff over the weekend.
On the whole, then, the Santa Fe passed its test – just. It was dependable and practical, but it was let down by its running costs and the details that make living with a car easy or irritating.