Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRTD GSI 7-seat
List price when new £22,630
Price today £5500
Available from 2006-2012
The Santa Fe’s trump card is the fact it was available with seven seats. It looks good, too
Land Rover Freelander TD4 GS
List price when new £23435
Price today £7500
Available from 2006-2014
The Freelander offers style, off-road ability and a load more luxury than the other cars here
Nissan X-Trail 2.2 dCi Columbia
List price when new £21,325
Price today £4500
Available from 2001-2007
The X-Trail has a fine drive, a practical interior and the lowest price here on its side
Toyota RAV4 2.2 D-4D XT4
List price when new £22,815
Price today £5000
Available from 2006-2012
It’s sharp to drive, and in this guise the old-shape RAV4 is also well equipped
Price today is for a 2006 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
As you start to think about packing kids, presents and overnight bags into your car for Christmas this week, you might wonder whether you could switch into something bigger and more practical. Perhaps something with four-wheel drive, too, to make sure you get to Gran and Grandad’s house no matter what the weather throws at you.
Happily, you don’t need a huge budget to get something that ticks all those boxes. An SUV that’s pleasant to drive on the road while also being big enough for the whole family is now well within reach for most buyers.
The second-generation Hyundai Santa Fe, for example, is a car that we always liked when it was new because it was practical and extremely spacious – it was even available with the option of seven seats. A car so-equipped can now be had for little more than £5000.
Its two biggest rivals at that price point – the Nissan X-Trail and Toyota RAV4 – only have five seats apiece. But the Nissan brings a rugged reputation to the party, and the Toyota a fine driving experience. Both will be hard to beat.
As will the Land Rover Freelander, long the aspirational choice. It's more expensive than the other three cars here, but the extra touches of class it can offer might just make it the one you’ll want to be driving home for Christmas.
What are they like to drive?
All four of the cars here have 2.2-litre turbodiesel engines, but the Freelander’s 158bhp powerplant betters the rest by at least 10bhp. It also has an impressive 48lb ft more pulling muscle than its nearest rival here, the Santa Fe.
Sure enough, the Freelander is a good deal quicker than the other cars here in a sprint off the line, and it also fares well in terms of its in-gear acceleration figures. However, these don’t tell the whole story; although the Freelander’s engine is strong, it feels flat before the turbocharger starts to do its stuff, and it runs out of puff at lower revs than the others, meaning you have to change gear more frequently to keep the engine at its most gutsy.
The Santa Fe comes closest to matching the Freelander for outright pulling power, but it’s hampered by its weight. It’s the slowest car off the mark here, but in everyday driving it rarely feels short of pace. The fact that the bulk of its pulling power is available from low revs is the key to this feeling of flexibility.
This Nissan and Toyota’s engines both have 134bhp, and the X-Trail has just 4lb ft more pulling power. Both are keen to rev, but the RAV4 runs out of puff a little earlier. The Toyota’s low gearing is a mixed blessing, too; the benefit is an urgent, responsive feel around town, but the RAV4 can’t match the X-Trail for outright flexibility. That said, both respond keenly when you put your foot down, whether you’re grabbing a gap in city traffic or joining the motorway.
It’s the RAV4 which has the most appeal for those who value a sporty drive, though. You can have great fun chucking it around, because its nimbleness, strong grip and tight body control make it almost as agile as a family hatchback. Responsive, meaty steering completes the RAV4’s list of talents.
There is a trade-off, though. The Toyota’s ride isn’t harsh, but the stiff suspension that helps to give it such a lively feel is the least forgiving of this quartet, and on poorly surfaced roads the Toyota bounces and thumps more than the others.
The Freelander isn’t quite as sharp, but it’s still good to drive. While the forgiving, long-travel suspension means the body leans over as you turn into a corner, the Land Rover soon settles and always feels composed.
The steering guides you accurately too, but it’s very light and once you’ve turned beyond a certain amount of deadness around the straight-ahead, it responds quickly. This is handy in town, but more weight and feel would instil extra confidence at speed. The good news is that the Land Rover irons out bumps on the road surface better than any other car here.
The heavyweight Santa Fe’s extra bulk is obvious on the move, mainly because there’s plenty of lean through bends, and the extra weight pushes the front wheels wide if a bend suddenly tightens.
This feeling of clumsiness isn’t helped by steering that’s short on genuine feedback, but the Hyundai is a decent drive nonetheless. It goes about its business in a solid, assured way and requires little effort from the driver. While the suspension thumps over sharper bumps, the ride is generally forgiving.
The X-Trail is probably the best all-rounder of the group, doing a great job of combining passenger comfort with driver appeal. While it may not excel in any one area, it is good to drive, with a more athletic feel than the Santa Fe and a more relaxed ride than the Toyota on patchy roads.
Sadly, though, the X-Trail shows the age of its design in the way it suppresses to noise – which is to say, not all that well. Wind and road noise increase with speed, while its engine is the noisiest here.
Road noise is a big issue in the RAV4, too – enough to become tiring on long journeys, and the suspension thuds loudly over bumps too. It’s a shame, because the engine is hushed. The Santa Fe has a much quieter cabin and a smooth engine, but it too is let down by thumping suspension, making the Freelander the quietest car here.
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