Hyundai knows how to build good vehicles for the mainstream market. That by itself should come as no surprise. It's the speed in which the South Korean car maker has established itself as a world-class contender since it began exporting its cars (the ultra-cheap, totally forgettable Pony) more than 25 years ago that astounds. With every new model since then, Hyundai has improved, the successive generations of those models being better by leaps and bounds.
This brings me to a personal favourite - the mid-sized Santa Fe sportute. The first generation (2001-2006) Santa Fe was a decent although oddly styled effort, an important addition to Hyundai's line-up, especially in light of what was then a red-hot market for compact-sized sporty-utility vehicles. But it was the up-sized, second generation version, which debuted in 2007, that truly impressed. When I first drove the Santa Fe, it conducted itself so proficiently that I found myself lulled into a contentment that came with knowing it was going to be a faithful companion.
The SUV market is no longer blazing the same trail of success as it was during the first five years of the new millennium. However, it is still robust and important enough that competition quickly relegates what was once the next-best thing to yesterday's news. Fortunately, Hyundai has not let the Santa Fe stagnate. For 2010, the SUV receives a mid- cycle freshening. In the looks department, there are new bumpers, new front and rear fascias, new body-colour front grille, new rear lights and side mouldings and standard 17-inch alloy wheels.
Under the hood, the Santa Fe sees two new powertrains. The more important of the two, at least for those seeking improved fuel economy, is the availability of a four-cylinder engine - the 175hp, 2.4L Theta II. The second is a 3.5L Lambda II unit with 276hp. In addition, the Sante Fe now comes standard with a six-speed manual gearbox (for the base version) or a six-speed automatic (standard on all 3.5L models). The Emirates gets the automatic exclusively.
The top-of-the-line, all-wheel-drive Limited with Navigation continues its role as a well balanced, five-seat, family-oriented hauler that comes off as being very well equipped rather than out-and-out luxurious. Its price used to be high in relation with other models in the Hyundai fleet, but now that the flagship Genesis saloon is in the line-up, it doesn't seem nearly as out of line. The closest thing to criticism I can muster is that, looks-wise, the Santa Fe is handsome but conventionally styled, blending into the sports-utility majority rather than standing out. Now that Hyundai has moved well beyond trying to prove itself in the marketplace, it needs to let loose its styling gurus to wow the public with eye-catching designs.
The 1,868kg SUV hides its weight well, with the uprated V6 and new six-speed automatic (with Shiftronic for manual control of the gearbox) getting the Santa Fe to required speeds smoothly and efficiently and providing plenty of extra urge when passing power is called for. Despite the added 34hp, fuel economy for the 2010 model proved better than the 2008 V6 Santa Fe - an average of 13.3L / 100km versus 14.1 - in a mix of motorway and in-town use.
Standard on the Limited is an electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system, which automatically routes power to the wheels with the best traction. It also comes with a driver-selectable 4WD lock that provides a continuous 50/50 torque split between front and rear wheels when heading off-road. Electronic Stability Control, which includes traction control, is standard, as is ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
The Santa Fe's ride and handling is quite acceptable. The rear suspension is a basic multi-link set-up, the front uses MacPherson struts and both ends are fitted with stabiliser bars. Passengers are coddled from most bumps and potholes but the ride isn't floaty. The rack-and-pinion steering - again, nothing fancy - nevertheless has decent weight to it and lets the driver know what's going on. The Limited's cabin is tasteful, with the interior decor offset by woodgrain trim. And, at night, the cabin is bathed in a soothing soft blue light not only from the instrument cluster but from the switches and controls on the dash and the doors. As the top version, the Limited with Navigation is fully loaded with all the modern conveniences and, new this year, a useful rear backup camera.
As for passenger comfort, the five-passenger Santa Fe has the room to accommodate six-footers both up front and in the second row, leaving good cargo room - 968L with the seats up and 2,248L when the rear seats are folded flat. The Santa Fe - revamped and tweaked but still in need of a little more character - continues as a fully featured sport-ute, at a competitive price with reliability at Japanese vehicle levels. For those who place greater importance on competence and reliability rather than style, it's a keeper. firstname.lastname@example.org