HYUNDAI'S determined drive from the fringes to mainstream has continued apace with the latest Santa Fe. The quirky styling of the original model has been cleverly shaken off without losing a sense of connection between generations. With the new model stepping up half a size, the neatly conceived cabin is far roomier than before, and the quality of materials, fit and finish continues to improve.
The introduction of a 2.2-litre turbo diesel power option is another sharp move in these economy-conscious times, although the customer pays dearly up-front for making the diesel choice: when the Santa Fe was first introduced, a $2500 premium was charged for diesel over 2.7-litre V6 petrol version, and with recent prices changes that differential has ballooned to $4500.
Under this new pricing structure, the cheapest Santa Fe is the 2.7-litre V6 5-seater, which lists at $45,490. The standard 2.2 CRDi variant is next at $49,990 in five-seater mode and $52,990 configured with a further row of two seats in the back. The top-flight Elite variants - $52,490 for the petrol and $56,990 for the diesel - also feature the three rows of seats, and it is the diesel Elite which graces these pages.
Standard items across the range include anti-lock brakes, stability programming, six airbags, active head restraints, cruise control and a trip computer. The Elite gains an upgraded six-stack seven-speaker MP3-compatible sound system, leather trim, power-operated front seats, and dual-zone climate control.
As well as being very pleasant to look at, the test car was very well put together. The cleanly styled cabin impressed for its many handy storage cubbies and compartments, and the nicely damped feel of the switch-gear demonstrated Hyundai's continual move up the automotive quality charts.
The power-adjusting front seats are comfortable, although the amount of upper back support could be improved for taller drivers. There is plenty of space in the second row, too. The third pair of seats fold into the boot floor when not in use, and come in conjunction with a manual rear airconditioning system. They are wide, but best suited to children for reasons of access and leg- and headroom.
Hyundai's 2.2-litre direct-injection turbo diesel engine produces a handy 110kW and packs a solid 335Nm of torque from 1800-2500rpm. It operates in conjunction with a five-speed automatic rather than the fourspeed unit of the petrol.
The engine was refined for a diesel, even during cold running around town, and openroad performance was long-legged in the best turbo-diesel tradition. The five-speed automatic transmission was also impressive by and large, and certainly far superior to the petrol's four-speed unit. There were, though, two occasions cresting hills at around 100kmh with cruise control on when the transmission indulged in a strange flip-flop between gears.
On-road handling was composed with a clear tendency to understeer, but a lack of steering feel made for an easy rather than engaging drive. Ride quality was fine and noise levels commendably low, even on coarse chip surfaces.
While there was little off-roading on test for this very urban-focused sport utility, the drive programme did include an unexpected 50km stretch in fresh snow. This gave the vehicle's electronic on-demand four-wheel-drive system an opportunity to deviate from its usual front-drive bias and shift power distribution firmly in direction of the maximum available 50:50 front:rear distribution. With an occasional flicker from the stability programming lights, the electronic systems did a fine job of taming conditions that were bad enough to send a number of other vehicles slipping and sliding towards the verges.
Despite this fuel-sapping stretch, the economy return over 400km of mainly highways motoring was an encouraging 8.4l/100km. This compares with a standard cycle of figure of 8.1l/100km for the CRDi, which is in turn a telling 23% better than the comparable figure for the V6 petrol.
While this points to diesel being the obvious choice within this family, when it comes time to crunch the numbers the decision may not be quite so clear: at current fuel prices almost 75,000km of motoring is needed to recover the hefty $4500 purchase price differential between the petrol and diesel.
This being the case, customers must also count on the diesel Santa Fe to hold its value better than the petrol for the financial side of any purchase decision to make sense.
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