Hyundai Santa Fe – First Drive Review

Abhay Verma
Driving the latest generation Santa Fe, an SUV that was once the Korean car maker’s flagship model in India, in its homeland!

Photography: Hyundai Motor

I have reason to believe the design team at Hyundai Motor’s HQ in South Korea is one of the hardest working ones across the world. Why? Because the car maker’s designs are constantly changing! I mean, just look at the SUV here – if the Hyundai badge were taken off, would you recognise it as a Hyundai, let alone a Santa Fe? I doubt. Of course, it’s interesting to see the kind of varied designs Hyundai comes up with, and that too with alarming regularity. As for the Santa Fe here, this is the latest generation version of the full-size SUV and it looks smashing. It’s a radical departure from the design language adopted by most car makers for SUVs today, shunning soft, curvy lines in favour of a sharp, boxy design.

I spent a day behind its wheel in Seoul, South Korea, Hyundai’s homeland. There is no confirmation yet on whether Hyundai will bring it to India or not, but admittedly, this is an SUV I’d like to see on our roads, given how SUVs are turning out to be the flavour of the season, year and decade! Then there’s the fact that this one will sit above the Tucson as Hyundai’s flagship model in India, discounting the IONIQ 5 which is a pure EV. The Santa Fe should thus help Hyundai elevate its status further as a manufacturer offering more than just mass market cars in what is one of the world’s largest automobile markets. 

But before we get to the driving bit, let’s talk about the design. The Santa Fe looks striking in the flesh, especially in this brilliant shade of brown, with a matte finish. You also cannot help but notice the boxy shape and geometric lines all round. This is the all-new, fifth generation version of the full-size premium SUV and the designers have clearly gone to town while designing it. It’s hard to ignore the design inspiration and similarities with the Land Rover Discovery, but thanks to that, the Santa Fe oozes character. Another distinct highlight is the H-pattern in the headlamps, a design trait we first saw on the Exter. The grille is unlike any Hyundai we’ve seen, while the wheel arches help the SUV look rugged. And while I do like the lines at the rear, the overall impression of the rear end is more van than SUV. The tail lamps use the same H-pattern and look good, as does the Santa Fe name spaced out across the tail gate. 

But you know what stands out even more than the design itself? The Santa Fe’s size. It’s 4.83 metres long, nearly 2 metres wide and about six feet in height and has tremendous road presence. The 21-inch wheels further add to its appeal and also go well with the wheel arches. The interiors again remind of the Land Rover Discovery and I’m referring to more than just the design. It’s all beige, wood and geometric, besides which the steering wheel looks heavily inspired by Land Rover’s SUVs. More importantly, the cabin looks and feels very classy and well, since there is no Hyundai badge on the steering wheel, you will be compelled to agree the interiors look like they belong to a luxury SUV given the rich feel! Behind the wheel is the same drive selector stalk as the IONIQ5 while a large glass slab sits on top of the dashboard, housing the two massive screens. 

Brushed metal surfaces are aplenty and complement the soft touch plastics well. Moving the drive selector stalk to the steering column has helped Hyundai liberate lots of real estate on the centre console which houses not one but two large wireless charging pads along with a display for the multi-zone climate control system, thankfully, with physical rotors. There’s no dearth of USB-C ports either. In fact this is one of the most practical cabins in a premium SUV in a while, as most car makers seem in a rush to embrace the move to touchscreens or scramble for form over function. Here, Hyundai scores a win, offering form and functionality both. Front passengers get multiple closed storage compartments besides open ones, along with huge door pockets!

The large dimensions have allowed Hyundai to create a cabin with three rows that can all seat adults in comfort, especially since the middle row can slide ahead. There’s lots of boot space even with the third row up and folding the seats down will just let you load up a lot more than you would need. And if you think Hyundai India offers tonnes of features, you need to check out the Santa Fe’s equipment list! H-D screens, humongous panoramic sunroof, ADAS, surround view etc sound like routine stuff given the exhaustive list, though obviously it’s difficult to comment what India will get if and when the Santa Fe comes here. 

I drove the strong hybrid version that clubs a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine to an electric powertrain, though the Santa Fe is also on offer with other two other pure internal combustion engine options, both of which are 2.5-litre petrol engines, one naturally aspirated and the other a turbocharged one. The hybrid puts out 235PS and 265Nm and this is the one I’d want to come to India. Acceleration is leisurely but not slow, but more importantly there’s a silkiness to the way the Santa Fe drives, which adds to its luxurious feel. The highways outside Seoul gave us a chance to drive it at a fair clip and overall performance is decent enough to not disappoint. AWD isn’t part of standard equipment though, which will let you save some moolah, though I always recommend AWD given the improved dynamics. 

Speaking of which, the Santa Fe feels very planted at highway speeds and despite its size, is very confidence-inspiring on narrow roads too. The first few minutes behind the wheel of a left hand drive vehicle, especially a large SUV can be jittery but that wasn’t the case with the Santa Fe at all! The tall perch affords an excellent view too and there is a likeable feel to the SUV from behind the wheel. Korea’s super smooth tarmac meant there was no way to gauge what the Santa Fe feels like on broken roads but ride comfort is impeccable and this is certainly an SUV for long highway hauls. 

To sum it up, the new Santa Fe is an SUV Hyundai should bring to India. It’s got size, looks, luxurious interiors, comfort, features and a hybrid powertrain too. It will be expensive and could be priced well above Rs 50 lakh if and when it comes. But given the success of premium products like the IONIQ5 and Tucson, there’s enough reason to believe it will be yet another success story for Hyundai in India.

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