By Jonathan Crouch
Hyundai is increasingly offering some very high quality cars and one of them was this third generation Santa Fe large SUV model, launched in 2012. Crisply styled, well equipped and powered by a punchy 197PS 2.2-litre diesel engine, it offered a choice between five or seven seats and two or four-wheel drive. It was an SUV for people who probably never thought they'd drive an SUV. A Hyundai for those who probably never thought they'd drive a Hyundai. In short, a car that promises to surprise you.
Look at a car like this, Hyundai's third generation Santa Fe SUV, and you get some idea of just how far this South Korean brand has come in recent years. This, after all, is the kind of quality product that has driven the improvements in its recent fortunes.
The Santa Fe has had a big role to play here. Looking back, it was the launch of the MK2 version of this car in 2006 that really put Hyundai on the map. Not only was it beautifully built - it also had beautiful market positioning, this the first affordable SUV to blur the boundaries between the compact Freelander/RAV4 class and the family Discovery/Shogun segment. So Santa Fe buyers paid compact sector prices but got the kind of 7-seat capacity they'd previously needed a much larger SUV for. No wonder this car became a best seller for the UK importers.
Not surprisingly, it's a concept that competitors rushed to copy - including Hyundai's partner Kia, whose Sorento model has basically the same 2.2-litre diesel engine beneath the bonnet. It was therefore important, back in 2012, for this third generation Santa Fe to be able to distance itself from this and other potential rivals, particularly as its pricing had then risen to reflect dramatic claimed improvements in quality and design. This MK3 design sold until mid-2018, when it was replaced by a fourth generation model.
What You Get
The Santa Fe is one of those cars that has become progressively better looking throughout its existence. The first generation model of 2001 was a distinctly odd-looking thing, with deeply concave flanks that looked as if it had been reversed into and a rather plasticky interior that could be specified in disturbingly uniform shades of brown. The second generation car that arrived five years later was a massive improvement, with a high quality cabin and a more mature styling treatment, although it lacked a little something in the personality stakes. This third generation car though, hit all the right notes.
Here's how. The front end features a big grille and a high pedestrian-friendly bonnet line, with all of the lights and intakes a stylised trapezoidal shape that offers up an agreeably expensive look. Wider aesthetics were apparently influenced by Hyundai's so-called 'Fluidic Sculpture' design language, developed in this car with what the company calls a 'Storm Edge' concept supposed to capture the 'strong and dynamic images created by nature during the formation of a storm'.
Moving round to the side, you'll see a sharp detail line that runs through the door handles and gives shape and tension to the flanks, ending up at the rear light clusters. There's also a sharply rising waistline that gives the car the sort of wedgy profile that's more reminiscent of the latest breed of crossover vehicles. There are plenty of neat touches- like the deep doors which cover the side sills to keep them clean so as occupant's clothes aren't soiled on entry or exit. At the back you'll find twin tailpipes and a hexagonal mesh set into the lower sections of the bumper to give it a purposeful look and feel.
Jump inside and the good news continues. We're getting used to some very smart Hyundai interiors these days and the Santa Fe doesn't deviate from that script one iota. There seem to be quite a variety of materials used on the fascia but the overall look and feel is attractive, the dash being dominated by a central screen flanked on either side by big air vents. Then you've got stereo and ventilation controls below, with quite a few of these functions replicated on the steering wheel. The four-wheel drive running gear controls are mounted just to the right of the steering wheel.
Since the wheelbase of this model is the same as its predecessor, you'd be forgiving for assuming that it's pretty much the same size inside. You'd be wrong. A marginal increase in overall length enabled the designers to conjure up an extra 45mm of middle seat knee-room - and there's 11mm more headroom. It also helps that the three-berth bench can slide backwards and forward to prioritise either space for legs or luggage behind.
If you've gone for a seven rather than a five-seater model and have the third row of seating, you'll quickly find that getting to it could be easier. The problem's caused by the fact that the second row seat base doesn't lift up and tumble forward: all you can do is pull forward the backrest - which leaves a rather tight gap through which you have to squeeze yourself. Fine for kids but a little awkward if it's granny being taken for her Sunday trip to the garden centre. Once you're in place though, room at the very back isn't too bad for adults, providing the journey isn't excessively long.
On the plus side, those rearmost seats do fold very neatly away into the floor, which means a decent amount of space in the boot when you're travelling in five-seater mode. Luggage space was increased by 37mm in depth over the previous generation model, yielding a capacity of 534-litres with the front five seats upright. Seven-seater models get standard self-levelling suspension to deal with heavier loads.
What to Look For
Most MK3 Santa Fe owners we came across in our survey were very happy with their cars, but inevitably, there were a few issues. There have been a few cases of engines stalling or failing due to a failed crankshaft position sensor. A few owners have reported poor shift quality with the automatic transmission. We came across a report of rough Idling due to a faulty EGR switching valve. And another car developed a whining noise in its engine compartment. One owner complained of water ingress into the boot and had a rattling exhaust, lacquer coming off the wheels, a failing rear mirror, flickering headlights, door electrics failing, front trim peeling and lower plastic trim going grey. Check for all these things on your test drive.
It's extremely unlikely that the Santa Fe you're looking at will have been seriously used off road (particularly if it has a higher-spec trim level), but just in case, check the underside of the car for dents and scrapes. It's more likely that you'll find scratches on the alloy wheels caused through ham-fisted parking. Check out the rear two seating rows for scratches caused by unruly children. And of course, insist on a fully stamped-up service history.
(approx based on a 2015 Santa Fe ex VAT) For a pair of front brake discs, you're looking at paying in the £105 to £120 bracket, with a pair of rear discs costing in the £58-£65 bracket (though with pricier brands, you can pay up to around £128. A pair of front brake pads are around £27-£63, while a pair of rear pads sit in the £19 to £42 bracket for a set. A clutch kit sits in the £288-£375 bracket. A rear lamp is around £190. And a wiper blade is in the £10-£18 bracket.
On the Road
How an SUV drives is usually pretty far down the priority list after how it looks, what it costs and how much room there is inside. We used to take it as read that an SUV would be about as sharp as a serving of refried beans to drive but in recent years, we've seen the pendulum swing back the other way with 'sporty' 4x4s that cornered better but at the expense of decidedly brittle ride quality. There has to be a happy medium between these two extremes and we can see many potential buyers agreeing with Hyundai that this car rather neatly strikes it.
To make absolutely sure of this, the Koreans spent some time during the development of this MK3 Santa Fe specifically tuning its suspension to suit our frankly horrible roads, with the emphasis firmly on ride quality rather than rally driving. It's an approach you'll appreciate in-between ferrying the family between ballet lessons and ball games. Whereas in some big 4x4s, the sight of the ragged scar left down the highway by a cable TV team would result in the sort of comportment you'd expect of a bulk freight carrier in a Biscay gale, the Santa Fe mops it up without breaking too much of a sweat. Ultimately, it rides and handles exactly as most will want a big family vehicle to do, not an easy balance to achieve in something this big, tall and heavy.
You can even tweak the steering to suit your mood, thanks to the FLEXSTEER set-up we first saw on Hyundai's i30 family hatch. It's a system that varies the steering weight between a light 'comfort' mode, a heavier 'sport' setting and 'normal', a balance between the two you'll probably end up choosing. Like most of these types of things, it's fun to play with for the first few miles, then you end up never using it.
Hardly less frequent will be the typical Santa Fe owner's need for 4WD capability, one reason why front-driven 2WD variants were offered at the foot of the range. Don't dismiss the 2WD option out of hand. In this form, this Hyundai's excellent value, gets good economy and with a set of winter tyres will probably be able to handle anything the British weather can throw at it.
If however, rather understandably, you can see little point in choosing an SUV-style car without SUV-style traction, you'll find 4x4 Santa Fe variants equipped with an all-wheel drive system that's a little more complex than the norm. Like many vehicles of its type, this one runs in front wheel drive most of the time, but when sensors detect slippage, up to 50 per cent of drive can be diverted to the rear wheels. So far, so predictable. Unlike many 'part time' four-wheel drives though, this Hyundai can be locked into 4x4 mode at the touch of a button - which is perfect for especially slippery conditions, such as muddy off-roading or driving on snow or ice. What's more you can do this on the fly at speeds up to 25mph.
If you are off the beaten track, you'll find starting off up steep slopes aided by Hill Start Assist Control but impeded slight by a relatively shallow approach angle of 16.5-degrees. Coming down sharp inclines is aided by Downhill Brake Control and a departure angle of just over 21-degrees. There's a ramp breakover angle of just under 17-degrees. Ultimately though, attempting really gnarly stuff will be restricted by the relatively modest 180mm of ground clearance.
And engines? Well actually, there's only one, a 197PS 2.2-litre all-aluminium diesel with a gutsy 431Nm of pulling power to draw upon, enough to spirit you to 62mph from rest in 9.8s en route to 118mph in a 4WD model: you'll go around half a second quicker if you opt for the lighter 2WD variant. The other choice you'll need to make is between the six-speed manual or six-speed auto gearbox. The manual's fine, but for us, the auto transmission seems to suit the laid-back nature of this car rather better, even if it does drop the braked towing capacity from 2.5 tonnes to 2 tonnes, something that might be an issue if you're regularly hauling things about.
Anything else for the report card? Just two things. First, the flagship trim level's larger 19-inch wheels don't do much for the ride quality. And secondly that refinement at speed is very good with little wind or engine noise, with damped engine mounts helping to reduce vibration in the cabin. As a result, you really could consider this as an alternative to more exalted premium-badged SUV models. A mark of just how far Hyundai has come.
The Hyundai Santa Fe improved and improved fast in MK3 guise. Its predecessor was a really solid vehicle that now looks a great used buy, but this one stepped it up more convincingly than many thought possible. It looks classy, it's really well built, it rides and handles exactly as it should and it's cleverly thought through inside. As a result, it's almost impossible to dislike, even if SUVs really aren't your thing. Come to think of it, this Korean contender is probably a very good choice for a used buyer who's never even really considered an SUV before. It's not showy or offensive, instead marrying all the best bits of models of this kind, namely their space, versatility and ease of ownership, with the refreshing lack of drama of a normal big family car. And it is big, a size up from the five seat-only Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4-class mid-sized soft roaders that'll probably cost you much the same sort of money.
Cars like those might be better to drive of course. And there are a few similarly targeted Far Eastern rivals that are a little cheaper to buy. Some Santa Fe buyers may also look for more of a choice when it comes to engines, though the options of front or 4WD, five or seven seats and manual or automatic transmissions should see most customer preferences covered off. Ultimately though, this car's quite good enough to justify its market positioning. Which means that if you've got a family, have room in your life for just a single car and need one that'll discreetly go the distance without a hiccup, then it's well worth trying one of these. Do that and who knows. You might once again start to believe in Santa.