Let’s be blunt: we’ve never been fans of four wheel drives masquerading as passenger carrying vehicles. Even the advent of ‘softroaders’ hasn’t changed the paradigm that much – there are still the downsides of a high centre of gravity, lots of weight and poor aerodynamics... all of which make for a car that handles worse and uses more fuel than a conventional sedan.
But hell, aren’t things now changing!
With the Hyundai Sante Fe diesel you have a car capable of carrying seven (or six - four adults and two kids - in great comfort), a capacious and well thought out interior, competent ride and good handling – and now (sound the trumpets!) excellent fuel economy. All with refinement, comfort and build quality that once would have cost you tens of thousands of dollars more.
The Santa Fe CRDi is certainly not perfect, but it’s good enough to change forever preconceptions about Hyundais, softroaders and the shape of family cars...
Most of the interest is bound to be on what’s under the bonnet, so let’s start there. The CRDi model uses a 2.2 litre 4 cylinder turbo diesel. Peak power of 114kW occurs at 4000 rpm while the massive diesel torque of 343Nm is developed across the range of 1800 – 2500 rpm. Compared with the 2.7 litre petrol V6 that’s also available, the diesel is down in kilowatts by 17 per cent but has no less than 38 per cent more torque... which is spread over a much broader range of engine revs. The diesel also uses a 5-speed auto, whereas the V6 has only a 4-speed auto. (Five-speed manual transmissions are also available in both cars.)
On the road the diesel is quiet and smooth – NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) of the oil burner is very little different to that of the V6. In fact, we doubt anyone stepping into the CRDi Santa Fe would complain about a lack of refinement. The automatic trans - controlled by a tiptronic style lever – is generally sweet and unobtrusive and, with plenty of torque available in the mid-range, performance is good.
However, much better matching of the throttle, the engine’s torque output and the auto trans is required. On a brief drive around the block (eg a dealer’s test drive!) you’d probably not notice it, but over the week we had the car it became quite annoying. The problem is that the engine feels as if it runs quite a lot of turbo boost, and – even with the variable geometry turbo – that boost is not available off-idle. Instead, like turbo petrol engines of 15 years ago, there is a pause in response before the turbo whizzes up and all that torque is there for the taking. The problem is exacerbated by the gearbox which can be quite reluctant to change down when the car is given a stab of throttle. It’s odd, because at other times the gearbox drops back a ratio or two at just the right moment.
An example best tells the story. Slowing for an urban roundabout with another car approaching on the right, we judged there was plenty of room to put the throttle down a bit and pass through the roundabout without requiring the other car to slow. Trouble is, with the Santa Fe in probably third gear, a sudden throttle input had no affect – the trans didn’t change down, the engine didn’t develop boost and we were caught in what felt like a huge flat spot... Not nice.
In other conditions – eg open road overtaking or hill-climbing – the engine and transmission do an excellent job. There’s enough power and response off the line for punchy urban driving, and even when laden, the Santa Fe has adequate performance. However, it is only a 2.2 litre diesel, so don’t expect to carry seven passengers and tow a boat... and still go fast up hills!
And talking of passengers, they’re well catered for. The rear seat passengers still have a little of that ‘knees-up’ feeling that comes from a high floor, but since they can easily place their feet under the front seats, there’s still plenty of legroom. Rear seat passengers are also catered for with smart cupholders integrated into the rear armrest and their own B-pillar air vents.
Step back one row to the rear-most seats and – er, where are these seats?! The answer is that they appear out of the floor. When not being used, they fold completely flat, creating a large cargo area. (Furthermore, the next row of seats forwards folds flat on a 60/40 split, continuing that perfectly flat floor. Want more room again? The middle seats can also fold and tumble forward.) The third row of seats, complete with two lap/sash belts, are fine for children and, in an emergency, adults could use them. However, headroom is tight. In all positions the seats click securely into place.
Front seat space is excellent, although in the tested AUD$43,490 SLX model, no seat electrics are provided. Large and practical storage compartments abound, with the huge door pockets being especially useful. At the turn of a knob, the centre console compartment can be air-conditioned and air-conditioning controls (with specific vents) are provided for the third row of seats.
On the road the Santa Fe generally handles well. Drive is primarily to the front wheels – when slippage is detected, a viscous coupling sends power to the rear wheels as well. A four-wheel drive lock button is provided for low speed slippery work, such as in sand or snow. Cornering grip levels are surprisingly high and the action of the standard stability control system effective. However, the Santa Fe is clearly not designed as a sports car and at speed the steering is overly light and lacks feel.
The Santa Fe is a car that really stands up to scrutiny. Standard safety? In addition to the stability control, try active front head restraints, heated side mirrors and six airbags, including curtain airbags that extend right back to the third row of seats. Quality? The paint is flawless and the doors shut superbly – and you’ve got a 5 year, 130,000km warranty. Convenience? A flip down convex mirror is provided so the driver can see everyone in the cabin and the turning circle is unexpectedly tight.
And we’ve left the best ‘til last. The factory fuel economy figure of the CRDI Santa Fe auto trans 7 seater is 8.2 litres/100 km. On a long highway trip we achieved 6.9 litres/100km and even in demanding urban and hilly areas, the worst we saw was 9.6 litres/100km. So: comfortable, practical, decent performance and - for a family car - excellent fuel economy.
Hmmm. Put some feel into the steering and recalibrate the throttle/auto trans logic and we’d be utterly convinced. As it is, we’re still mightily impressed...