Test Model: 2006 Hyundai Santa Fe Elite
Options fitted: None
Recommended Retail Price: $42,990
On Road Price: Around $47,200 although the range starts at $35,990
Where it sits: The five seat Elite is the top luxury spec and from what dealers tell me, the best seller. Santa Fe also offers a seven seat model for less money, although at this stage, it’s available in standard spec only.
What’s next: A common rail, direct injection, 2.2 litre four cylinder turbo-diesel with VGT (Variable Geometry Turbo) which should be a cracker. Coming soon
“In my opinion, the Santa Fe is clearly the class leader in the medium sized SUV segment. But if you have any doubts whatsoever, take a test drive in the offerings from Toyota and Honda. My guess is, you’ll be running to the closest Hyundai dealer or in one case, the chiropractor”
In July 2006, Hyundai won the title of the fastest growing automotive brand in the world putting it ahead of Porsche, Nissan and Lexus in the annual ranking of “The Best Global Brands” jointly conducted by New York based Interbrand and BusinessWeek.
That’s not surprising if you know anything about Chung Ju-Yung, who founded the Hyundai Motor Company back in 1947. Chung was a serious “can do” kind of guy who in a relatively short period of time, built one of the largest engineering based companies in the world.
The story of his shipbuilding venture is legendary. With little or no experience in shipbuilding, he somehow persuaded a customer to give him an order for a ship costing millions of dollars. Today, that company is the largest shipbuilder in the world.
One of Chung’s lasting Philosophies which Hyundai seems to embrace was “It is failures rather than successes that teach us lessons – It is not necessary to remember one’s successes”.
Hyundai entered the cutthroat US market in 1986 with the hugely successful and affordable Excel but then ran into trouble when the durability and reliability of their vehicles were questioned.
From that moment on, Hyundai invested heavily in new product designs and improvements in overall quality and reliability, which bordered on obsession. That obsession has paid off, big time, with Hyundai vehicles now regularly placed in the top five car brands, in the hugely influential (they survey over 800,000 owners) US based J.D Power reliability surveys.
Previous generations of the Santa Fe, along with the Sonata and Grandeur models offered outstanding value for money but fell short in the styling department or in plain English, they weren’t much to look at. Not so, with the current models. When Hyundai released the new shape Sonata in 2005 they turned a huge corner, as they were obviously focused on styling and the cars were looking good as a result. They followed up with the luxurious Grandeur and then of course the second generation and current shape Santa Fe, which they have got so right!
This new SUV from Hyundai is all about style, inside and out. It’s hugely attractive from all angles, while offering undeniable quality and finish at the right price. Designed ‘in-house’ at Hyundai’s California Design Centre, the Santa Fe was benchmarked against the Lexus RX, Honda MDX and Volvo XC90, resulting in a far more upscale look to rival the best from many of the Japanese marques.
The Quality and attention to detail doesn’t stop there, the Elite is powered by a new 2.7-litre all alloy V6 quad cam 24 Valve powerplant with CVVT (Continuously Variable Valve Timing) and VIS (Variable Intake System). Power is a reasonable 138kW and 248Nm of torque and is delivered via a fly-by-wire electronic throttle providing decent off-the-line acceleration when you need it. They aren’t huge figures, but the engine is smooth and refined, with way better drivability than the 2.4-litre engines found in some its Japanese competitors. Climbing steep urban inclines in SUV’s with four-cylinder powerplants is no fun, and is a thoroughly noisy and harsh affair. Given the choice, I’d take the small V6 every time, despite the slight increase in fuel consumption.
I drove the Elite from Sydney to Kangaroo Valley (about 3½ hours) at the legal speed limits and although I didn’t run the consumption numbers, I was surprised to see that we had only used a quarter of a tank, and that’s with a family of four with luggage! Factory consumption figures for the Santa Fe automatic are 10.6L/100km combined highway/city and that’s excellent for a petrol powered All Wheel Drive SUV of this size and spec.p>
Mated to the 2.7-litre engine in the Santa Fe, is a capable, smooth changing, four-speed automatic with electronic sequential manual mode, which is useful on long windy stretches, as the changes happen relatively quickly. It’s a sensible engine which balances power with fuel consumption but of course, you can always use a little more power and an extra gear ratio.
And that’s exactly what you can get if you happen to reside in the United States. A larger 3.3-litre petrol engine is on offer in the Santa Fe, which pairs up nicely with Hyundai’s svelte five-speed automatic from the Grandeur (Azera over there) and that’s something I’d like to see available in Australia in time, especially should pump prices hold steady.
Although a sizeable SUV, the Santa Fe is no slouch when it comes to handling either. Car like ride and handling best describe how this SUV feels on the road – it’s a very pleasant driving experience. Hyundai have dropped its control arm rear suspension and gone with a more desirable multilink setup while retaining a strut-type front suspension. Ultimately, less un-sprung weight, more rubber on the road and better tracking, is the result of this improvement. Steering is reasonably well weighted and direct, via a power assisted speed sensitive unit. Body roll is minimal through corners even at speed and although the vehicle feels tight and even sports like, there’s never any hint of a harsh ride. I’ve got a stretch of road which is perfect for testing a vehicle’s tracking ability over poorly maintained road surfaces, and the Santa Fe was rock solid, even compliant through this stretch at 70km/h. It’s one of those roads I hope they never repair and given its Sydney based, it’s probably a safe bet that I’ll have this test facility for a few more years yet.
You’re also well looked after in the Santa Fe with electronic “On Demand All-Wheel Drive” which automatically selects the best driving mode for the conditions. It’s a smart system, with all the drive directed towards the front wheels unless wheel-spin is detected and then, up to 50% of power can be directed at the rear, for optimum traction. However, there’s a manual override button which engages the differential lock, should you knowingly venture into the rough stuff. It’s a far more practical approach for mostly urban based SUVs than a full time 4WD set up, given the savings on fuel consumption and wear and tear on components.
As you would expect from a top spec Hyundai (value for money remains a core brand value) you also get a host of active safety systems including ESP (Electronic Stability Program), TCS (Traction Control System), 4 Channel ABS with EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution). Given the magic these systems perform whenever called up for active duty, it would be interesting to see the statistics on how many vehicles fitted with these devices are involved in car crashes or even minor bingels. I suspect it’s a lot less than those without!
When you step into the Santa Fe Elite, you enter a space you would expect to find in a far more expensive Japanese SUV. The full leather seats are sumptuous and supremely comfortable (front and rear) particularly noticeable after a few hours behind the wheel. Third row passengers in the seven seater won’t suffer any discomfort either, as very few SUVs can boast about third row seat comfort as good as you get in Santa Fe. The steering wheel is leather bound although the finish is too smooth for my liking. Audio and cruise control remote buttons are well laid out, as is the high quality switchgear throughout the interior, which exceeded my expectations for an SUV at this price-point.
Faux wood finishes normally look woeful in car interiors as they seem to accentuate the ‘low rent’ look. The Maple wood veneer finish in the Santa Fe does the opposite and looks tasteful alongside the brushed metal highlights and inlays on the front fascia and door trims.
The sound system is a multi compatible (MP3 etc) 7 speaker, 6 CD in dash unit, with a bonus cassette player for those folk over the age of 40 years. It’s a reasonable system with decent audio clarity. You’ll like the all blue illumination throughout the instrument cluster which even finds its way down to the dual front cup holders.
There’s an absolute hamper full of standard features including Electric tilt/side roof, electric driver and passenger seats, dual-zone climate control with controllable vents for all passengers (including third row in 7 seater), electro chromatic rear view mirror with digital compass and auto headlights on (rain-sensing wipers would have been nice as you can never seem to get the wiper speed right with any of the manual systems). There’s also a cool box in the centre console and a host of other features far too long to list here. Can we please have rear park assist sensors on the Elite?
Safety is well represented in the Santa Fe line up, with driver and front passenger airbags, dual side front (thorax) airbags and dual front and rear side curtain airbags (including third row in 7 seater). You also get retractable, three-point seat belts on all seats (including the third row) together with Active head restraints to minimise neck injuries in the event of whiplash.
Size wise, this Santa Fe is bigger than the new Toyota RAV4 Cruiser L and Honda CR-V, but slightly smaller than the Toyota Kluger. It really is the perfect size SUV with plenty of space for five people but never feeling like a burden to drive as you often find with the lager SUVs. With a turning circle of 10.9metres, it’s way under that of the Ford Territory and Toyota’s Kluger, which makes it a breeze to handle in and out of car parks and difficult driveways.
Space and practicality is another area where the Santa Fe leaves the competition in the dust. There’s heaps of comfort space for all passengers and so many useful storage spaces (thirty-two all up) both hidden and exposed, that you find yourself with a little too much space on your hands. A nice problem to have with four or five person families.
Moving around the interior, there’s a dash top lined compartment with lid together with a rubber lined space in-front of the gear shift which is large enough for phones and wallets etc along with sizeable door pockets with bottle holders. There are twin cup holders up front with a nifty push button setup in the rear armrest, also enclosing dual holders. The front centre armrest is a two compartment unit with rear passengers able to use their own hidden storage drawer in the rear of the centre console.
You’d hardly call the rear cargo area small; in fact, you could describe it as cavernous. But if that’s not enough, then lift the rear floor and you’ll find another deep recess. It’s not available in the seven seater, as the additional third row seating takes up this space. Of course, second and third row seats can fold flat allowing for bikes, boards and house moving duties.
Both leg and headroom is generous in the Elite, but what surprised me most, was the amount of cargo space behind the third row (in the seven seater) as its enough for a decent round of supermarket shopping.
The roof racks which are better than most of the premium after-market solutions, are not only stylish but can be moved into any position by a simple flush mounted lever on each cross rack.
You’ll make your own mind up over the styling but for my money, the new Santa Fe Elite is hands down, the best looking medium class SUV on the market at moment. California, where this Santa Fe was penned, is now the hub of automotive design with no fewer than fifteen manufacturers operating design studios there, in addition to the Harvard of Automotive design, the Art Centre Pasadena. Cars such as the new Volkswagen Beetle, the Mazda MX-5 and the Mercedes M-Class are testament to the design talent in this area.
I particularly like the front of the Santa Fe with its swept back front end and integrated grille and headlight assembly. The rest of the car has smooth lines with simple and effective highlights such as chrome inlays on all five door handles. However, as practical as the rear tailgate opener is, it’s a little out of place with the flush lines on the rear end of the vehicle. The Twin Chrome oval exhaust pipes and the standard 18 inch alloys on the Elite, come together perfectly with the other styling attributes of this vehicle, for a prestige look that’s beyond it’s price point.
Bottom Line: With retail prices thousands below similar vehicles from Ford and Toyota and one of the best warranties in the business (five years/130,000) the Santa Fe represents the smart choice in the medium/large SUV segment, giving nothing away to it’s more expensive rivals.