Santa Fe, New Mexico, population 70,000, America’s oldest state capital. What does this have to do with a medium-sized Korean SUV? Not a lot, except that the very wise folk at Hyundai correctly reasoned back in 2000 that the way to break the North American market was not to launch a car called Changwon or Uiwang. Their wisdom was ratified by sales success in America, and even though they didn’t change the UK model’s name to Leamington Spa, we Brits kind of got the Santa Fe too. We’ve bought 37,500 of them since 2001, and snaffled 4200 last year alone.
Here we have the third-generation model, confusingly dubbed ‘New Generation’, which adds to the Santa Fe’s established good-value/robust/unfussy DNA a good deal more technology and an aggressively chromed-up, Yank-tank belligerence around the jawline. As one of the bold new breed of stylish Koreans it succeeds in making premium Germans look rather plain and the Japanese a little tired (though having seen off the Freelander it will have sleepless nights over the arrival of Land Rover’s spangly Discovery Sport). Battles to come.
Our car’s ‘Premium’ badge means it’s the current five-seater range sweet-spot (the Premium SE gets two extra seats and inessential lush goodies), and the kit list is so comprehensive we’ve only managed to add a paltry £585 to the base price – that being the cost of ‘titanium silver’ metallic paint. Which means we’re on the road for £32,315 – slightly less than an equivalent Honda CR-V, slightly more than a Toyota RAV4 and heaps cheaper than a decent Freelander 2. So, while Hyundai doesn’t own value, you’ll find it rolling up its sleeves with gusto when they shoot the mid-market SUV fight scene.
Credible stuff then, but in the corner of the room an elephant lurks. Why are we running a Santa Fe? It’s not a car that’s only just been launched, it’s neither the best nor the worst nor the cheapest nor the most desirable car in its class, and keen drivers will dismiss it as if it had just handled on the goal-line. It’s all my fault really. Since driving the very first Santa Fe on its launch back in 2001 I’ve held the view that unfashionable SUVs are often hidden gems, shielded from readers by a mix of snobbery, tradition and road-tester bravado. Take a poll of 50 motoring journalists and find out how many would take an inferior Land Rover over an uncool Santa Fe.
Yes, of course you get more steering feedback from a Freelander than from this Hyundai, whose variable power-steering system (called FlexSteerTM) is more numb than a Sherpa’s nose, and yes the Santa Fe’s 2.2-litre diesel engine’s mantelpiece is empty of awards for power delivery or refinement. But with 311lb ft of torque it pulls like Benedict Cumberbatch at a mums’ speed-dating evening which, added to the likely benefits of reliability and low running costs (the five-year warranty includes five years of roadside assistance and an annual vehicle health check) nicely richens the mix.
So, in my role as official bucker of trends (at least, I think they said ‘bucker’) I’ve decided to sample the case for middle-market solidity and the unfashionableness for which I’m well suited.