An assistant editor with autoX, Ishan has great technical and practical knowledge, and his life-long love for cars has seen him devote some of the best years of his youth to perhaps wasteful, yet satisfying, pursuit of his obsession with automobiles. He has worked with lifestyle publishing brands as a freelance / consultant for over 5 years and as a part of the autoX team for 3 years.
March 2014

Hyundai makes another bold attempt at cracking the luxury SUV segment. Does the new Santa Fe have what it takes to make the Indian consumers accept a luxury SUV from the Korean manufacturer? Read on to find out.

The luxury vehicle segment in India has been a hard nut to crack for Hyundai. Having tasted massive success in the small and medium car segments, the Korean carmaker is yet to make a similar impact in the premium segment. However, of late, there have been some very good reasons to have hope – the Elantra, which received a rather tepid response in its first innings, has definitely caught the fancy of the Indian consumer, and has been posting solid sales numbers for a while now.

So, it makes perfect sense for the company to re-launch its most premium product for the Indian market – the Santa Fe. Another factor to keep in mind is the fact that the Toyota Fortuner still seems to fly off the shelves. Despite some shortcomings, Toyota’s blue chip reputation and the Fortuner’s imposing road presence still make it an in-demand product. The Honda CR-V too has received decent response, despite the fact that it’s available only in petrol-engined guise.

The Santa Fe, then, introduces a new dimension to this three-pronged contest in the world of premium SUV’s. While it offers a different take on the styling front, compared to the butch, in-your-face styling of the Fortuner, its Fluidic Design inspired styling maintains Hyundai’s design direction but still manages to give the Santa Fe excellent road presence. With its large 18-inch wheels, taut design, bold face, with that massive chrome grille, the Santa Fe mixes aggression and soft-roader looks in a well-styled combo. So, while it might not be as aggressive as the Fortuner, it doesn’t look overtly crossover-ish like the CR-V either. The net result is a handsome looking machine, which still retains enough visual appeal to give it a unique identity. The rear-end is much more svelte – in fact, with its tail lights that cut into the rear quarter panel, it actually reminds me a little of the Porsche Cayenne.

The interiors, though, is where the Santa Fe truly makes its mark. On the inside, it’s far superior to either of its competitors. There is excellent space, both in the front and back, and with its tall design, there’s no lack of head, shoulder or legroom – even for the largest occupants, with the middle row in particular being a nice place to spend time in. However, despite the claims of it being a 7-seater, the legroom in the last row is only suitable for small children at best. Of particular interest, though, is the interior design and quality – which, on the Santa Fe, is far superior to either of its direct competitors. The plastics and leather-covered surfaces feel plush, well built, and premium. In fact, the design element of the doors with its Santa Fe badging is a nice touch, and so is the center console with the integrated touchscreen and other controls. It even features a Volvo-esque floating center console storage space. There were two gripes with the interiors though, one is the lack of a standard-fit sat-nav system – considering what the car costs – and secondly, the touchscreen, which is very responsive to use, but much too small at just 4.3-inches. Of course, the equipment count on the Santa Fe remains impressively high, as is expected of any Hyundai vehicle today. So, standard fitment on the top-of-the-line 4WD Auto version we drove includes dual-zone climate control, a 12-way adjustable driver’s seat, 6 airbags, and a host of electronic safety aids. Externally, the Santa Fe gets bi-Xenon headlights, and fog lamps with a cornering function – i.e. it turns with the steering to illuminate curves better. It also gets good looking 18-inch wheels that fill the wheel arches quite nicely.

On the powertrain front, the Santa Fe is powered by the latest-gen 2.2-liter CRDi engine, which features, amongst other technological advances, an e-VGT turbocharger. So, other than being variable geometry, it also boasts of electronic control of its vanes to finer tune the spooling up of the turbo – thereby reducing lag and improving engine response. To drive, the engine feels powerful and doesn’t exhibit much lag – pulling the car forward at an excellent lick when prodded. However, the powertrain in this top-of-the-line 4WD version is let down by the 6-speed automatic transmission, which basically feels too slow and lazy for the engine. The engine, with its 194bhp and 436Nm of torque, masks the transmissions delay to an extent – but the fact remains that the transmission feels too old school for this engine-and-platform combo, and stands out as the weak point. The lack of steering mounted shift paddles was also felt on the tight and twisty roads that we were driving on. It’ll be interesting to see how the manual transmission version of the car drives though – I suspect it could be better to drive than the automatic. However, the Santa Fe could certainly do with some additional sound damping, as the engine is a little too loud given the price and positioning of the car.

As far as the ride and handling goes, continuing on the rapidly improving suspension setups across the Hyundai range, the Santa Fe too feels quite well setup. The ride is very comfortable and filters out road imperfections very well, and the damping is well judged too – so it doesn’t feel too bouncy, even at high speeds. All told, passengers are well insulated from road conditions. However, when it comes to the handling, a few bugbears remain. One, the car feels quite top heavy and rolls quite a bit when cornering aggressively. Secondly, the steering, in typical Hyundai fashion, remains devoid of any kind of feel or communication. It feels vague around the center, and despite featuring what Hyundai refers to as Flow Control – which basically varies the amount of power assistance to the steering in comfort, normal, and sport modes – the steering just seems to offer varying degrees of resistance, but no communication. As a result, it doesn’t inspire much confidence when pushing. Secondly, due to its bulk and nose heavy nature, the Santa Fe is quite reluctant to turn-in when pushing hard. But, then again, this is a 7-seater SUV – so maybe I’m wasting my time looking for sporty appeal.

In conclusion, then, the Santa Fe offers quite a few desirable qualities for a vehicle of its class and size. The space, excellent seating, high quality interiors, and well-sorted suspension – along with a massive standard equipment list – makes for a very appealing package. What it lacks is driving appeal, which may not be at the top of the list for the target consumer anyway. The fact of the matter is, when you consider the overall package, the Santa Fe is superior to both the Fortuner and the CR-V – offering a better combination of space, equipment, comfort and looks. The real question, though, is whether the Indian consumer is ready to spend Rs. 30 lakhs-plus for a Korean SUV – especially given that it’s quite a bit more expensive then the Fortuner? Well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.