I can’t say I ever envisioned myself getting excited about reviewing a three-row crossover, but Hyundai’s latest tall wagon holds a special place in my heart. From 2007-2011, a Hyundai Santa Fe Limited was my main mode of transportation, and despite all miles it racked up on road trips, beer runs and even a couple of extralegal time trials on gravel roads (sorry, Mum and Dad), nobody bothered to take a single picture of it for me to include in this review. I guess it really was that boring.
Like the previous generation car, it will go about its business in quiet competence, faithfully ferrying young children to soccer practice and older children to the beer store, and then to the lake house and back before they have to work at 8:30 AM on Sunday morning (ask me how I know). The new Santa Fe will likely fade into the same sort of stoic anonymity, living out its days as a faithful servant to yet another middle-class family. The big difference is, that family will be driving a much nicer car than I drove.
It’s difficult to fathom that my old Santa Fe and the new version have anything in common. The old Santa Fe was a utilitarian CUV with a few nice touches, like cup holders and gauges illuminated in blue, ala VW, and a bit of decent leather trim on the seats. The V6 engine thrashed and hummed at even moderate loads. The styling was attractive but generic. It was great value for the money – and that’s about it.
The new long wheelbase version of the Santa Fe has one thing in common with the old car – both employ V6 engines that displaces 3.3L. That’s it. Step inside the new car,and the dour black plastic is replaced by a wholly modern dashboard with all the modern trappings. Navigation, Bluetooth, a touch screen system that doesn’t take a UI specialist to discern. It’s hard to believe that a generation ago, there was a tinny sound system and yards of awful black faux-wood trim slathered wantonly over the IP. Now, there are clean lines, a dash of faux wood and a compact pod of buttons for those Luddites who think touch screens are the devil.
Hyundai’s drive route was better suited for a Genesis Coupe or an Elantra GT – a strange choice given that nobody will ever drive a three-row crossover in anger – but again, it was easy to notice improvements in the Santa Fe’s dynamics. The previous generation car had an atrocious ride, with non-existent damping and bump stops made of week-old English muffins. The new Santa Fe was unflappable. Even after going over a bump that required more braking on my part, there was no crashing or harshness. Everything was well controlled and suitably isolated. Even Hyundai’s trademark A-pillar wind noise at highway speeds has been banished, giving the car Lexus-like silence at speed.
Kudos to the powertrain engineers as well, for banishing the agricultural feel of the old 3.3 Lambda engine. The new direct-injection variant, pulled from the Azera, is an exponential improvement, and the 6-speed automatic gearbox makes the most out of the 290 horses and 252 lb-ft of torque. Not that the previous car was short on power – just some road manners.
It’s all well and good to talk about performance figures and weight savings, but what about the real life tasks that I used the Santa Fe for over those four years? For most auto journalists, the horsepower numbers are the amount of air miles they collect on a trip are what really matters. But I know first hand that the previous generation Santa Fe’s superiority in areas that made up the dull grind of daily existence were what ultimately sold my parents on buying one over some much more expensive options. It did everything that its more expensive competitors did for less money, though you had to put up with a few compromises in exchange. The newest generation banishes those trade-offs in refinement from a driving dynamics and refinement standpoint. But what about practicality?
If I want to go shopping at Costco, how many bags can fit behind the third row before I have to fold it down? How high is the cargo floor and what impact does that have on a buyer who has to load heavy groceries into the back of the car? Is it easy to parallel park? Can three adults comfortably fit across the third row? Is the turning circle tight enough for a quick U-Turn on a busy street?
The winding roads and daunting elevation changes on the Santa Fe’s drive route may have delighted the Piloti wearers on the various waves, but they provided little feedback on how the Santa Fe performed in everyday situations relevant to consumers. For more on that, you’ll have to wait until Alex or one of the other writers gets their hands on one. Maybe my Mom can make a guest appearance? When’s the last time you were privy to a review from someone who bought a brand new example of the previous generation car?