In the midsize SUV segment, it is a given that the Toyota Fortuner, the Ford Everest, the Isuzu Alterra and the (recently introduced) Mitsubishi Montero Sport lord it over. But what is interesting is that the said segment has become a five horse race for the past two years, thanks to a Korean SUV that shares its name with one of Mexico's major business districts. Just what exactly does it bring to the table - and manage to quietly sway a lot of buyers?

Outside is a contemporary look that exudes a streamlined silhouette and go-fast ability, clean-looking, with smooth lines and a crisp feel. Gone is the distinct Korean look of the previous Santa Fe with funky angles and busy bodywork. Projector-style headlights and a prominent grille up front further drive the point home; view the SUV from the rear and there's a noticeable resemblance to such top-end SUVs like the Volkswagen (VW) Touareg. Interesting footnote: despite the new (and aerodynamic look), wind noise gets louder and louder at the a-pillars at 180-plus kph.

Inside is a cabin that is arguably more luxurious than its competitors. An example is the convincing wood grain trim combined with faux aluminum trim, the blue glow of the dash lights and gauges are similar to some VW products and the A/C vents are thoughtfully placed near the doors rather than through the back of the center console. Speaking of the center console, it has an aircon vent to cool drinks. Hyundai also gave much thought to cargo loading, with both rear rows folding flat, an abundance of cupholders and a waist level exterior hatch grab handle for easy loading from the outside. The only negatives interior-wise are third row kneeroom, the OE head unit (who uses cassette tapes nowadays?) and the OE audio sound quality (a change to aftermarket audio is recommended).

Performance-wise, the Santa Fe is more suited for acceleration than sheer pace. Pulling power is strong enough to go in fifth gear at 60-70 kph, but negating the great about the engine is the transmission. Although it has even gearing, the manual mode is stubborn; at certain times it refuses to go down or up a gear. It's best to use third gear for incline acceleration, and third or even fourth for acceleration on level tarmac. Despite the tranny quandary, the SUV was able to reach 211 kph and go 8.53 km/l on five days of mixed driving.

Although the look evokes quick movement (even on turns), the Santa Fe isn't intended to be a sharp-handling, hard-edged SUV. The good news is that the suspension does a good job of minimizing body roll, gives a soft (but not floaty) ride and manages nearly two tons of curb weight. The Santa Fe - particularly the CRDi 4x2 variant for this test drive - is easy to control and handling is predictable, with traction from the Hankook Dynapro HP 235/65R17 104Ts breaking at 85-90 kph. It's composed on turn in and a tad twitchy on apex and exit. Steering is light in feel but there's steering wander (to the right a bit in particular) at 80-plus kph. One question with the steering wheel - what's with the faux E39 BMW 5-Series steering wheel design?

Safety is a love hate matter, depending on who's behind the wheel. The brakes displayed significant fade; then again, the unit had 25,000-odd kilometers on it. The long overhang on the dashboard gauge cluster makes the gauges hard to see in 12 o clock daylight; the side lamps must be turned on to see the gauges decently. The foglight switch is parallel to driver's left knee, and there are blind spots at the c-pillar area, which makes long backing and parallel parking tough. Not helping either is the lack of parking sensors, but at least there's decent vision from the rear glass.

Despite some serious safety and tranny problems, the luxurious interior ambiance, decent handling, comfortable ride, contemporary look strong engine and - most importantly - the ability to carry six to seven passengers (plus all their cargo needs) make the P 1.528 million Hyundai Santa Fe CRDi 4x2 a contender in a highly competitive segment. Its origins may be Korean, but what it delivers is at par (or arguably better) with what the Japanese or the Americans offer. And it's surprising just enough to acquire one.
  • Make:Hyundai
  • Model:Santa Fe CRDi 4x2
  • Engine:2.2-liter SOHC 16-valve with common rail direction inject, variable geometry turbo with intercooler
  • Max Power:[email protected]
  • Max Torque:[email protected]
  • Transmission:5-Speed A/T with H-Matic Manual Mode
  • Price as Tested: