It used to be pretty easy to tell a European car from an Asian one. There are certain clues, particularly in the styling, how it drives, and in how tastefully it's all put together. Yet every once in a while, there's a vehicle that begins to blur the line. One of those is the all-new Hyundai Santa Fe.
Bearing Hyundai's new version of Fluidic Sculpture, the brand's design philosophy, the Santa Fe looks more like the Kona than the Tucson. Daytime running lamps are positioned near the top of the facade and sport a quad lamp look. Of course, the real headlamps are the projectors situated lower on the bumper, on either side of the Y-shaped grille. They're packaged together with the signal lamps. There's even a small set of foglamps below if illumination is not enough.
Towards the side, it starts to look a bit busy with the sheer number of character lines, but the silhouette itself is still quite simple. In the rear, the Teutonic influence (care of chief designer Peter Schreyer) is more evident, with a rear and tail lamps that wouldn't look out of place in a European crossover.
The Santa Fe's exterior may be polarizing, but the interior should be more universally impressive and appealing. It feels less Asian and more luxury European. The dashboard and interior boast of a generous application of leather. The large patches of terra cotta brown leather do well to break up what would have been a boring black interior and impart the feeling of a cozy, yet modern study room. The overall design subtly lets you know it's a high-tech car without daunting the drivers and passengers with all the buttons and switches. There's also a lot of attention given to the details in the door cards and design of the seats that make the car look more expensive than it really is.
The driver has quite the command center at his disposal. There's power adjustment for the seats and reach and rake adjustment for the wheel. Ahead of him is the hybrid display that pairs a large center LCD with an analog tachometer and fuel and temp gauges. This allows the center speedometer to change display and color according to the driving mode, as well as display more details than a smaller screen would typically allow. Of course, a little more creativity with the screen rather than a simple rectangle would have been appreciated.
The wheel itself may appear plain, but very subtle indentations on it let the driver get a better grip. The built-in buttons for the stereo, cruise control and menu functions are also easy to understand with just a glance.
Over in the center is the infotainment system mounted on the top of the dash. It's quite easy to figure out thanks to the main functions as buttons on the side, and dials for volume and tuning retained. This also doubles as the display for the view from the cameras around the car which can be accessed by the camera button near the stick shift. Entertainment can come from the radio or connected devices. It's got Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, so integrating it with Waze and Spotify is very easy. There's even a handy voice command button on the wheel with which to order Waze, Spotify, Siri, or Google around.
Lower on the dash is the digital climate control and below that are the numerous data and power ports for plugging in devices. If you have a late model iPhone or Samsung, you'll be delighted to know that the Santa Fe even has wireless charging, in the space just ahead of the stickshift.
While there are quite a number of toys for the driver, the Santa Fe's second row is still quite appealing for those that like to be driven. There's a great deal of legroom. The windows come with built-in blinds. The seats are just as beautifully stitched and accented, and can slide forward or back and even recline to some degree. Best of all, there's even remote switches on the side of the front passenger seat. This lets the passengers behind move it forward or even tilt the seat back without having to bother the driver. Of course, passengers here also have their own power outlets for charging phones, with a handy pocket to leave them in.
The third row is also clad in leather, and while not as comfortable or spacious, easy to get to as well as to stow. It's made even easier with quick fold switches to fold the second-row seats positioned near the tailgate - quite handy when you're loading groceries or bags and the kids are keen to get in. They'll have their own pockets for devices, air con vents and controls, power outlet, and cupholders. When stowed, the rear cargo area is flat and reveals hooks just under the carpet. There's also a removable tonneau cover to hide valuables.
Moving this car along is the very familiar 2.2-liter turbo diesel it was offered with in the past. It packs 200 PS and 441 Nm of torque, and is paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This only drives the front wheels as Hyundai has no AWD variant locally.
Managing this power is done with any of the four driving modes. By now many are familiar with the typical Comfort, Eco, and Sport, but the fourth, Smart, is the most clever of them all. Smart mode analyzes your driving style and will choose a mode for you. It typically chooses between Eco or Comfort mode, but mash the throttle and it responds like it were on Sport mode. It then reverts back to either of the two modes with calmer driving. It's set to Smart by default so it's a very welcome addition.
Our time with the Santa Fe was spent mostly in the city, so it was a great opportunity to use most of the driving aids included. Among the most appreciated are its array of cameras that give a bird's eye view of the Santa Fe's surroundings. It comes on automatically when in reverse but can also be toggled with a button by the stick shift. The reverse camera also gives you a variety of views with guidelines that tell you where the wheels will pass. This car also comes with a heads up display. It's not as fancy as those seen on other brands, but the simple speed overlay (with customizable colors) is handy enough when driving on highways.
Around the city, the Santa Fe is supremely quiet and comfortable, but it's not exciting to drive. There's very little feedback from the road to be gleamed from the wheel. The suspension is soft and lofty and is not very conducive to aggressive driving. While we know the engine is quite powerful, the new 8-speed automatic delivers it more progressively, so it won't snap your head back like before. It returned a par-for-the-course 9 km/L in the city. So much of the Santa Fe's design, driving feel and aids seem more favorable to relaxed driving. This quality will be a boon for those with drivers who tend to get excitable around the intoxicating power of cars like the Ford Explorer.
With that line of thought, it's evident that the Santa Fe was designed to appeal to the chauffeur-driven crowd. I do wish Hyundai would offer a "Grand" longer wheelbase version like its predecessor, yet amenities-wise, it already has it all. Regardless of what you think of its looks, it offers a comfortable and quiet ride, a sophisticated but not daunting interior, and is unlikely to ruffle any feathers along the way. It may find itself lacking when it comes to the intimidating size or space offered by its competitors, but more than makes up for it with the sophisticated little touches. It's things like the calm drive and thoughtful interior that show the Santa Fe cares for the quality of the journey above all else.