Hyundai has come a long way in the past couple of years.

While some will disagree, Hyundai deserves that pat on the back for the great strides they made over the years. From a brand that started out with the cheap (but not so cheerful) Excel, they're now coming up with cars that can go toe-to-toe with the Japanese, perhaps even the Europeans. And that brings me neatly to the Santa Fe.

It burst into the market back in 2006 and what we got was the second generation model. You could call it a sleeper too, not in terms of driving performance, but rather in terms of sales performance. It was warmly received by the local market and has become one of Hyundai's sales drivers since. The combination of an enticing base price (you could get them for as little as Php 1.4 million before) and a good amount of standard kit makes it a good proposition. You could say it's one of the cars the banished the stigma associated with 90's to early-00's Hyundais.

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

Now we arrive at the fourth-generation Santa Fe, and now it's creeping up to the luxury crossover market. To do that, the all-new Santa Fe not only has to be good, it has to be exceptional. It has to stand out from the likes of the Ford Explorer and Mazda CX-9, as well as entice Fortuner and mu-X shoppers to upgrade. That's quite the uphill battle, but can Hyundai surprise us like they did a decade ago?

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

And so Hyundai brought us to Subic to find out. The trip saw us put the Santa Fe through its paces, driving it along SCTEX, the winding roads of towards Mt. Samat, and the cobblestone streets of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.

But before we get to that, let's take a look at it. Now, I won't beat around the bush when it comes to its styling; it's either you like it or you don't. Some say it's bold and aggressive. Others say it's trying too hard, like it was designed for the sake of design. You get that quad-light treatment and the wide, Y-shaped grill at the front, lines and creases all over the side and, contrary to the overall look of the car, a rather simple-looking rear. The jury's still out for its design but you have to give props to Hyundai for trying.

Santa Fe interior

For those who don't like the outside, it's much easier on the eyes inside. The dashboard's wraparound design gives you the impression that you're cocooned, while the wide glass area is great for letting in a lot of light in the cabin. Sadly, Philippine-spec models don't get the panoramic sunroof. On the flipside, there's a neat infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as the all-important third row seating.

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

Another neat feature of the new Santa Fe is wireless mobile phone charging, but do keep in mind that it works on newer smartphones, such as the iPhone 8 and Samsung Galaxy S9.

Cabin materials feel top-notch too with loads of soft touch points. Your passengers will also be delighted by the four charging points inside the big crossover. There's also one-touch access to the third row seats, which makes getting there much easier. Plus, there's an 360 camera which helps you navigate through tight spots meaning there's practically no more excuse to scrape the wheels on the curb.

Santa Fe 2.2-liter engine

It's all new inside and out but it still has the same engine as the previous-generation model. Yes, it's still the 2.2-liter turbodiesel and it packs 200 PS and 441 Nm of torque, and that's paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. We don't get all-wheel drive in the Philippines, all Santa Fe models sold here are front wheel drive, at least for now. Thankfully it's accompanied by traction control and stability control to keep you out of harm's way.

So, it's impressive to look at and sit in, but how does that translate on the road?

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

First up, the highway drive was great as that 2.2-liter turbodiesel still proved to be a good unit. It's well matched with the eight-speed automatic too, practically idling at cruising speeds. If we needed to overtake, just small prod of the accelerator would bring the hefty SUV up to speed. It's relatively quiet too although there was some wind noise around the pillars. Overall though, the Santa Fe makes for a great highway cruiser and the comfortable seats helps keep the stress levels low in the crossover. The Santa Fe carried over the relaxing experience when we exited SCTEx and on to the town proper. Again, it drove well and it kept us comfortable on the way to the winding roads heading towards Mt. Samat.

When we got to the road going up to the Dambana ng Kagitingan it was time to see how the Santa Fe would take on the twisties. Considering its heft, it wasn't tedious to steer. It's no Veloster but it's not daunting to drive when the going gets twisty. Driving dynamics won't excite you in any way, shape or form but it's safe and secure nonetheless. Then again, you buy a big SUV for space and not sports coupe-like agility, right?

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

After a quick tribute to our soldiers who fought gallantly in World War 2, it was time to head to Las Casas. When we arrived, I was curious if the all-new Santa Fe would uphold the reputation of Hyundai which, lately, have a range of good-riding cars and crossovers. We've said it a couple of times already that Hyundais are comfortable and we're glad to report that the new model lives up to that reputation.

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

Restricted to 25 km/h, I drove over the cobblestone roads at that speed and it was an interesting experience. Yes, you can head the thuds but it didn't rattle me or the passengers on board. Coupled with the comfortable seats, the rough pavement was a cake walk for the Santa Fe. No sudden body movements, no impact shock, just the crossover gliding relatively smoothly on terrain more suited to kalesas (horse-drawn carriages). With the Santa Fe proving comfortable on cobblestones, you can expect it to ride well in the city too.

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

Our last stop of the drive was to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant for a quick visit and, after that, headed back to Subic to cap off the day. I sat in the third row just to see what it would be like there and, while it's not the most spacious, the seats still offered enough comfort for me to fall asleep in what usually is an uncomfortable place to be in. And despite being just a little bit aft of the rear axle (normally a bouncy place to be in), the ride at the very back is still very good. Again, props to Hyundai's chassis tuning department.

First Drive: Hyundai says relax with 2019 Santa Fe

First impressions? I'm a little sad that Philippine market doesn't get the panoramic sunroof and all-wheel drive but the all-new Santa Fe still has a good equipment list nonetheless. Loads of safety equipment, a good infotainment system and, more importantly, seven seats, make it a good family car. The looks are a matter of taste, yes, but those who value comfort will appreciate the Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe made a such good impression on this first drive that it's a very worthy choice for a large crossover. Price-wise, the Santa Fe goes up against the Ford Explorer EcoBoost Limited and the mighty impressive Mazda CX-9 Sport Touring, both of which are two-wheel drive. A real-world test would determine which is the best among three, though it will a challenge for the Hyundai to be as good, or even one-up, the CX-9, especially now that the Santa Fe now retails for Php 2,338,000. Yes, It undercuts the Mazda and the Ford, but not by much. But for now, we say Santa Fe is a large crossover that needs to be on your shortlist.