Hyundai Santa Fe FE Elite: Making waves like a whale
HYUNDAI SANTA FE ELITE
What exactly is it? The third generation of Hyundai’s astonishingly popular crossover wagon. The 2.2R diesel powertrain is carried over, the rest is completely new.
Powertrain: 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four producing 145kW/436Nm. Six-speed automatic transmission, on-demand four-wheel drive with manual 50/50 lock below 40km/h. Combined fuel consumption 7.3 litres per 100km.
Anything interesting in the equipment list? The Elite features 18-inch alloys, satellite navigation with live traffic updates, reversing camera, premium audio, leather upholstery and front/rear seat warmers. Impressive but not overwhelming: that’s because there’s another specification above this one, the $79,990 Elite Limited. But even then, you still don’t get adaptive cruise control, self-parking or blind-spot warning – features now commonplace on top-specification crossover vehicles.
Hyundai claims the interior centre-console shape of its new Santa Fe is inspired by a whale’s tail flicking up out of the ocean.
Yes, I can see what they’ve done there. If you imagine a whale “lobtailing,” the two lobes of the tail are represented by the air vents either side of the Santa Fe’s information screen.
The tapered section halfway down is the more slender part of the tail, then it spreads outward again near the gearlever to mimic the shape of the body.
Like other Korean and Japanese carmakers, Hyundai seems obsessed with the idea that its cars are styled around the flow of water. In this case it’s branded as “fluidic sculpture” design.
These are environmentally conscious times. An oblique reference to a much-loved mammal making waves in the natural world probably sounded like a good idea to somebody, somewhere at Hyundai head office.
In practice, I’m not sure associating a seven-seat, 1.9-tonne, four-wheel drive vehicle with a whale is necessarily that clever.
Making a big impression
Then again, it has always seemed as though Santa Fe can do no wrong. In the last decade this model has grown in size and price and New Zealand sales have increased accordingly.
You can safely consider the fortunes of Santa Fe to be a metaphor for the rise in quality and credibility of the Hyundai brand.
While most models decrease in sales as they reach the end of their life, Santa Fe had its best-ever year in 2012, with 1730 registrations, an increase of 50% over 2011.
Hyundai New Zealand does not expect to do quite as well with this new version in 2013, by the way. Last year was incredible even by Santa Fe standards. More to the point, presumably there are things a company can do with a product in runout that it wouldn’t do with a brand new model.
But with projected sales of this new model at well over 1000 units, Santa Fe could still be considered a premium brand all by itself.
In fact, that’s the way Hyundai sees it. Virtually every other mainstream model range from the Korean maker has been rebranded with an ‘i’ prefix for most export markets, including New Zealand – a stamp as solid and consistent as that fluidic sculpture they keep talking about. So why not its biggest and most important crossover?
Because Santa Fe has such a following, Hyundai sees too much collateral in the name to change it. It’s a Santa Fe first, Hyundai second.
Hyundai offers a range of Santa Fe models, starting with a 2.4-litre direct-injection petrol. But the majority of sales have traditionally been high up the range, with the diesel Elite – as tested here – accounting for nearly 70%.
Hyundai NZ has ambitions of boosting the popularity of petrol with that entry model and a new 3.3-litre V6 front-drive version but for now all eyes are on the 2.2R CRDi turbo diesel.
If there’s one area in which Hyundai has surely earned a place alongside premium brands, it’s with this powertrain. In fact, it achieved that back in 2010: this engine is carried over from the old car. It’s a low-capacity diesel with high output and extremely high levels of refinement.
The transmission might only have six gears – you have to say “only” now, because so many have seven or eight – but it’s very smooth and has plenty of torque to work with.
I did 700km in one hit during my week in the Santa Fe and it was the perfect vehicle for the trip: long cruising legs, average economy of 7.0 litres per 100km (better than the official Combined figure), a lot of on-road presence and the assurance of four-wheel drive on rain-soaked roads.
It rides well. It’s quiet. It’s a superb way to travel.
Despite that, the Santa Fe is not necessarily a driver’s delight. The chassis is set up for comfort and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, except that in slippery conditions the front washes out into understeer too easily (the Hankook tyres might have to take some of the blame) and the on-demand four-wheel drive system can be slow to react to the onslaught of torque from the engine under power.
I wouldn’t say the performance overwhelms the chassis but it certainly delivers the odd surprise.
The new Santa Fe has picked up the FlexSteer system from the i30, which allows the driver to choose from three different levels of assistance for the wheel, from Comfort to Sport. It’s a novel idea, although I think it works less successfully in this large vehicle than it does in the smaller i30. It adds weight, but not steering feel.
Dare to be different
Overall, the Santa Fe is still a very confident vehicle: well-engineered, with bold styling outside and in. The dashboard is fussy but the materials are of high quality and the driving environment feels quite special once you’ve become accustomed to a few idiosyncrasies.
Consider a seemingly insignificant detail like the temperature control for the air conditioning, which is on a separate rocker switch in an awkward place, instead of being incorporated into the main control dial: this setup is inefficient and yet quite deliberate, an attempt to be different for the sake of it.
Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz do this kind of thing all the time: ignore what works best in favour of configuring something in a slightly odd way, to reinforce that you’re driving a particular brand with a particular design ethos.
Santa Fe is an aspirational vehicle for many and has been for a long time. The new model stretches up to $79,990, making it the most expensive Korean passenger vehicle ever sold in New Zealand. The remarkable thing is that the price will no doubt be justified not only by the quality of the vehicle but by the brand power of the badge on the tailgate.
FIRST WITH THE TRAFFIC CHANNEL
Hyundai has been slow to pick up satellite navigation for New Zealand. However, the technology is now here on Santa Fe, Veloster, i30, i40 and ix35 and with it, Hyundai has leapfrogged straight into a Suna Traffic Channel service – the first local automotive brand to do so.
Suna was launched in New Zealand last year and has been available on portable devices from Garmin, Magellan and Navman. Suna collects real-time traffic information from a variety of sources: other vehicles’ GPS systems, The Radio Network’s Time Saver Traffic Service, government departments and emergency services. The data is encoded and transmitted to user devices primarily via an FM radio frequency.
I used Suna in peak hour on Auckland’s southern motorway in the Santa Fe Elite. It’s simple and it works: the sat-nav screen showed a series of graphics indicating heavy traffic at several points along the route.
Traffic was at a standstill at exactly these points when the car reached them – virtually down to the metre.
Suna works with the sat-nav system to calculate alternative routes. At the very least, it can provide a realistic arrival time, taking traffic into account.
Currently, Suna operates in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch.
Fully integrated Suna sat-nav will not remain an exclusive for Hyundai: “We know that other brands are talking to Suna, so it’s only a matter of time,” general manager Andy Sinclair says. But being first still gives Hyundai a momentary unique selling point.