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Click to view picture gallery“Hyundai’s all-new
  Santa Fe is a smart
  SUV with seven seats
  that doesn’t cost the
  earth, doesn’t guzzle
  gas and is about as
  anti-social as Stuart
  Little...”


IN A SENSE, anything that can be shown as a statistic is quite likely not to exist in the real world. For example, some of you reading this may remem-ber the old 'statistic' about the average Volvo owner having 2.4 children and a dog. Obviously there wasn't a single real family who had exactly 2.4 children — or we would surely have read all about it in the Sun!

Families seem to got bigger and there are a large number of families out there who have the need for a smart looking people carrier that will move seven assorted bodies of adults and kids. As they have as much sense of style as the next person, they don't want something the size of a double-decker bus.

For real families such as these and likely to be spending about 25,000, running costs and value-for-money will be key issues. These are most definitely not the kind of buyers able to write a cheque for 75,000 for the latest, fully-spec'd Range Rover. What they need is an affordable seven-seat family car; something with a dash more panache than an everyday MPV.

Which is precisely what Hyundai can offer them in the shape of the all-new mid-sized Santa Fe — handily available in both five- and seven-seat configurations. High on the list of reasons to buy one has to be the Santa Fe's five-year unlimited mileage manufacturer's warranty. And better still, it's fully transferable from owner to owner.

Santa Fe sells in a very competitive market sector. It competes for sales against the likes of the Nissan X-Trail, the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV 4, Land Rover Freelander, Kia Sorento, Jeep Cherokee, Mitsubishi Shogun and the new Dodge Nitro. And if you look at SUVs with seven seats, that also pits it against some more badge-conscious players such as Volvo's XC90 and Land Rover's Discovery.

These days, the engine of choice for more and more family drivers is
a diesel. Not only do diesels provide better lugging power for cars that are often laden to the gunnels with an entire family clan, but they don't damage the plastic on the forecourt. While two engines are offered for the Santa Fe, it's the all-new 148bhp 2.2-litre, four-cylinder common-rail turbodiesel engine, available with either a five-speed manual or a new five-speed automatic transmission, that
's the best-seller. For those who still prefer petrol, there's a 186bhp 2.7-litre V6 petrol engine but it's only available with a four-speed auto 'box.

Three high-spec trim levels are on offer (GSI, CDX and CDX+), along with five- and seven-seat cabin layouts. Diesel prices start at 21,865 and top-out at 27,365 for the very comprehensively equipped 2.2 CRTD CDX+ 7-seat automatic, as reviewed here.

For your money you get a contemporary-styled body that successfully melds high-riding estate with nicely-Noughties SUV. Rounded body lines blend with 'sharp cut' wheel arches, flush-fitted clear-lens front light clusters and smart red/white wraparound rear light units to create
a fresh look that stands out from the crowd. A set of attractive 6-spoke alloys shod with meaty 235/60 tyres, rear roof spoiler and large oval tailpipes at each corner complete the image. Asked for a styling thumbnail of the Santa Fe, 'smart, not flash' would do nicely.

Climb inside and you'll discover that it lacks for nothing and, indeed, puts some far more expensive SUVs to shame. Included is dual-zone
air climate control (third row passengers get their own independent ventilation controls), full leather upholstery, 2-stage heated and electrically-adjustable front seats, a front screen wiper de-icer, steer-ing wheel remote audio controls, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with built-in compass, premium 10-speaker Infinity hi-fi with an in-dash six-disc autochanger and a multimedia DVD package with a roof-mounted screen (the system is also compatible with Playstation and X-Box consoles), electrically-operated windows, a refrigerated box in the centre console, rain sensing wipers, cruise control, an electronic stability programme, eight airbags and 18-inch alloy wheels. And, of course, seven seats. All neatly packed into a compact bodyshell that's home garage and multi-storey car park-friendly — an important feature for family-oriented transport.

The new Santa Fe is bigger than before. Most importantly, its wheel-base has grown by 80mm. The height, including the roof rails, is now 1,795mm; width is up to 1,890mm and from bumper to bumper it now measures a practical 4,675mm. Into this larger space, Hyundai has fitted seven seats. With five in use — the slick-operating split/folding third row, incidentally, folds flush into the boot floor — there's an accommodating 969 litres of luggage space.

Fold down both rear rows and this luggage space increases to an enormous, flat load bay of 2,213 litres. Long loads are easily accom-modated and loading is easy, thanks to a wide-opening tailgate. As you would expect, with all three rows of seats occupied luggage space behind the third row is pretty minimal. Self-levelling suspension is, as mentioned, standard on the 7-seat variants and ensures a stable drive — regardless of the size of load or its distribution, or whether you're travelling alone or even with a full complement of seven on board.

The only thing missing was a roller blind for the rear luggage area —
in seven-seat models this is replaced by the air vents for the third row. You do, however, get full rear privacy glass. You also get a full-size spare, so punctures aren't a major inconvenience. And the roof rails incorporate proper crossbars for carrying extra items.

Access to the centre row of three seats is easy: the two outer seats are the same as the front seats and very comfortable, with proper adjustable backrests. There's plenty of room, particularly headroom. The two 50:50 split third row seats are adult sized with adjustable backrests, and are reached by double-folding the nearside outer seat on the second row. Restricted headroom means they're best for children, although adults can be comfortable with the backrests semi-reclined. Once there, the limited headroom is fine for kids. Again, lots of storage and cup-holders are provided for the rear passengers along with radio headphones for the DVD.

The Santa Fe's cabin is noticeably better than many others in its class, with a stylish fascia. We liked the fresh-looking wood-effect strip of the lower fascia. The ergonomics are hard to fault; the blue instrument lighting is excellent and easy on the eyes at night; the cruise control and remote audio controls are mounted conveniently on the leather-trimmed steering wheel; and the 2:3:2 seating layout is practical and functional.

Comfortable armrests are built into the doors, and the big pockets are designed to accommodate bottles. A trip computer keeps you advised of useful information such as range and average fuel consumption and the compass in the mirror keeps you orientated. The colour-coded digital display of the active gear/shift mode engaged is a boon. There's are two lined and damped glasses cases in the roof console and the damped, pop-out ashtray in the facia makes a perfect parking money drawer! Oh, we nearly forgot — the Trafficmaster SatNav was remark-ably easy to use.

The commanding driving position is first-rate — a sound road safety benefit and one of the reasons people instinctively like driving this kind of vehicle — aided by the reach and rake-adjustable steering wheel, electric lumbar adjustment and a supportive seat with eight-way power adjustment. From the driver's seat you can clearly see both front wings and the end of the bonnet, which makes placing and parking a breeze — even if it's the very first time you've ever driven one.

Instrumentation is clear and simple, as are all the secondary controls. You'll find lots of useful stowage space, including a fair-sized glovebox and ample cup-holders. The push on/push off foot-operated parking brake is simple to use and build quality is good. It's also smartly trimmed and well put together, and the leather upholstery is soft with perforated centre sections. And it all looks able to withstand the day-to-day onslaught of a seven-strong family.

Hyundai expects nine out of ten buyers to go for the new 2.2-litre common-rail turbodiesel CRTD. Having driven it, we'd say that they're absolutely right — the Variable Geometry Turbocharger makes it some-thing of a peach. Refined, unstressed, lag-free and responsive, it's everything you wouldn't expect from a four-cylinder diesel. Power is 148bhp but there's a hefty 247lb ft of torque on hand between 1,800 and 2,500rpm. Thanks to its wide torque band and pulling power, it's a good all-round performer both in traffic, out on the open road and cruising motorways.

On paper, its 0-62mph time is 12.9 seconds (11.6 for the manual). On the road, due to the fact that it revs smoothly, it feels brisker. Top speed is 111mph. It's also pleasingly economical: officially, the com-bined fuel consumption figure is 34.9mpg — that's sufficient for an amazingly-good 550-mile real-world range. City and touring figures are 25.7 and 44.1 respectively. We averaged 32.1mpg, itself uncommonly frugal for this type of vehicle.

This all-new model uses a 'torque on demand' set-up. In other words and in normal conditions, drive is only to the front wheels: all-wheel drive is automatically engaged only when the electronic sensors detect wheel slip. To ensure the best possible traction and maintain vehicle stability, the Santa Fe's four-wheel drive system works in conjunction with the vehicle's other active safety systems — including the elect-ronic stability programme, the ABS (with electronic brakeforce distrib-ution) and the traction control. Brakes are discs all round, ventilated at the front, and have great pedal feel. Nicely progressive, they deliver excellent stopping power.

However, four-wheel drive can easily be engaged manually by pushing the 4WD button on the front console, which locks all four wheels
into permanent drive for better performance when travelling on low-
grip road surfaces (such as snow) or going off-road. It may not have
a complicated low ratio 'box or an adjustable ride height, but then it doesn't really need them. Why complicate matters when all it will do is add pounds to both the weight and the price. No, the Santa Fe is just fine exactly as it is.

The chassis is discernibly biased towards comfort, and the ride is mostly smooth. The steering is precise enough for some press-on driving and, although we weren't expecting to, we found the Santa Fe to be not only rather good fun but really nice to drive. As mentioned, the engine is willing and the new automatic transmission shifts smoothly in both its auto and manual modes. The manual mode is effectively a 'sport' mode and upshifts are made at the red-line while appropriate downshifts are carried out as you slow, with first auto-matically engaged when you come to a complete stop. At speed the Santa Fe is quiet — 70mph only requires 2,100rpm — and stable. Reassuringly, it also it has a full complement of all the latest active safety features (such as an efficient stability control system) to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Which is great. Because when you think about it, that is precisely where most Santa Fe models will spend most of their lives. Yes, there is a tendency towards body roll if you try to drive it like a hot hatch, but it's never a problem. An appropriate time to mention that there are too many pointless preconceptions today about everything on the road having to handle like a rally car. Most real people simply don't drive that way, and neither do they need to. Especially if they have kids on board.

However, if you wish to, you'll be pleased to know that the electron-ically-controlled four-wheel drive system delivers decent off-road capability, enough for it to cope with all the usual off-road scenarios. Hyundai puts it succinctly when they say that the Santa Fe is designed for off-road trails, not trail-blazing. Where the extra grip and reassurance afforded by the Santa Fe's four-wheel drive system will come in handy is for towing a boat or caravan. The maximum legal towing capacity for the automatic model is 2,000kg (2,200kg for the manual).

All versions of the Santa Fe are fitted with six airbags. The 7-seater gets eight: driver and front passenger front airbags with a cut-off for the passenger's; front side; and roof curtain airbags covering all three rows of seats. Active head restraints are also fitted.

So, will it suit the family? The only criticism is the low-ish maximum towing weight. Not a real problem because most owners will only be making full use of its carrying abilities. On the plus-side, Hyundai has an excellent record when it comes to build quality and durability. For example — in Top Gear magazine's 2005 reliability survey, Hyundai was placed 6th overall with a maximum five-star result. And in What Car's 2005 J D Power Customer Satisfaction Index, the Santa Fe was placed 3rd in class, again above all European competitors.

As a bonus, you get a very comprehensively equipped and roomy seven-seater that's a pleasure to drive, powered by a first-rate diesel engine that's obligingly economical. Plus, of course, you also get a brilliant five-year warranty. Put it to the vote? I see seven hands raised. Yes, we'll take one.

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Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRTD CDX+ 7-seat Auto | 27,365
Maximum speed: 111mph | 0-62mph: 12.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 32.1mpg | Power: 148bhp | Torque: 247lb ft

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