Not so good: nothing
The first thing that strikes you when you climb aboard the Santa Fe is that you'd be very happy to do a very long journey in one. The seats are comfy, the quality of the cabin excellent and the steering wheel, in spite of some oddly slippery leather wrapping (was someone a bit too enthusiastic with the old Son-Of-A-Gun?) feels good in your hand. As a driving environment, it's a hard one to beat.
That's a feeling confirmed when you twist the key and fire up the upgraded 2.2-litre diesel engine. Aside from a brief burst of diesel clatter on a cold start, it's a remarkably refined engine, something that becomes even more remarkable when you realise that our test car had just 94 kilometres on its odometer. If it's this good now, it could potentially be even better with a few loosening-up miles on the clock.
Select first and nudge out of the gate and do all those positive first impressions survive a meeting with the road?
Well, we'll get to that in a minute, but for a moment, let's consider the Santa Fe's place in Hyundai's firmament. I have to confess that I despised the original Santa Fe (circa 2000). Rugged and reliable it may have been, but it was lumpy to look at, lumpy to drive and had some of the most uncomfortable seats I've ever sat on. The 2007 replacement then was as much relief as revelation, and a precursor to the recent product revolution at Hyundai, arriving as it did just ahead of the first generation of Hyundai's i-models. Now, the Santa Fe could boast pleasant styling, a useful seven-seat cabin (even if the third row of seats was suitable only for small children) and competent on-road dynamics. And decent seats, thank the lords of motoring.
Since when, Hyundai has been on a major roll, with cars like the i30, i10, ix35, i40 and Veloster coupé proving that it can now make cars that are not only good, but good enough that the company can effectively abandon its old pricing policy. Whereas Hyundais of old would always be priced around €1,000 or so cheaper than the likes of a rival Ford or Toyota, now the prices are comparable, even if Hyundai continues to offer better value for money in terms of equipment and its impressive five-year warranty.
Certainly, you would have to say that the new Santa Fe requires no financial incentive if you were to judge it on looks alone. The photos simply don't do it justice, as it looks classier, chunkier and more substantial by far in the 'flesh' than it does on the screen. There is a genuine sense of style to the Santa Fe now; the slightly upright, plain and simple look of earlier models is gone and replaced by a thrusting look, quite American (not surprising considering Hyundai's stateside success) and verging on the brash, but in a nice way. Love the big, chrome-y grille and glittering LED daytime lights, incidentally.
Inside, the seven-seat layout is retained (and once again, it's kids - and small ones at that - only in the third row) and the cabin is spacious and comfortable in the middle row. A genuine surprise was to find that our test car was the most basic Comfort specification (albeit with optional leather seats) because quite frankly, it was rather hard to find any equipment lacking. Standard toys include a multifunction steering wheel, electric lumbar support, Bluetooth and USB connections for phones and media players, air conditioning, a built-in music hard-drive, a bevy of airbags, ESP stability control, a Land-Rover-style hill descent control (even though our car was front-wheel drive) and more. One pleasant, practical touch: the bottom of the doors now wraps under the sill, meaning that you can get in and out without dragging the backs of your trousers or tights on muddy door bottoms. Nice.
Under the bonnet, the 2.2-litre diesel engine is familiar in size, but its performance and economy have both been improved. With 197hp and 420Nm of torque, it's certainly sprightly, and while the Santa Fe clocks in with a kerb weight of 1,961kg there's never a sense that you don't have more than enough power to get about. Best of all though is the already-mentioned refinement. It's genuinely quiet and relaxed in the cabin. It'll make a great long-haul cruiser. Emissions are pretty impressive too, at 147g/km for the two-wheel drive version (149g/km for the four-wheel drive) and Hyundai claims you'll burn just 5.6 litres for every 100 kilometres travelled. That's well into 50mpg territory, which sounds like a bit of a stretch to us. On the basis of our test, we'd say mid-sixes, or around 40-45mpg would be more realistic, and still pretty impressive.
The driving experience is pretty good too. Now, we've criticised Hyundai's three-setting Flex Steer system before. It allows you to toggle between Comfort, Normal and Sport modes for the steering, and theoretically offers you lighter or heftier settings depending on your mood or need. In reality, there's not much difference between the three modes and you can't help but feel that the development budget would have been better spent on one setting that did everything well. Aside from that, the Santa Fe is very pleasant to drive, well balanced and rides with a BMW-esque firm pliancy, only being upset by truly vicious, sharp-edged potholes.
In fact, the BMW comparison is apt, as Hyundai is reckoning on tempting premium German SUV buyers with the new Santa Fe, and there's a range-topping automatic Premium version that costs the guts of €50k. Ambitious; overly so for a Hyundai? Possibly, but you know what? This is a very impressive car, handsome to look at, pleasant to drive, with an excellent engine and terrific build quality. I personally can't see why someone considering a BMW or Audi wouldn't, if they put aside badge snobbery for a moment, seriously consider a Santa Fe now. It really is that good.