The Hyundai Santa Fe is a large SUV whose chief attributes are its optional third row of seats – making it a seven-seater – and generous five-year warranty. This and other big SUVs like it have been overshadowed by the arrival of new, smaller and cheaper five-seat SUVs. However the spotlight has shifted back to larger models like the Santa Fe with the launch of the Nissan X-Trail (available with an optional third row of seats), Kia Sorento and Land Rover Discovery Sport – both with seven seats as standard. With competition like this, the Santa Fe needs to be very good to succeed.
It certainly looks the part and as Hyundai's most expensive model, it's generously equipped. It's also very roomy. There's just one engine: a powerful 2.2-litre diesel that produces 194bhp, but more importantly for those with a boat or caravan to tow, lots of pulling power from low revs. With a six-speed manual gearbox, the engine is capable of launching the big, heavy Hyundai from 0-62mph in just 9.8 seconds and returning a reasonable 46.3mpg fuel economy (with five seats; slightly less with seven) while costing £180 to tax. The six-speed automatic version is only slightly less efficient. Newer, lighter rivals such as the Mazda CX-5 are far more impressive in this respect, but they're smaller and don't offer the option of seven seats.
Surprisingly for such a big car, the Santa Fe doesn't lean too much in corners. In fact, despite its firm suspension, it's quite comfortable. More compact rivals such as the Mazda CX-5 and Nissan X-Trail are more agile and fun to drive, but with the potential to carry seven people, zipping along country roads isn't a priority for the Santa Fe. While many rival SUVs look like off-roaders but are only two-wheel drive, the Santa Fe is all-wheel drive as standard. It's a clever system that directs power to some or all the wheels as conditions dictate, although you can lock it in four-wheel drive mode if you wish.
Just as there's only one engine, there are just three trim levels – SE, Premium and Premium SE – each available with five or seven seats. Given the Santa Fe's already-high price and generous standard equipment (everything from dual-zone air-conditioning to rear parking sensors and trailer stability assistance), we'd recommend the 'basic' SE, putting the money saved towards extra seats.
Anything more expensive (the top-spec seven-seat Premium SE automatic costs over £37,000) puts the Santa Fe squarely in opposition to the Land Rover Discovery Sport – a superior car with a much more desirable badge. Counting in the Santa Fe's favour is its long five-year warranty, Hyundai's reputation for reliability and a five-star performance in Euro NCAP crash testing.