Hyundai SUVs haven't fared too well in India. The top-of-the line Terracan faded without much trace, the smaller Tucson did only a little better in comparison but now with the Santa Fe, Hyundai hopes it will be third time lucky.

After the Santa Fe's first official showing at the Autocar Performance Show in 2009, there's been a fair amount of interest in this SUV which was further strengthened after Auto Expo 2010. Hyundai has taken its time to launch this Santa Fe largely because it was struggling to price it realistically. Just like the CR-V, Captiva, Outlander and the X-Trail, the Santa Fe is an import and not locally assembled, which immediately puts it at a disadvantage as far as costs go.

The Santa Fe looks like a different breed of SUV compared to its Indian forerunners and even the first-generation Santa Fe. It's not loaded with style but the Santa Fe's fluid and smooth shape still looks quite contemporary. The rectangular headlamps are quite slim for an SUV and sweep upwards into the flanks. Two independent lamps are ensconced in chrome and smartly aggressively offset with a black surround. The small and squarish grille, typical of Hyundais of this generation (e.g., Sonata), is built into the one-piece bumper which has been upgraded for 2010 with a more aggressive, chiselled look and a raked housing for the fog lamps. The bonnet too has been redesigned for 2010 and features two ridges that swoop from the base of the A-pillar to the grille.

In side profile, the Santa Fe looks big and hints at the space inside. The shoulder line and rear overhang emphasises its 4660mm length and you can see that this Hyundai feels a class bigger than other soft-roaders. The rounded styling theme continues down the side and to the rear as well. The rear glass section also sports a very rounded look and the rear lights that jut out of the body work add stylistic detail. A practical touch is the boot release integrated into a neat grab-handle.

The Santa Fe is very easy on the eyes and overall, you definitely won't be disappointed with its looks. It's just that the advent of Hyundai's new crop of cars such as the ix35 keeps you from getting blown away either.

Inside the Santa Fe the dashboard shape, the layout and design of switches feel a bit old-school. . The quality of materials didn't live up to Hyundai's new standards. On the upside, there is no skimping on the equipment list.

Centre console

The simple and smart-looking centre console angled towards the driver shows off the six-CD in-dash music system with a blue-backlit screen. It also boasts of a USB socket and an Aux-in port. The air-conditioning controls sit at the bottom, with separate controls for driver and passenger. The knobs here feel well damped and smooth to operate. The steering wheel comes with controls for the audio system on the left and cruise control on the right. Blue back light is used on switches and the instrument console. The three chrome rings house the rev counter, speedometer and fuel and water gauges. A multi-functional digital display provides a variety of information such as trip and distance-to-empty. Front, side and curtain airbags combined with active headrests, rollover sensor, ESP and ABS with EBD explain the Santa Fe's four-star NCAP rating. A reversing camera helps keep the bodywork in check when reversing out of tight spots. There are plenty of storage bins, an armrest for the driver and, apart from the cigarette lighter, there is a 12v power socket as well. Both front seats come with six-way power controls and even lumbar adjust for the driver.

The seats themselves are quite comfortable for average-sized adults. The middle seat, where many owners will spend time (being chauffeured), has a nice and tall seating position but it could do with better under-thigh support. The seat has a 60:40 split and both backrests can be individually adjusted for incline. The third row can only be accessed by flipping the smaller split of the middle seat. What's good is the ease with which the rear seats spring out of the floor with a simple tug of the handle. Here, passengers will find the seating position to be very knees up. Things could have been much better if the second row of seats could slide forward to liberate more knee room. Headroom too is at a premium which means anyone tall had better avoid the third row.

Space-wise

Hyundai has thoughtfully provided air-conditioning vents for all three rows with the last row even getting an individual blower speed control switch. Compared to other seven-seaters, the Hyundai feels significantly more spacious. With the seats flipped up, the boot space available reduces considerably from the normally generous 969 litres.

The engine is the Santa Fe's biggest surprise and the punch delivered by the 2.2-litre CRDi motor is truly astounding. Hyundai offers this motor in three states of tune, from 150bhp all the way to 194bhp on the top-of-the-line R-engine. Incredibly, it's the latter that Hyundai is bringing and what we experienced.

The in-line four-cylinder engine comes with a four-valve head and variable geometry turbo for maximum bang. Driveability is good too. The Santa Fe claims to make its peak torque of 44.4kgm right from 1800rpm. There is some amount of turbo lag below the 1800rpm mark but this doesn't make the 1987kg SUV lethargic. Diesel clatter is suppressed very well, getting just a touch obtrusive at higher revs. Overall, this engine is remarkably refined and possibly the Santa Fe's strongest asset.

The MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link with anti-roll bars at the rear do a good job of ironing out bumps and the ride is quite pliant. However, it feels a touch restless on uneven surfaces and the ride isn't as settled as we would have liked.

The Santa Fe too uses an on-demand or part-time four-wheel-drive system. The idea is to offer safer and more dynamic driving ability for the SUV.

The Santa Fe falls short on the high-roller/celeb image that many Indians expect from their SUV. Its dashboard and interior fittings take some of the fun out of a Rs. 23 lakh vehicle. However, in terms of practicality, the seven-seater Santa Fe is very user-friendly and hard to fault. Owners will find it quite effortless to drive while being pampered by the list of equipment it offers. The Santa Fe may not be the cheapest SUV in its category but after looking at everything it has to offer, it's decent value for money.

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