“This is the low spec model,” said the PR exec at Hyundai-Sime Darby Motors as he walked me to my tester for the weekend; his pre-emptive tone seemingly laced with a slight trace of guilt meant to deflate any expectations I had for the most affordable variant of the 2020 Santa Fe currently on sale in Malaysia.
I have been waiting for over a year to have a go at the big Korean SUV after all. And while I was hoping to sample the 2.2 CRDi (diesel) instead, the white 2.4 MPI Executive looked equally inviting in the metal.
In truth, the Executive model looks nearly as regal as the pricier Premium with its cost-saving halogen lights switched off. And even though the former’s wheels are down an inch in diameter, its 18-inch footwear looks just as polished and surprisingly well proportioned to the Santa Fe’s bulk, which is saying something for a car measuring 4.8m long – 2.8m of which being the wheelbase – and 1.9m wide.
Inside, the class gap becomes a touch more visible once you notice the conventional pair of analogue dials (instead of the Premium’s seven-inch LCD cluster) and lack of leather on the dash. But there’s little reason to complain given the tasteful fit and finish in the Santa Fe’s vast cabin; a trait more frequently associated with Kia and Hyundai products of late.
The geometric motif burned into memory by the SUV’s massive grille is cleverly etched into the seats, speaker covers and even the storage tray facing the front passenger. Little touches like these go a long way in elevating the perception of quality. As the driver, I’m just happy to have keyless ignition and electric seat adjustments that go in 12 different directions. Apple CarPlay is a big plus point too – it still boggles the mind that buyers still aren’t guaranteed of this simple convenience, even in cars costing well over RM200k.
At RM167k, the Santa Fe falls well below that mark. This makes it RM13k cheaper than its most natural rival in an increasingly populated SUV market, the Mazda CX-8. And while the Japanese number, which also starts things off with a 2WD petrol variant before topping out with a diesel all-wheeler, may come across as more sophisticated on the surface, Hyundai’s emphasis on getting the essentials nailed to a tee is impressive too. It’s certainly not for the sake of making up for whatever the base-spec Santa Fe lacks in novelties – this is a properly versatile SUV that’s put together well from the ground up.
This ‘less-is-more’ song is a fitting complement to the nicely controlled hum of the 2.4-litre naturally-aspirated petrol mill, which, despite being slightly bigger than Hyundai’s signature 2.2-litre turbodiesel, is a trimmer unit that does without all-wheel drive (AWD) and a pair of gears. The six-speeder is a slick shifter that rarely feels like it’s lacking an extra gear. And you can almost feel a slight spring in the step of the big Korean SUV, unburdened by the weight of components that would enable the occasional off-road jaunt.
With only 172PS and 225Nm to its name, the petrol-fuelled Santa Fe is far from powerful; even the Proton X50 and Hyundai's own Kona, both yet to be launched, are endowed with bigger outputs. But the composure its Theta II powertrain exhibits on the move – tested but never defeated when rallied – is truly respectable for a seven-seater of this scale; those with the means to splurge on the 193PS/441Nm CRDi model can safely expect a bigger treat.
To that end, the Santa Fe excels rather well as a people carrier too. Getting in and out of the last row may be a wee bit tricky due to the SUV ride height and manual seat folding mechanism. But my 165cm occupants didn’t seem to have any complaints about space and ride comfort. And I can tell that it isn't silence out of kindness.
The car ultimately drives just as easily with six people in tow. And I mean that in more ways than one – the Santa Fe’s sedan-matching 5.7m turning radius and crisp reverse camera make excursions to busy shopping malls with the family just as straightforward as they would be in a Hyundai Elantra.
For a little over RM19k more, the Premium variant makes life even easier with a powered tailgate, wireless charger and full-LED lighting. It’s a relatively acceptable sum to pay if you can afford it considering it also arms the hefty vehicle with blind spot and rear cross traffic alerts that won’t be cheap or simple to retrofit.
My 165cm occupants didn’t seem to have any complaints about space and ride comfort. And I can tell that it isn't silence out of kindness
Some quarters (you know who you are) will be crying out for even more driver aids given how competitive other mainstream makes have gotten in autonomous safety. And while it’s difficult to make a strong case for any Santa Fe variant in this respect, the fuss-free charm of the tech-starved 2.4 MPI Executive remains unshaken.
There’s a tiny sprinkle of the traditionalist appeal associated with manual gearboxes and cassette players in the utilitarian make-up of the Santa Fe in all its ‘low spec’ glory. The only difference is that the big Hyundai can actually make your life a whole lot easier.
Hyundai Santa Fe 2.4 MPI Executive
Engine: 2.4L 4cyl NA, 172PS, 225Nm
Transmission: 6spd auto, FWD
Properly useable seven-seat SUV that masks any deficiencies in tech and creature comforts with versatile traits that truly come in handy in the real world.
Spacious, comfortable and as easy to drive as a C-segment sedan thanks to its well-mannered petrol mill and city-inclined dynamics, minus the 'distraction' of autonomous gadgetry – the base-spec Santa Fe is simplicity done right.