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It’s not easy to pigeonhole the new Hyundai Santa Fe. A rival to the popular Honda CR-V and increasingly popular Mazda CX-5? Could be, but isn’t that a job for younger sibling Hyundai Tucson?

Under the RM200k mark, we have the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and Toyota Fortuner, which also have three rows of seats, but those SUVs are essentially canopied pick-up trucks, whereas the monocoque Santa Fe is a much more sophisticated machine. Then there’s newly updated sister SUV Kia Sorento, which unfortunately doesn’t come with a diesel engine in Malaysia, seriously limiting its punch next to the Hyundai.

So it’s no cliche when we say that the Santa Fe is in a class of its own, but our preview drive of the third-generation DM in Morocco also revealed that it’s a great family SUV, one that has progressed on several fronts compared to its predecessor, which we know quite well as our faithful company workhorse.

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Speaking of the previous-gen Santa Fe, if no one were to tell you that the two cars were related, would you have guessed?

Thought not, such is the leap that Hyundai has made in one generation. This jump has seen a modest and understated SUV morph into a bold looking thing bordering on aggressive. Certainly so when one views the Santa Fe from the front, where a large hexagonal grille with thick slats shares space with striking headlamps that incorporate square projectors and LED daytime running lights as eyebrows.

The assertive face won’t be to all tastes, but no one will be accusing Hyundai of playing it safe. Personally, I think it’s a fitting visage for a big SUV, although yours truly’s favourite view of the Santa Fe is from the the rear three quarter.

A hint of Audi perhaps, but the last we checked, the brand with the four rings is an aspirational one. The reflectors are joined by a slim strip of mesh, mirroring the lower front bumper and fog lamps, ditto the silver painted skid plates at both ends.

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Speaking of 4X4 style elements commonly used to toughen up the looks of SUVs, the new Santa Fe has a relatively substantial black-clad bottom half of the car, which now includes an outline of the wheelarches. Some may say this gives off a less premium vibe, but it’s a non-issue for me, and one can always pick a darker shade of paint in any case. This big guy looks quite dapper in dark blue, don’t you think?

The Santa Fe looks much more dynamic than before, and it’s not just an illusion. At 4,690 mm, this car is just 5 mm longer than before, and the 2,700 mm wheelbase is unchanged, so what we’re seeing is an SUV that sits much closer to the ground (45 mm lower), with a less upright stance emphasised by a raked windscreen angle that’s almost sportscar-like. The daylight opening is much smaller than before, too.

I find the rising signature line that recirculates at the rear door handle before making a step up very interesting, a variation of something Hyundai tried before on the current Azera sedan. In Malaysia, the Santa Fe comes with 18-inch wheels for the Elegance and 19 inchers for the Executive Plus spec. It’s a good thing that even the pincer-spoked smaller set of rims don’t appear overwhelmed by the Santa Fe’s big body.

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By the way, the car you see here is the standard wheelbase variant with a third-row option, similar to what Malaysia gets. A LWB Santa Fe exists to replace the Veracruz in certain markets.

Hyundai calls the Santa Fe’s design “Storm Edge” and apparently, the design team was inspired the strong and dynamic images created by nature during a formation of a storm. We don’t always understand designer speak, but can conclude that this SUV looks much more Sport than Utility now. Many will buy it for the looks, we reckon.

But the bold exterior styling is only one part of the Santa Fe’s greatly improved showroom appeal. The previous car was good on paper and on the move, thanks to that diesel motor, but there wasn’t much to wow the typical see-see, knock-knock showroom punter.

The interior, while spacious, had a very simple dashboard design that wasn’t much to look at. It all felt a bit truck-like too, down to the seating position and hard plastics. Functional, but that’s about it.

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Well, the cabin is no longer a weak point in the new Santa Fe, having taken an even bigger leap forward than the exterior design. The simple old shallow dashboard is replaced by a riot of surfaces and curves, with a centre stack that reminds me of an elephant head (air con vents as ears) or a hooded cobra.

The shapely dash extends to the door cards, which are similarly busy looking. Perceived quality is up by a few notches, thanks to softer plastics and small improvements such as the phasing out of the old car’s shiny wiper/indicator stalks. Hyundai couldn’t have charted a bigger departure from the previous cabin environment if they wanted to.

Personally, I prefer less busy surrounds, but don’t dislike the Santa Fe’s cabin either. It helps that despite the chaos, all the elements are exactly where you would expect them to be, and the steering buttons (audio, cruise control, trip computer, Flex Steer) cover most of the frequently used functions, in any case.

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Even if the amount of functions are the same, this new cabin gives off a “feature-rich” impression that’s vital in a car like this. Malaysian-spec Santa Fes amplify that feeling with more kit – a touch screen ICE system that’s locally fitted but nicely integrated, and phone controls that make it a full house on the steering.

Another noteworthy feature is the 12-way powered driver’s seat, which is standard across the range, while Executive Plus spec adds on a wide panoramic glass roof. It all looks impressive, and expensive.

If the design leap has led you to expect a similar change in the driving experience, sorry, you’ll find no such thing. The Santa Fe doesn’t need a big shift in the drive department, though. The second-gen CM was a pleasant enough drive – a comfy, easy going hauler with big torque and effortless performance with the diesel engine.

The ‘R’ series 2.2 CRDi with variable geometry turbo (e-VGT) is back for a repeat performance, bringing with it 197 hp and 436 Nm of torque from 1,800 to 2,500 rpm. The latter is sufficient for the Santa Fe driver to leave any SUV below RM200k in its wake, without breaking sweat.

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This is a gem of a diesel engine that doesn’t look poor next to the best European oil burners. It’s responsive, smooth revving and quiet, perhaps a touch more so than in the previous Santa Fe, if we remember correctly.

But the CRDi’s trump card is effortless performance – after a small hint of lag, the torque catapults the big SUV past any obsctacle in your way. The flexibility and in-gear acceleration on offer makes the Santa Fe a relaxing car to drive, whether in the cut and thrust of the city or on long distance highway runs.

The R’s accomplice is Hyundai’s own six-speed automatic gearbox. The torque converter unit is a good partner to the diesel engine. It’s not the fastest and snappiest slushbox around, but that’s easily covered by the torquey nature of the engine. A sign of the effectiveness of the combo is that we never once needed to use manual mode.

I also got to try the diesel with a six-speed manual – shift quality was much better than expected (Elantra M/T is the cause of low expectations) and you can coax the wheels to spin noisily away from rest, which can be hilarious at toll booths! With all that torque in hand (literally) the CRDi felt even more potent, but even a stick shift supporter has to concede that the auto suits the Santa Fe’s easy going character better.

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There’s also a 176 hp/227 Nm 2.4 Theta II petrol option for Malaysia, but we only sampled the diesel in Morocco. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been half as impressive as the oil burner, but it’s also over RM10k cheaper than the diesel, spec for spec, in Malaysia. The choice is yours, I know what mine would be!

Drivetrain aside, the new DM possesses good supression of noise and vibration at high speeds, a noticable improvement over the old car. The wide highways around the coastal city of Agadir allowed for some high speed crusing, and the speedo touched 190 km/h at one point. It is at these kind of speeds that the new Santa Fe feels more sure footed and secure than its predecessor. Less pitch and roll, and slightly more car-like, too.

Don’t mistake this for sporty, though. I haven’t had the chance to drive the Ford Kuga and new CR-V, but I won’t be shocked if the smaller duo are more nimble around the bends. The Santa Fe is a big car, and drives very decently for what it is.

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You won’t be throwing it around like a hot hatch anyway, so things like good ride comfort on the 18-inch wheels are more meaningful. Not sure how it’s like with the Executive’s 19s, but I have a feeling that it won’t deteriorate by much.

Like all new Hyundai-Kia products, the Santa Fe comes with Flex Steer, which varies the level of steering assistance in three steps – Comfort, Normal and Sport. No difference in the amount of feedback through the rim (low), just the weighting. Normal did it for me, with the heaviest Sport coming into play during high speed cruising.

Honestly, I can’t imagine Normal being too cumbersome for anyone, and the mid-point setting suits the Santa Fe’s character more than Sport, so Flex Steer is something I can do without, personally. It’s good to be presented with choices, though. No such thing as one man’s weight, another woman’s complaint here.

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Moving away from the driver’s seat, the second row has seats that can slide fore and aft, which is good, but an MPV-style tumble fold system would have made access to the third row easier.

Speaking of the rearmost seats – which have their own air vents with fan speed control – they are usable for children and short journeys, but you won’t want to put grown adults you care about back there. This is within expectations, as is the smallish triangular luggage space with all the seats up.

In five-seat mode, the large boot can take in 534 litres of cargo up to the window line, or four golf bags plus four Boston bags, Hyundai points out. All things considered, the third row is a great thing to have in a family SUV, or an events company hauler in our case.

Like before, it is that seven-seat capability and the strong diesel engine that sets the big Hyundai apart from smaller (and cheaper) SUVs like the CR-V, CX-5 and Kuga. The Santa Fe has always been in a class of its own in Malaysia, but armed with bold new looks inside out, it can now stride confidently around town and win some due respect.

The new Santa Fe was launched locally in June. We get two engine options and two trim levels, with prices ranging from RM163,888 to RM189,888 OTR with insurance. Click here to read our launch report.

Malaysian-spec Santa Fe – launch gallery