It’s hard to write a review of an SUV these days without acknowledging just how big of a role these soft-roaders have played in reshaping the automotive landscape. Previously the reserve of bit players, the market has seen a wave of big names join the party in recent years, as more and more customers seek practical family cars that don’t look like they’ve had their soul sucked out of them (we’re looking at you, MPVs).

Many may not know this, but Hyundai was there right at the beginning of the SUV craze, with the original 2000 Santa Fe taking on class progenitors Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Yes, the bulbous first generation was aesthetically challenged at best, but subsequent models have evolved it into a handsome and genuinely credible competitor – one with an actual reputation amongst family-minded buyers.

But the influx of new rivals is causing the midsize SUV pie to be spread thin, as each one tries to fend off the other for a piece of the action. The CR-V, Nissan X-Trail and Mazda CX-5 remain as popular as ever, and the market is also being squeezed by premium German models in the segment just above – and let’s not forget the elephant in the room, Proton’s very own, very impressive X70, as a serious bargain option.

To stand out from the others, the fourth-generation TM model really needs to step up its game. Hyundai promises that the new car has a bunch of new family-friendly features, whilst also being more comfortable, more refined and more luxurious to make up for its not-insubstantial pricing. Has it all worked? We make our way to the Philippines to see if it has.

Still a seven-seater – and therefore occupying an important niche in the local market – the new Santa Fe, like most midsize SUVs, has grown to take up a considerable amount of space at your local Tesco carpark. Measuring 4,770 mm long, 1,890 mm wide and 1,680 mm tall, it’s 80 mm longer and 10 mm wider than the previous-generation DM, and its 2,765 mm wheelbase is 65 mm longer. That’s 174 mm and 105 mm longer than the CR-V in terms of length and wheelbase, respectively.

The far more distinctive design makes the most of the increased dimensions, exuding plenty of road presence and banishing the old car’s middle-of-the-road aesthetic. At the front, you’ll find dual-tier headlights that can now be found on other Hyundai SUVs like the Kona and Venue, with a slim row of LED daytime running lights up top and larger main units (with LED projectors on top Premium models) underneath.

These lamps flank the brand’s latest Cascading Grille, which combine with the scoop-shaped centre air intake to form an assertive X shape for the front end. Along the side, the pronounced squared-off wheel arches and black body cladding give the Santa Fe an air of ruggedness to it, contrasting with the sleek roofline and the elegant shoulder line that stretches from the upper headlights to the tail lights.

Speaking of which, the Premium’s LED tail lights feature cool three-dimensional graphics that sparkle if you look closely. The indicators and reverse lights have been cast off into the bumper, where you’ll also find swathes of black plastic and a large silver protective guard. Overall, the enhancements certainly make for a more upscale look, even more so with the 19-inch two-tone alloy wheels on our Premium model.

Inside, the Santa Fe has again taken a significant step upmarket. There’s a striking three-tier dashboard that makes a sweep around the driver and passenger, wrapped in plush soft-touch material – on the Premium model, you even get leather trim with real stitching. The use of convincing wood- and metal-like decor really elevate the look and feel of the cabin, putting it on par with the best in the segment.

The same can be said about the standard-fit infotainment system with a seven-inch touchscreen. While the interface is lacking in flair, it is at least easy to use and it comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity – something that is quickly becoming de rigeur in the segment. What isn’t quite de rigeur yet is the Premium’s handy Qi wireless smartphone charger, which is nice to have.

Ahead of the driver sits another seven-inch display, this time showing the speedometer and other relevant vehicular information. It’s perfectly legible, and there’s even a nice little animation when the dial switches from blue to green and red depending on the drive mode selected (Comfort, Eco, Sport and Smart), although the screen still washes out a bit too much under bright sunlight for my liking.

Amenities in the second row include twin USB ports aft of the centre console with a slot to rest your phone in, as well as air vents and even shoulder switches to move the front passenger seat forward for more space – lifting an oft-copied page from the Toyota Camry‘s playbook. The seats also slide and recline to offer plenty legroom for those sitting in these pews, and there’s acres of headroom to be had as well.

Third-row entry is aided by a neat one-touch tilt-and-slide feature, operated by simply pressing a button on the passenger-side second-row seat. Despite the increased dimensions, the seats back here are as per the segment norm – that is, they are for kids only. Adults will fit, but they’ll have to beg those in front for extra legroom. At least there are cupholders and dedicated blower controls, so they won’t feel too left out.

One area where the Santa Fe has grown in step with its size is in the boot. There’s actually a useable amount of space even with all seats up, and with the third row stowed away, you now get 547 litres – 13 litres more than before. What’s more, the cargo hold expands to 1,625 litres with the second row folded, which you can now perform with a press of a button within the boot itself.

The handsfree powered tailgate still grates, however – as with all Hyundai and Kia models, it works by sensing the proximity of the key to the rear of the car, not with the usual kicking motion. More often than not, it opens when you don’t want it to, and doesn’t when you do.

Hyundai has also worked to introduce a few new safety features for those at the rear. Premium models adopt the world’s first Rear Occupant Alert (ROA) that uses ultrasonic sensors to detect if a passenger has been left in the car, providing visual and acoustic warnings to the driver. It may seem unthinkable for us who don’t have kids, but children being forgotten in the back seat is a real (and often fatal) problem.

Range-topping models also receive Safe Exit Assist, an extension of blind spot monitoring (again, Premium only) that warns if an occupant is about to open a door into passing traffic. Unfortunately, none of the cars sold here come with autonomous emergency braking, a glaring omission for a family SUV – especially when rivals from Honda, Mazda, Proton and even perennial laggard Nissan are offered with this system and more.

Under the bonnet, the Santa Fe is available with a choice of petrol and diesel powertrains, both of which have been carried over from before. For this particular region, Hyundai continues to rely on natural aspiration and multi-point fuel injection for its petrol engines – the 2.4 litre Theta II four-cylinder mill produces 172 PS at 6,000 rpm and 250 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm, and its mated to the usual six-speed automatic gearbox.

Those are not exactly stellar figures these days, particularly for a car weighing close to two tonnes, and as you’d expect, all this results in a car that takes its own sweet time to get up to speed. For what it’s worth, this is an engine that is willing to work its hardest, being free-revving and smooth even when fully extended. The trouble is, all that stomping of the throttle only results in a glacial increase in speed.

It doesn’t help that the mill gets fairly vocal when you ask for all of its modest performance, or that the six-speeder feels a little old hat with its occasional hesitance to sharp throttle inputs and clunky shifts. No, if it’s decent get-up-and-go you’re looking for, your best bet is to go for the 2.2 litre R CRDi turbodiesel, which churns out a healthy 193 PS at 3,800 rpm and, more importantly, 440 Nm from 1,750 to 2,750 rpm.

This is an engine more in keeping with the Santa Fe’s relaxed demeanour. It gives up its considerable reserves of torque without much fuss, making for far easier progress – even if it doesn’t particularly like to be rushed. The new eight-speed automatic paired to it also does a better job of giving you the right gear when you ask for it with your right foot, and does so imperceptibly.

The extra pair of ratios also allow the oil burner to settle down at a cruise, where you’ll find almost none of the clatter and vibration that befalls many diesel engines. Even when you fully extend it, it remains just about as cultured as a regular petrol engine, and that’s saying something. Wind and road noise is also well suppressed at speed, making this a very comfortable place to be in over long distances.

Also comfortable is the ride, which deftly manages to be soft enough to iron out the bumps without being bouncy or floaty. Even on these large 19-inch alloy wheels, the Santa Fe makes light work of the broken village roads around Subic Bay, and it stays composed and stable at highway speeds.

Up the billet smooth winding tarmac along the surrounding hills, the car exhibits plenty of poise, if little in the way of enjoyment. The steering is direct enough but slightly over-assisted (Sport mode does add a little bit of heft) and lacking any sort of feel whatsoever, while body roll is mostly reined in. There’s also a good if not outstanding amount of grip, and the diesel’s HTRAC variable all-wheel drive system puts the engine’s ample torque to the ground without overwhelming the modest Continental tyres.

To sum up, then, the new Santa Fe is a very likeable family workhorse that has been tangibly improved in all the right places. The cabin has a newfound sense of plushness and quality to it, and the impressive refinement and tidy road manners make the car an excellent road trip companion. It’s also nice to see Hyundai adding a number of neat touches that bring it closer to the CR-V in terms of practicality.

But to get the full experience, you’ll unfortunately have to skip the frankly gutless petrol models. If you value getting anywhere on time and standing a chance against KL’s cutthroat traffic, then the diesels will make every journey an effortless one. This engine matches the car to a tee.

Herein lies the rub. The diesel models are a staggering RM22,000 more expensive than the petrol ones, meaning that they start just below the RM200,000 mark, with the Premium variant encroaching into BMW and Mercedes territory. Sure, in the real world, the Santa Fe is a more accomplished and practical vehicle than the X1 and GLA, but it’s hard to shake off the love affair Malaysians have with premium brands. And the lack of autonomous emergency braking is particularly grating at this price point.

Nevertheless, this car is one of the few seven-seater options in this price bracket, and it’s a very good one at that. If you can stomach with the diesels’ high price of admission – or live with the petrols’ lack of grunt – then the new Santa Fe is certainly worthy of your consideration.

The new Hyundai Santa Fe is now on sale in Malaysia in petrol and diesel versions. The 2.4 MPi petrol is priced at RM169,888 for the Executive variant and RM189,888 for the Premium, while the 2.2 CRDi diesel versions retail at RM191,888 and RM211,888 respectively. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.


GALLERY: 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRDi Premium in Malaysia