Championship contender

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am

THE FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVE Hyundai Santa Fe is jostling for space in a crowd. At the top end, there's the heavyweight Range Rover and Land Rover Discovery. Catering to the rugged, emergency spade-carrying market there's the Nissan Patrol and the Isuzu Trooper. The urban cool get the BMW X5 or Lexus RX300, and we haven't even touched on the Santa Fe's peer group of 'soft roaders' that includes the Suzuki Vitara, the Toyota RAV4 or the Land Rover Freelander.

The Santa Fe fills a more modest niche. Rather than trying to battle the giants, 2006 World Cup partner and official car supplier Hyundai has entered the lower-price bracket with a basic but extremely effective sports utility vehicle for people looking for a seven-seater ride that doesn't require a second mortgage.

The Santa Fe shapes up well against its European and Japanese rivals. The exterior takes the Chow Yun-fat approach to looks: rugged without being too aggressive; just enough edge to impress and not enough to terrify. The lines have been softened and the imposing front grille is slightly curved, so it fits into the sweep of the bonnet. There's an integrated roof rack that follows the lines of the roof. The twin exhausts hint at bad-boy potential but are also designed to reduce noise. Almost 1.8 metres tall, the Santa Fe is higher than a standard saloon car, but it's not too high that you need a step ladder to get into it. The driving position gives a good view over all traffic. The Santa Fe should keep Fifa officials above the World Cup crowds in Germany, next month.

The interior is basic with squishy, piped leather seats and plastic door handles. The plasticky look is redeemed by scuff plates, inscribed 'Santa Fe' on the bottom of each door, in case you forget which car you are driving. I'm less convinced by a convex conversation mirror that allows you to watch the horrors your children get up to with your upholstery. Some things are better left unseen.

The designers seem to cram as much as they can into a vehicle. The centre console sits over a storage box under it and there's a cool box in the lower section. The ceiling holds two boxes for sunglasses, and the floor of the boot has cunning cupboards built into the sides. The doors house deep pockets and there are enough cup holders for a small party.

The Santa Fe's gimmick is a rear-view mirror that incorporates a compass, if ever you need one in May Road. The novelty of its digital indicator wears off in about five minutes.

The rear seats fold flat, and allow you to play around with the layout. Now, I'm not technically gifted and can't get the knack of adjusting the second row in order to allow the third to slide down. After a futile half an hour, I wedge the seats half way down and compromise with a half-flat space. As we drive off, there is a resounding bang and the seats collapse. Maybe this is the trick, although I suspect that it is not in the handbook. So, before you take delivery of your Santa Fe, ask Hyundai Hong Kong to help you fold the seats up and down properly.

The +/- automatic gearbox is a modest pleasure, with smooth changes and fine pull in the lower ranges. At a gentle potter, the 2.7-litre V6 engine is surprisingly quiet, but put your foot down and you might be forgiven for thinking that a small helicopter has landed on the roof.

The Santa Fe's four-wheel-drive distributes torque between the front and rear wheels but it can be locked if conditions are bad. It's slightly wallowy on tighter corners and not quite as precise as you would want it. The Santa Fe's anti-lock-braking system proves its excellence when I stamp on the brakes as a car pulls out suddenly at a roundabout. In a calmer drive along Island Road, the Santa Fe is as light a drive as its competitors on multi-link suspension.

Hyundai has plenty of extras in a well-functioning, gentle four-wheel-drive that highlights the South Korean marque's progress since the last World Cup. And at $279,000 including tax, with a five-year warranty, the new Santa Fe should have a strong family following in Hong Kong.