A young oriental man made his way over to the test car and with a number of signs, the international language, indicated a wish to speak to me. With a slight but gracious nod of his head, he assembled an inscrutable expression and waited patiently while I lowered the window. "Mine if I take a screw, mate? My ole man is after one of these."
Perhaps I should point out that I live close to a large Korean community amongst whom the younger members have acquired from their reading of East Ender's scripts in Eng. Lit. a passably authentic London dialect, which helps them survive in the urban jungle what is known on the street as New Malden. Aye. Anyway, that my mate's ole man was up for a Santa Fe was a right result for the local dealer. Most of the Korean's round here big it up in Beemas and Mercs, and appear to have blown out the cheap and cheerful products from their home country.
But the Hyundai Santa Fe is about as Pacific Rim as Harry Redknapp. Styled in America, it's fitted with a Porsche-designed gearbox and an Austrian-developed four-wheel-drive system. However, the price is most definitely Korean and the range-topping, 2.7-litre V6 at just £17,999 makes its mainstream competitors look greedy.
And our local ex-pat Koreans, in their pricey German status symbols, don't know what they're missing. Possibly not the world's leading off-roader, the 4x4 Santa Fe can nonetheless readily mix it with the likes of the RAV4, Freelander and the new Ford Maverick.
Offering a full-blown specification at the kick-off price of most of its rivals, the V6 Santa Fe deserves to be taken seriously. And unlike some of the other offerings from Pacific Rim companies, it does not look like a poor relation when stood alongside the market leaders. It looks substantial, aggressive in the manner of the SUV genre, and able to hold its own in the most crucial arena - the prep-school gates.
The manufacturers obviously feel confident. They point out that the 5-door V6 is wider and longer than the Land Rover Freelander, and claim that it has the refinement of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That might be larding it a bit but the 'Fe is not that far short of Uncle Sam's staff car and can certainly be compared with it in a number of respects. And the V6 specification makes impressive reading, even without the blue-cross price tag.
There are over 60 standard features bundled with the Santa Fe V6, and I am not talking just cup-holders and vanity mirrors. Listen up. Automatic transmission incorporating 'H-Tronic' sequential change, limited-slip differentials, leather upholstery, air-conditioning, electric tilt-and-slide sunroof, metallic paint, alloys, split rear tailgate and roof bars. All of these worthwhile things and many more are included in a drive-away price that will just about get you into a fairly basic 3-door Freelander and nowhere near a Grand Cherokee.
The chunky body is almost as accommodating as it looks. The split rear tailgate, with its lifting glass section, Maverick style, is a useful touch, particularly as the heavy rear door hinges on the left so that initial access is from the offside. The large seats are all-embracing and comfortable but access for rear-seat passengers is slightly restricted by the partial intrusion of the tall wheel arches. Other than these minor niggles, which should perhaps include reference to the rather anodyne fascia, the Santa Fe package is seductively compelling at the price.
But is the platform for all this largesse simply a home for hand-me-down engines and charity shop transmissions? Far from it; the 2.7 litre V6 is surprisingly silky and displays remarkably similar characteristics to the 4.0-litre V6 fitted in the £27,995 Grand Cherokee. The Korean engine develops 177 bhp, just eleven horsepower short of the American unit. The Santa Fe will reach 113 mph, the Jeep 112 mph, and the 0-62 mph times are 11.6 and 10.9 seconds respectively. More to the point, the Hyundai achieves a combined fuel consumption figure of 25 mpg and the Jeep, just 19.2 mpg.
On paper, then, the Santa Fe, looks a sure-fire bet, but does the desktop specification translate into a comparable ownership experience? Up to a point, yes. For sure, it lacks the status of a Grand Cherokee, or the heritage of the Land Rover marque but perched up high in the leather-clad seats it's difficult to imagine how it might be improved upon. I looked for detail things, like fit and feel of the switches, overall build quality, the finish of the trim, and so on - and could find nothing that would not be acceptable to Freelander, RAV 4 and Maverick owners.
Of course, with names like Porsche underwriting the specification you may assume that the mechanical detail is as thorough as the cabin specification. Porsche's contribution takes the form of the H-Tronic four-speed 'box. One of the sides on the floor-mounted gate houses a conventional selector pattern but flick it to the left and the change becomes sequential - tap forward for upward changes and back for downward. It works perfectly well but I preferred the lazy approach and stayed in full auto' most of the time and in so doing, discovered an unusual feature.
The shift pattern is controlled by something called HIVEC (Hyundai Integrated Vehicle Electronic Control). This gadget will occasionally skip a cog to allow greater power when needed, or to apply engine braking when slowing down. I noticed its effect on heavy acceleration from standstill. On a level road, with foot to the floor, the sequence was invariably one-two-four. Taken more gently it simply follows the regular pattern from bottom to top. I also noticed on downhill gradients, on overrun, that the' box would drop an extra cog, to inhibit descent speed. Clever and thoughtful stuff, and not something I recall encountering on other automatics.
The four-wheel drive system also has a big name behind it - Steyr-Daimler-Puch. It may not be a name much used in your household but their credentials are second to none in the 4x4 business. For the Santa Fe (and others) they have developed a so-called Double-Differential Unit (DDU), which uses the now-familiar thixatropic (don't ask) viscous-coupling principle to divide the torque fore and aft. Normally the split is 60/40, respectively, but under slippery conditions the proportion changes automatically according to which axle has the greater traction.
More than that, the Santa Fe also has limited slip differentials, which limit the torque (and therefore speed) differences between the two wheels on a common axle. So, for example, if the car is parked with the two nearside wheels on a slippery verge, and the offside wheels on tarmac, traction will still be maintained and pulling away will present only a momentary problem.
OK so that's the good news. Time to jot down a few negatives. These mainly concern the handling and road-holding, which are not up to the standard achieved by most of its contenders. Enthusiastic drivers can get away with press-on motoring in the likes of the RAV4 and the Freelander as their suspension is stiff enough to inhibit roll and deliver predictable cornering, but the Santa Fe is not so well-endowed. The suspension seems biased towards straight-line ride-quality at the expense of road-holding. On twisting country roads, successive directional changes were almost invariably accompanied by a fair degree of roll and the tyres frequently scrubbed themselves off the intended line. I soon learnt to back off, so in one respect, the problem solved itself.
But trying to emulate the outer limits Freelander handling is largely pointless since most Freelander drivers don't drive like that anyway. It therefore follows that within the context of respectable, middle-lane, middle-England the Santa Fe's Achilles' heel is unlikely to emerge.
The same people seldom venture off-road so that renders another comparison a bit meaningless, but I will say that should you ever turn aside from the squiggly lines on your road atlas you will find that Hyundai's debut 4x4 acquits itself quite well. It's no Defender but none of the green lanes I explored threw up terrain that posed any problems. The 184 lbs/ft of torque peaks at a fairly high 4000 rpm but an experienced off-roader (c'est moi) will know how to harness it to good effect. Approach and departure angles are quite good and articulation (suspension travel) is also satisfactory in most conditions, and the only limiting factor is the rather shallow ramp angle, which means that traversing requires caution if grounding is to be avoided.
Posted on 14.09.2001 by Graham Whyte
If the last few sentences meant absolutely nothing to you, don't worry - the Santa Fe's principal credentials remain those of an on-road sports utility vehicle, in which sector it offers a tempting combination of value and vitality. Or as my young acquaintance put it: " My ole man goes why bovver wiv paying an extra free million squids, when a 'Fe does all the business?" Precisely.