David MottonSee other tow car reviews written by David Motton
Big, heavy, affordable tow cars are always popular with caravanners – the Hyundai Santa Fe ticks the first two boxes, but can it now justify its price?
Well, it was updated last year with a cleaner and more powerful diesel engine, high-tech safety features and refreshed styling to bring it in line with Hyundai’s more recent designs.
As before, the big SUV is available in five- and seven-seat versions. We’re testing the range-topping Premium SE Auto with seven seats.
It’s well-equipped, but so it should be with a price-tag of £39,000! Hyundai’s origins as a budget brand have well and truly been left behind.
Can the Santa Fe justify its price? It has a lot of standard kit, but is it enough to stand comparison with the Land Rover Discovery Sport? And, most importantly, how well does the Santa Fe tow big caravans?
The Hyundai Santa Fe is a big car, with a kerbweight to match. Including 75kg for the driver – which Hyundai doesn’t in its published kerbweights – cars with an automatic gearbox weigh 2040kg (26kg more than manual cars). That’s usefully more than an Audi Q5 or BMW X3, both of which are closer to 1800kg.
The manual Santa Fe has a higher legal towing limit than the automatic, with a 2500kg maximum to the auto’s 2000kg.
We matched the Hyundai to a twin-axle Swift Expression 626, with a Mass in Running Order of 1413kg. The Santa Fe easily pulled this caravan up to speed, needing just 11.2 seconds to go from 30-60mph.
Torque is key to the Hyundai Santa Fe’s performance. There’s 325lb ft of it from 1750-2750rpm, making the 2.2-litre diesel engine impressively flexible.
The automatic gearbox may be a six-speed compared with the eight- or nine-speeds of some rivals, but with such mid-range pulling power the Hyundai doesn’t need any extra ratios.
That brawn works to good effect in a hill start. The Santa Fe’s electronic parking brake held car and caravan still on the 1-in-10 slope, and released smoothly as the throttle was applied. The Hyundai pulled to the top of the gradient without any wheelspin or apparent strain. A 1-in-10 gradient isn’t too taxing for a powerful 4x4, but we found the Santa Fe equally at ease on a 1-in-6 hill.
Although our test took place in the dry, the Hyundai’s 4x4 drivetrain would have been a plus in wet weather. It’s a torque-on-demand system that only sends power to all four wheels when the front tyres struggle for grip.
We’re also very happy with the Hyundai’s stability at speed. At a steady 60mph the Santa Fe was rock-solid in still air, with minimal movements in strong crosswinds.
Perhaps it’s not as unshakeable on a windy day as a Land Rover Discovery Sport, but we’d feel confident towing long distances with the Hyundai. Self-levelling suspension, which is standard on seven-seat Santa Fes, will help maintain that stability even when the car is fully loaded.
The Santa Fe also handled our emergency lane-change test, which isn’t always the case with big 4x4s. The Hyundai leaned heavily as it changed direction, but didn’t get out of shape.
As we repeated the test at higher speeds there was some pushing from the caravan, but we were never concerned that the tourer was about to take charge. All in all, the Santa Fe tows very well.
A handful of rivals, most notably the Land Rover Discovery Sport, feel more composed in emergency manoeuvres, but we’re talking about fine differences between capable cars. This is a reassuring and thoroughly competent tow car.
If you value comfort over agility, you’ll like the way the Hyundai Santa Fe drives. Really sharp bumps can send a shudder through the cabin, but otherwise the big SUV rides smoothly.
There is a trade-off in that the Santa Fe doesn’t feel as well tied down as a BMW X3 if you drive with spirit, pitching over dips and crests, and taking a while to settle. The steering is rather remote, too.
Press the Drive Mode Select button to select ‘Sport’ and the helm weights up, but it still feels numb. So, keen drivers will find little in the way of excitement, but the Santa Fe has other strengths.
It’s secure and comfy at motorway speeds, and the engine’s power and torque make for swift and confident overtaking. The engine can sound gruff if revved hard, but there’s little need to go near the redline when the mid-range is so strong.
Road noise is also noticeable over coarse surfaces. However, no source of noise is too intrusive at motorway speeds.
The Santa Fe is a wide car to thread down narrow roads, and over-shoulder visibility when parking is poor because of the thick rear pillars. Front and rear parking sensors are standard, as is a rear camera, which helps compensate for the mediocre view from the driver’s seat.
Overall, Hyundai's Santa Fe drives well, without being outstanding.
The Santa Fe is a very roomy car, whether you choose the seven-seat version tested here or a five-seater.
There’s enough space in the front for a driver of well over six-feet tall to be comfortable, and a wide enough range of adjustment to the seat and wheel for most shapes and sizes to find a sound driving position. Both the driver and front passenger’s seats have electric adjustment, and there’s a memory function for the driver’s seat.
The middle bench reclines and slides back and forth. With the seats positioned all the way back there’s plenty of legroom for adult passengers, although the sunroof eats into the available headroom.
By 4x4 standards the transmission tunnel isn’t too intrusive and that, combined with the car’s considerable width, means that the Santa Fe can comfortably seat three in the middle row. Air vents in the door pillars keep those in seats three to five supplied with chilled air.
As with most seven-seaters, the third row is considerably less roomy than the others. The nearside middle seat tips up and slides out of the way to give access to the third row, but it’s still a bit of a clamber to get in the back.
Legroom is tight when the middle row is all the way back but, if those in the middle don’t mind compromising, sliding the centre row forward frees up more space. Hyundai hasn’t forgotten air vents for those travelling in the back of the car, either.
With all seven seats in place, the boot is cramped – there’s room for several shopping bags, but not luggage for a family of seven. Fold the rear seats down and there’s much more space (516 litres).
Not enough? Levers on either side of the tailgate fold the middle seats, leaving a slight slope to the load floor but a useful 1615-litre capacity.
There are some thoughtful design features, too. The parcel shelf can be stowed beneath the boot floor, so you can load to the ceiling when heading off on your caravan holidays, but still have the parcel shelf with you when you arrive.
Another feature that caravanners will welcome is the full-size spare wheel under the floor. It all adds up to a very roomy and very practical tow car.
The original Hyundai Santa Fe was a budget 4x4 – but not any more.
Prices for a five-seat manual version start from £31,850 and our top-spec test car is £39,000, although twist the salesman’s arm and that should drop. What Car?’s Target Price team reckons discounts of over £3000 should be negotiable.
However, three years and 36,000 miles later, What Car? estimates that the car will be worth 43% of the original list price. A similarly priced Audi or Land Rover rival will have resale values of closer to 50%.
Fuel economy isn’t especially impressive, either. The official combined figure is 42.8mpg, and we achieved 26mpg towing on A-roads and motorways.
The Hyundai counters with a lengthy list of standard kit, including ventilated and heated front seats, air-con for all three rows, a panoramic sunroof, automated parking and a whole lot more.
You’d have wrist-ache from ticking all of the option boxes to match that spec with a prestige-badged competitor. However, we’d be inclined to do without some of that equipment and buy the Premium model, saving almost £4000.
|Engine size||2199 cc|
|85% KW||1734 kg|
|Towball limit||100 kg|
|Maximum towing limit||2000 kg|
|Torque||325.0 lb ft|
|Official MPG||42.8 mpg|
It’s bold of Hyundai to price the Santa Fe so close to £40,000. A decade ago it would have seemed laughable, and even now it raises eyebrows. But it is good enough to compete at this price point.
As a tow car, the Hyundai Santa Fe has many strengths. It’s heavier than most rivals, and the 2.2-litre engine is burly and strong. It's a stable tow car, too. It’s not quite as secure as our favourite 4x4 of this size, the Land Rover Discovery Sport, but it’s a relaxed and unflustered car for long-distance towing.
In everyday use, the Santa Fe is thoroughly competent without being outstanding in any area. It’s not the most rewarding drive on an empty country road, but the Hyundai makes a fine motorway car and rides comfortably.
It may not be exciting, but it is extremely practical. Those in the first and second rows have plenty of room, and the third row is useful if not especially spacious. With the back seats folded there’s plenty of boot space, and folding the middle row gives a luggage capacity to rival that of many estate cars.
Hyundai goes some way to justifying the Premium SE’s high price with its comprehensive list of standard equipment. However, we’d save our money and choose the Premium-spec car. Either way, resale values trail those of rivals with more upmarket badges.
But despite a few reservations, all told we’re thoroughly impressed by the Hyundai’s towing ability, practicality and comprehensive equipment.
- It's heavy and has a strong, torquey engine
- There's a full-sized spare wheel
- It's a practical car that can seat up to seven
- You get a generous amount of kit
- It isn't a rewarding car to drive