David Motton
Tow Car Editor

See other tow car reviews written by David Motton

Our tow car editor puts the brand new Hyundai Santa Fe, the manufacturer's flagship SUV, through its paces.

Overview

The Santa Fe is Hyundai's new flagship seven-seat SUV. Bigger than the old car, it has a roomy, practical interior. Towing-friendly features such as self-levelling suspension and Trailer Stability Assist are standard.

There's just one engine, a development of the 2.2-litre diesel that powered the old model. It has 197bhp and 325lb ft of torque, so it should have enough poke to handle any sensibly matched caravan. Buyers can choose two- or four-wheel drive, and manual or automatic. We tested the 4x4 automatic in high-spec Premium SE trim. 

So what are we looking for? The Santa Fe is now pricier, vying with upmarket rivals. Will its spacious cabin, driver aids and towing ability justify its premium price tag? 

Towing

Hyundai quotes a range of kerbweights for the Santa Fe, depending on the gearbox, whether the car is two- or four-wheel drive, and the spec. 

For a 4x4 auto, the stated kerbweight is 1895-2020kg. Working from the lower weight gives an 85% match figure of 1611kg, well within the legal maximum of 2000kg (2500kg for manual cars). 

We matched the big Santa Fe to a Swift Expression 636 with a MiRO of 1485kg and headed out for an extended tow on a variety of roads. 

Some cars immediately feel well suited to towing, and the Hyundai is one of them. The engine feels untroubled pulling up to speed, and is settled and comfortable at the legal limit. 

There's hardly any movement from the car or caravan while towing, even in crosswinds or overtaking lorries and coaches. Pull off the motorway and drive onto country roads and the Hyundai continues to feel at home. Lumpy surfaces fail to put it off its stride, with well-judged suspension preventing too much float or wallow. 

The engine is also well suited to heavy-duty towing. With so much pulling power, the Santa Fe confidently pulls a big tourer up to speed. It can accelerate up slopes steep enough to have many tow cars struggling.

This would be better still if the gearbox were quicker to respond: it's sometimes a little slow to choose a lower gear when overtaking. Pull away briskly from a standing start and there's a slight hesitation. 

But hill starts are a doddle, thanks to an electronic parking brake that holds car and caravan still on steep slopes and releases smoothly. In dry conditions, it towed easily on a 1-in-10 gradient and, thanks to four-wheel drive, would have little trouble in the wet. 

Arrive at your destination and the Santa Fe is easy to manoeuvre. The gearbox creeps smoothly and there's no difficulty reversing up a shallow slope. Thick rear pillars compromise over-shoulder visibility, but the rear-view camera minimises that. 

Premium SE models go one better with a surround-view system using several cameras to compose a 360° plan view of the car and its surroundings. 

There's plenty of clearance around the detachable towball. The 13-pin electrics stow out of sight behind the bumper and fold down by hand when needed. However, they sit very close to the bumper, which gets in the way slightly when attaching the electrics. 

A more responsive auto 'box and more knuckle-friendly installation of the electrics would improve the Santa Fe's towing credentials. But these really are minor complaints. 

Everyday driving

Leave the caravan on its pitch and you'll find the Santa Fe enjoyable to drive. It's not as sharp as a BMW X3, but handles tidily on country roads and feels settled on the motorway. 

The Hyundai is fitted with a Drive Mode Select system that varies the car's responses. 'Sport' adds weight to the steering, but there's no more feel or feedback, so we tended to use 'Comfort' most of the time. The 'Smart' setting varies the set-up, depending on how the car is driven. 

Changing modes also alters the way the four-wheel drive behaves. In 'Sport', more power goes to the rear wheels, for more dynamic handling. 

'Comfort' sends most power to the front wheels, while 'Eco' can send up to 100% of the power to them, to minimise frictional losses and improve fuel economy. In any mode, sensors monitor which of the wheels have grip, to avoid spinning power away if a wheel lacks traction. 

The car handles accurately and body lean when cornering is within reasonable bounds. You can drive enthusiastically down a B-road without the car becoming unruly. 

Keeping a two-tonne SUV controlled and comfortable is a balancing act, but the suspension is supple enough to cope with poor surfaces, only thumping on the biggest bumps. This is most noticeable in town - at higher speeds, it rides firmly, but with finesse. 

At speed, the car feels every bit as secure as its stability while towing would suggest. 

There's some road noise, especially when driving over course tarmac, but engine and wind noise stay in the background. Around town, there's no escaping the car's size, but the surround-view camera is a plus when parking. 

Space

Hyundai has made good use of the dimensions inside. The driver and front seat passenger sit up high, even with the seat on its lowest setting. There's plenty of adjustment, so short and tall drivers alike can enjoy a commanding view. 

In terms of interior quality, Hyundai has made considerable strides. There's a solid feel to the controls and the top half of the dash is well finished.

However, the lower parts of the dash and doors are made of hard, shiny plastics, which don't live up to those you'd find in an Audi or Mercedes-Benz. 

An Audi or Mercedes-Benz SUV at this price wouldn't be as spacious as the Hyundai, however. In the middle row, there's lots of legroom and headroom is acceptable. 

There are air vents between the front seats, so those in the middle can be kept at a comfortable temperature, and two USB sockets to keep their phones and tablets charged. 

The nearside middle seat tilts and slides away to give access to the third row. Passengers sit low to the floor and don't have much legroom, but the middle seats are on runners and can slide forward to give those in the back more space. It's good to see air vents here, too. 

With all seats upright, boot space is tight. However, with seats six and seven folded flat, there's lots of luggage room. The Santa Fe can't match the capacity of the Škoda Kodiaq, but we can't see too many owners complaining. 

Top-spec models feature powered push-button folding for the middle row and, with these seats lowered, the floor is almost flat, giving a large space. 

Running costs

The new Santa Fe isn't cheap. Even the most affordable model costs over £3000 more than the entry-level Kia Sorento. 

However, you do get a lot of kit for your money. Premium SE cars have a head-up display, 8in touchscreen, sat nav, adaptive cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a stereo with 10 speakers and a host of driver aids. 

The Santa Fe is not going to be especially cheap to fuel, returning  45.6mpg on the combined cycle. That compares with 49.6mpg for the equivalent Škoda Kodiaq. However, we saw a reasonable 24.5mpg while towing with this vehicle. 

The Santa Fe also comes with the reassurance of a five-year/100,000-mile warranty.

Technical specs

Engine size2199 cc
Kerbweight1895 kg
85% KW1611 kg
Towball limit100 kg
Maximum towing limit2000 kg
Official MPG45.6 mpg
Towing MPG24.5 mpg
CO2162 g/km

Verdict

We are thoroughly impressed with the new Hyundai Santa Fe. 

Judged purely on its towing ability, it's very capable indeed. The combination of strong engine and high-speed stability is just what we look for in a tow car. if we're being picky, the automatic gearbox could be quicker to change down but, even so, with such a mid-range pulling power the vehicle accelerates strongly. 

Hill starts are a breeze, the automatic 'box is smooth when manoeuvring at low speeds, and the car is heavy enough to make a sensible match for most caravans. The sophisticated four-wheel drive helps put the Santa Fe's power to the road in all conditions. 

The Hyundai continues to impress in everyday driving. The suspension keeps the car well controlled when driven enthusiastically, without making the ride excessively firm. Aside from some road noise, it's a refined and quiet car at speed, and its performance, stability and comfort make it ideal for longer journeys. 

It's an extremely practical car, too. The fundamentals are right: there's lots of space for five, and enough for seven. The fine details have been thought through, with clever touches such as underfloor storage for the parcel shelf and a variety of useful power sockets.

The price is relatively steep compared with a Škoda Kodiaq but the top-spec Santa Fe is packed with kit and much heavier. If you have £40,000 or so to spend on an SUV to tow with, the Santa Fe should be close to the top of your list.