A lot of people will point to the arrival of the first-generation Hyundai Coupe as the moment when the Korean manufacturer started to make the move from bargain-bin to mainstream respectability. But they’re wrong. Although the Coupe was the first Hyundai that the critics allowed themselves to like, it was actually the first-gen Santa Fe SUV that really broke the glass ceiling between Hyundai and the big European and Japanese brands. Sophisticated it wasn’t, but it was good looking, rugged, spacious and because it was an SUV, kind of bypassed badge snobbery. It certainly kick-started Hyundai’s journey from cheap curiosity to motoring colossus.
The most basic, and most common, Santa Fe came with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, but to be honest, this is best avoided as it’s not very refined but it is very thirsty. Anyone looking for some proper refinement and performance (not to mention leather trim) should seek out the rare-as-hen’s-lips 170hp 2.7-litre V6 petrol. It doesn’t turn the Santa Fe into a sports car, but if you can stomach the fuel and tax bills (and they will be massive) then you’ve got yourself a pretty upmarket machine, for its day.
Seek out the 2.0-litre diesel though – it’s noisy compared with newer engines of course, and 115hp seems hardly adequate to haul around such a big family machine, but it’s got plenty of torque and fuel economy’s not bad either.
As for reliability, the Santa Fe is pretty much bulletproof. An early issue with the clutch was sorted with a redesigned flywheel and we’ve heard of no other horror stories. Of course, it helps that it’s carrying fewer electronic gizmos than more modern cars.
It’s not refined compared to the moderns though, and some may find the front seats deeply uncomfortable. There’s plenty of space, but fans of more recent Santa Fes should remember that this model never came as a seven-seater. Be prepared to live with a cabin that’s way, way behind modern standards when it comes to fixtures and fittings too – clunky pretty much covers it.
Oh, and don’t forget to check for any damage from over-enthusiastic off-roading. Most Santa Fes were actually two-wheel-drive anyway, but even with 4WD, they’re not really designed for serious mud-plugging.
About €4,000 should get you a decent 2005 2.0-litre diesel front-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is a needless extra expense really and buy as late a model as you can as Hyundai kept improving the car’s standard equipment.
Hyundai Santa Fe 2.0 CRDi
Engine: 1,991cc four-cylinder turbodiesel
Maximum speed: 165km/h
0-100km/h: 15.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 7.2 litres/100km
Euro NCAP: n/a
• Big and spacious
• Exceptionally reliable
• Very cheap to buy now
• Petrol engine thirsty and noisy
• Cabin looks and feels cheap
• No seven-seat option
It’s not the most stylish nor sophisticated car ever built, but the first-gen Santa Fe was and is ruggedly reliable, spacious and simple. As such, it makes a bargain first SUV purchase, and a hard-working family machine.