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WHEN THE RENAISSANCE of Hyundai in the Philippines was put into motion with the establishment of Hyundai Motor Philippines (or HMPH) under the leadership of its president, Dong Wook Lee, in June 2022 ago, one of the changes effected was the rationalization of the local lineup. It wasn’t just a matter of updating models, either. Another important consideration was to reckon where the actual units were coming from and if the resulting SRP as a function of taxes, tariffs, and logistical expenses would make them price-competitive versus the competition.

At any rate, after all was said and done, Hyundai effectively shed its sedans (plus two small crossovers) and brought in new MPVs and SUVs, along with its highly competitive (in both pricing and looks) electric vehicles in the Ioniq 5 and 6.

Still, a couple of iconic nameplates have continued to remain relevant globally, and it made sense for Hyundai to continue to bring in their updated iterations here. One of them is the Tucson compact SUV; the other is the larger Santa Fe, whose all-new version finally went on sale in showrooms across the country recently.

Following a December 2023 preview, HMPH afforded select members of the media some brief, albeit meaningful, seat time with the three-row, midsize SUV.

Addressing the elephant in the room, HMPH Sales Training Supervisor Jay Galvez conceded that, yes, the Santa Fe calls to mind the boxy profile of the Land Rover Defender — surely a consensus for many a scribe and “influencer.” In fact, it looks more like a Defender than the outgoing older Santa Fe sibling it replaces.

“The fifth generation has become boxy… and we at HMPH say that it’s okay to compare it to the Defender. (We’d like to think) that it’s an affordable version of it,” he said.

Bannering the all-new Santa Fe is a larger interior, a so-called “plus alpha” philosophy connecting “outdoor-indoor living.” This is expressed in the fully collapsible second- and third-row seats which make full use of the space within. HMPH said in a release that this feature yields a cargo bed perfect for “groceries, home projects, sports and recreation, or camping trips.” The maximum load space with all the seatbacks down is 1,156 liters.

“We will market this as camping-friendly, for use in different outdoor activities,” underscored Mr. Galvez in his presentation.

One of the strongest points of the Santa Fe is also arguably one of its more polarizing features. The tailgate extends to the sides of the vehicle — allowing a wider (by 145 millimeters over the fourth generation) opening for easier loading and unloading. However, this has necessitated the move of its rear combination to the tailgate itself. It may be niggling observation, but I think these lamps sit a tad too low for my taste.

Overall though, give the Santa Fe’s designers a tip of the hat for imbuing the vehicle an aggressive though neater profile even as it grows significantly (45-mm longer and 95-mm taller). Couple this with a shorter overhang and longer (by 50mm) wheelbase which allow the occupants to benefit from the resulting increased interior space.

And despite resisting the ever-present inclination toward sharper (i.e., wedgier) designs, the Santa Fe remains Cd-conscious — cutting down on wind drag through angled side mirrors, active air flaps in the top and bottom of its front bumper, skid plates, and spoiler.

A bridge-type roof rail exists alongside a dual sunroof, and the Santa Fe adds a thoughtful touch to provide easy access to that roof-mounted accessory: a so-called C-pillar assist handle you can grab on to lift yourself up. With a capacity rated at 200 kilograms, it can also be used when you’re, say, cleaning the roof.

The Santa Fe abounds with “H” easter eggs in its design — said to be another aspect of its new brief. From the H-shaped LED lamps with DRLs and lower bumper garnish in front, to the similarly shaped taillights, there are lots of Hs to count outside and inside. The mood lighting of the front dash is H-shaped, as are the air-conditioning vents and even seat stitching. A couple of online reviewers from the US counted more than 70 of these H elements, in fact.

Another quaint execution in the Santa Fe sees the gear shifter moving to the steering column as a shift-by-wire stalk, much like the one found in the Ioniq 5 and 6.

It is a mostly digital affair in the cabin, led by a free-standing 12.3-inch panoramic curved display instrument cluster attached to an infotainment screen of the same size. On the left of the dual screens is a fingerprint recognition system that allows multiple users to program seat memory and infotainment system preferences.

A UV-C sterilization compartment is on the upper right side of the dash. “Since the Santa Fe was conceptualized during the pandemic, this has been retained for the users’ health and sanitation,” reported HMPH. Meanwhile, a full-touch climate control panel is on the center stack and under it is a dual wireless charging pad. There are more charging options within, via six USB-C ports, and a 12V socket. As for storage compartments, there is space in between the front row seats, and a thoughtful bi-directional console box with a lower sliding tray.

Powering the highest variant (2.5T Calligraphy 8DCT AWD), is a turbocharged 2.5-liter mill mated with an eight-speed dual clutch transmission; output figures are 281ps and 422Nm. Drive and terrain settings “can be adjusted based on user preference on the engine power map, transmission patterns, stability control and braking.” Its modes are Normal, Eco, Sport, Smart, Auto, Sand, Mud, and Snow. The company’s proprietary Hyundai Traction (HTRAC), basically its AWD system, benefits from Downhill Brake Control, “that supports sudden changes in weather or difficult terrain.”

Standard on all variants are driver, passenger, side, and curtain air bags — in addition to a suite of safety features called the Hyundai SmartSense. The list of advanced driver-assist features include: Smart Cruise Control with Stop and Go, Forward Collision Avoidance, Lane Following and Keeping, Blindspot View Monitor, Reverse Parking Collision Avoidance, Parking Distance Warning, Manual Speed Limit, Rear Occupant Alert, and Surround View Monitor.

During our aforementioned advance jaunt with the Calligraphy variant of the Santa Fe, we were familiarized with the convenient (not overly light) steering of the vehicle and its surprising maneuverability despite its hulking size. And when making abrupt turns and taking corners at speed, the SUV displays some lean yet isn’t too soft or jarring. Flooring the throttle from a standstill shows it is light on its feet, and can stop in a surprisingly short span. Finally, it’s not all about looks either. Taken through an off-road section meant to showcase articulation, the Santa Fe kept its composure and soaked up the terrain most nicely.

You could very well say that through this boxy Santa Fe, Hyundai has shown it can, well, think out of the box.

HMPH said the all-new Santa Fe will be a part of the Hyundai Mobility Experience tour, which resumes on March 22 to 24 at the Ayala Malls Glorietta in Makati City, and is slated to head out to other cities outside Metro Manila. For more information, follow the company on Facebook and Instagram (hyundaimotorphilippines).

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