There was a time when a 4×4 would usually contain a couple of sheepdogs or a minor aristocrat chasing pheasant. After years of development and the assistance of a well-placed celebrity or two they’ve left their agricultural heritage behind and are now more at home on the high street. Their high driving position and larger size has made them popular with families who want plenty of room to separate warring children whilst providing a feeling of safety and security on the road. The end result is manufacturers are now producing 4×4’s that are more hatchback on steroids than utility vehicle.

Take the Hyundai Santa Fe for example. The range topping Premium SE version I tried has an intelligent drive system that directs power to the wheels that need it, or you can lock it in permanent 4-wheel drive for maximum traction. It has front and rear skid plates to protect the underside, downhill brake assist for tricky descents, self levelling suspension, and many other electronic programmes to ensure it can tackle difficult terrain without any fuss.  It comes with a trailer stabilisation programme to make towing safer, an excellent 2.2L diesel engine with enough power and torque to shift a whole barn full of livestock and a handy electronic compass display in the rear view mirror so you wont get lost on your way to the remotest fields at 3am and lambing has started. It has the potential to be an accomplished off-road vehicle which is a shame because the closest it will come to going off road is when it’s parked on the grass.

The first clue to its real intent is the styling. Hyundai call it “Storm Edge” and it’s a combination of soft form and dramatic edges. It works, it looks really good. The sculpted headlamps, LED running lights and hexagonal chrome grill give the Hyundai a really chiselled look with a touch of urban chic. From the side it’s streamlined and elegant despite its’ size. The long, sloping windscreen and high rear spoiler follow a rather rakish line that suggests cruising is its’ real purpose. The back end flares out nicely over the wheel arches promising a good size boot. Hyundai have put a lot of thought into make the Santa Fe look attractive and purposeful and they’ve done a very good job. 

The final clarification comes when you climb inside. You get the traditional all round view you expect from being so high up but the Santa Fe cocoons you in leather and luxury. The interior is light, airy and very well laid out, the driving position feels natural and the centre console is clear and uncluttered. There is loads of storage space scattered around the cabin, the seats are exceptionally comfortable, rear legroom is good and the two seats in the boot on the 7-seat version are easily folded up or down depending on whether you want boot space or bum space. The tailgate on the Premium SE opens and closes automatically to make access effortless and with the back seats down there is a huge amount of room in there. Let’s be honest, with this level of comfort the Santa Fe isn’t designed for working, it’s for practical travelling.

On the road the Santa Fe drives very nicely. The engine is smooth, quiet and pulls very well, perfect when overtaking or cruising on the motorway. It’s also good around town, shifting the Hyundai’s bulk from 0-60 in just 10 seconds with combined economy figures of 41mpg. The gearbox is sublime, changes are seamless, but the paddle shift on the steering wheel is an unnecessary distraction on a car like this. It’s at its’ best when you leave it in auto and let the car make the decisions. The steering is precise and the suspension is soft enough to ease out the worst of the bumps but still keeps everything level in the bends. You could travel a long way in this car in comfort and ease – cruise control on, set the climate control just so, and let the miles disappear in the rear view mirror.

So what’s the catch? There’s always a catch and in the case off the big Hyundai it’s the price. The base model 5-seat SE with a manual gearbox starts off at a touch under £28,000 which is very good value for a very good car. Start moving up the range to get the fancier finish and the price quickly follows suit. The 7-seat Premium SE with the automatic gearbox I tested comes in at £37,695 including a £585 option for metallic paint. It’s still good value but it’s quite a large chunk of money in anyone’s book. Add on the optional 3 or 5 year servicing – I would if it were my money – and that goes up by another £500 or £800 respectively.  

I’d give the Hyundai Santa Fe serious consideration. It’s nice to drive, comfortable, well equipped, relatively economical for a big car and very well built. It may be little pricey at the top end of the range but go for the SE with the automatic gearbox and 5 years servicing, you’ll have a great car, total peace of mind and around £7000 left in your pocket.