Will the seven-seat Hyundai Santa Fe upset the established hierarchy of go-anywhere family transportation?
Modern life is filthy. Not in the adverts, of course – there, the kitchen work surfaces gleam, and your hair always looks like you’ve just stepped out of the salon. Similarly, there’s never been a car advert that showed ancient apple cores rolling out from under the back seats, what mucky football kit actually does to a boot carpet or what happens if, having just waded back to a Discovery Sport through thick sludge, you climb in and thoughtlessly, vigorously, knock your boots together…
Family cars have it tough. And we expect a lot of them: seven seats, phone connectivity, a big boot, relaxed road manners, comprehensive infotainment, low ownership costs. The last thing we probably expect is for them to be good off-road. So we tested that and, predictably, the Land Rover was best: smoother to drive, more cushioned and reassuring. “I’ve got this,” it seems to say, and you find yourself trusting it.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but the Discovery Sport is the right way into this story. It was a crucial car for Land Rover because it packaged many of the full-size Discovery’s attributes into a more compact, affordable frame. It defines this class – it’s the one they all want to emulate. And so it’s under pressure. Last year the Skoda Kodiaq turned up, an estate car lofted further into the air and predictably well thought through. Now there’s an all-new Hyundai Santa Fe, long an exponent of seven seats, now sharpened up in other areas. And it looks like Honda is getting serious about the CR-V, bowing to market pressure and fitting seven seats for the first time since it first appeared over 20 years ago.
Practicality first. Want to carry kids, dogs and bags? Go Skoda or Santa Fe. In five-seat mode, both have load bays of prodigious acreage – short of needing to shift sofas regularly, it’s hard to think why you’d ever need anything bigger. And they have load covers that can be taken out and stored neatly under the bootfloor. Nifty. Raise all the seats and you’ll still get a weekly shop in the Skoda, a midweek one in the Santa Fe and perhaps a bunch of bananas in the Disco Sport. Our test CR-V didn’t have the extra seats, but looking at the space we can’t imagine they’re going to be generous.
None of them are really, of course. Despite them all having a middle row that tilts and slides, the act of getting into the rearmost row is one best left to children, let alone tolerating the knees-around-your-ears position once ensconced. The standout point for the Honda is its low loading sill, but the only commodity that gets generous space in the CR-V is oddments.
By moving the gearlever to the dashboard, the whole centre console has become a sliding, lifting tribute to hidey-holes. Ergonomically the Honda is sound, and it’s easy to see out of, light to drive and so on, but the design is underwhelming and the tech-savvy among us will bemoan the poor infotainment system and ropey graphics.
For a car pitched around the £40,000 mark, the Santa Fe isn’t made of particularly premium materials. Too much black plastic and cheap leather. Shame, as the Santa Fe’s pleasingly curved layout and good central screen certainly put it ahead of the plain and rather dated Discovery. Mind you, the Land Rover is fine to get on with – the driving position is great, materials feel expensive and you’d be proud of your purchase. Until you have to interact with the small central touchscreen. Ten minutes of frustrated prodding and you’ll have given up on ever making it link to your phone.
The one car that sails above all concerns is the Kodiaq. It’s ergonomically brilliant, with a fine touchscreen. The Sportline seats are wonderful. There’s a twin-level glovebox for all your storage needs. The materials are great. There’s no squeaks or rattles. The others have niggles. The Skoda doesn’t put a foot wrong.
But it is a diesel. Doesn’t have to be, as you can have a petrol instead. In fact, you can have unleaded versions of any of them bar the Hyundai – and we have two of them here, the Land Rover and the Honda. There isn’t a diesel option for the Honda at all, but you can have a hybrid. With a CVT gearbox. Don’t do it to yourself.
Should you abandon diesel? Consumer confidence may have sagged in the wake of government plans, but if you’re going to ask your SUV to manage extra weight, whether people, luggage or trailers – and do so efficiently – diesel does it best. The CR-V’s 1.5-litre turbo is not only woefully short of torque, but also surprisingly rowdy. The Disco’s 2.0-litre Si4 is better, but barely any more refined than the diesels while the 9spd auto is slow to choose between its plentiful ratios. Neither makes the car it powers feel easy or relaxed. And the fact the light, pious, manual
“WANT TO CARRY KIDS, DOGS AND BAGS? GO KODIAQ OR SANTA FE”
Honda was less efficient in our hands (31.4mpg plays 32.7mpg) than the far more rugged, 394kg heavier Hyundai, speak volumes.
Let’s look elsewhere. In urban situations, the CR-V is good. It’s comparatively small and nimble. But elsewhere it falls short. Body control is weak (blame the soft springs), so you find yourself having to make adjustments to keep the car pointing where you want it. That’s not relaxing. Just as we found off-road, the British SUV is the best-riding, most refined and mature-mannered car of the four. The steering is positive, it’s secure and stable on the road and handles naturally. Hyundai would do well to take note. It’s obviously gone for a similar feel – a big, mature car that’s designed to consume distance. But the underpinnings don’t support that aim well enough. The chassis isn’t stiff enough, so you get some jitter and shake – not much, but enough to nibble at the edges of comfort. It’s not as steady on its feet, either.
Actual nimbleness? That belongs only to the Skoda. The Honda may be even lighter to drive, but it feels like it would get blown away in a gale, and is bucked about on a bumpy road. The Skoda is taut and positive. It’s the most like a car – you sit lower in it, feel more attached to it. Does it need a 190bhp diesel? Probably not – 150bhp would be fine. Maybe step a rung or two down the spec ladder if you are happy to sacrifice the Sportline visuals for a gentler ride.
It would help keep costs in check, too. Kodiaq prices may start at a little over £25,000, but once you’ve made it nice, y’know, added a DSG auto gearbox (£1,300), 4WD (£1,485), seats six and seven (£980), you’re in for a £30,000 bill. The Honda’s the cheap one here, the Hyundai the surprisingly expensive one – both to buy (entry price £33,425) and run (164g/km CO stings the tax). 2 The Land Rover is a premium product, arguably the most desirable car here. The way it looks, the badge, the pedigree and kudos. But watch the running costs: insurance 10 groups above the Kodiaq and a lease costing roughly £100 per month more.
Final analysis? The CR-V is first to fall. Apart from the option of seven seats, it hasn’t done enough to catch up with the class leaders. Easy around town, but a family needs a heavier-duty workhorse. The Hyundai ticks that box. It’s big and robust alright, spacious and well kitted out, but it’s a bit of a plodder, best at the long-haul stuff. Still, it comes close to knocking the Discovery Sport out of second spot – both are well focused on their target market, and provide very comprehensive answers to most family questions. The Skoda Kodiaq wins. It’s the one that leaves tradition furthest behind in its quest to be the only car a family will ever need. That’s the difference. You can see it visually and you feel it dynamically when you’re driving. It’s a grafter, and when all’s said and done, that’s what you’re after.
“OFF-ROAD, THE LAND ROVER WAS THE BEST: SMOOTH, REASSURING”
Ollie cold-heartedly drowns another Oompa-Loompa inchocolate fountain