Model: Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRTD
Price: from £20,495 (range rises to £25,240). On sale now
Engine: 2,188cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel
Transmission: four-wheel drive
Performance: 111mph, 0-60 in 11.3sec, 38.7mpg official average
Do 4x4s damage the world's terrain? In the great scheme of things probably not: however much some might complain about the concreting-over of countryside by motorways, from the air they are mere lines in a mass of green. Within the 4x4s' own world, though, tectonic plates are moving.
How else can you explain the fact that Hyundai considers its new Santa Fe to be a rival for the BMW X3 and the Volkswagen Touareg? It's an extraordinary notion, not least because the cheapest Santa Fe costs £20,995 while X3s start at £25,285 and Touaregs at £30,330. But stay with me, or at least the Hyundai marketing department, for a moment.
There are three Hyundai 4x4s right now. The Terracan is a square-cut utility thing that no one buys. The Tucson is a compact, good-value SUV that offers a cheaper alternative to a Honda CR-V or similar. The Santa Fe, only slightly bigger than the Tucson, needed to grow in both stature and status. This it has done, but to X3/Touareg levels? Let's find out.
It looks obviously bigger than before, big enough now to sustain a seven-seater option. It looks crisper, too, not least because it has lost those pre-dented flanks that always made the old Santa Fe look as if its next stop was the bodyshop. This is one of those 4x4s not really intended for life off the road but able to handle the odd outbreak of rough stuff. You can have it with a 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine or a 2.7-litre V6, the latter with an automatic transmission with just four gears.
Inside, we find more hard plastic surfaces (doors, windscreen pillars) than you would expect in a car with such social-climbing ambitions, and in the higher CDX trim level the vertically grained "wood" is clearly fake for all its rich gloss. The lower trim level is called GSI, incidentally. Bring back standard and deluxe, I say.
Other disappointing features are that the remote central locking buttons live in a separate fob rather than being built into the key, that not even the driver's door window has an automatic one-prod-for-up function, and that the flexible "hammock" that bridges the gap between rear shelf and second-row seat-backs does so only when those seats are reclined, reducing the very luggage capacity the hammock is designed to cover.
Otherwise, this is a quality job outside and in. The optional third-row seats (an extra £625, cramped for adults) have their own curtain airbags and air-conditioning unit, the sun-visors extend to fill gaps in their shading ability, and there's a wide-angle interior mirror to let parents see what their children are up to in the back. There's also an integrated stereo system.
The "torque on demand" four-wheel drive system diverts up to half of the engine's torque output to the rear wheels as the front ones lose traction. It does this via an electromagnetic multi-plate clutch triggered by computer sensors, so the four-wheel drive can be in full swing as soon as the electronics sense a likely tractive issue rather than waiting for the front wheels actually to slither. You can lock the multi-plate clutch for traction on really slippery surfaces, too.
You would think that the V6 version might be more prestigious and expensive, but it's the same price as the manual four-cylinder diesel (for which a five-speed automatic transmission is another £1,000 or £1,025, depending on trim level). But don't go thinking the V6 is a must-have bargain, even if it does have 186bhp to the diesel's 148. Torque is the objective reason, an unexceptional 183lb ft of it compared with the turbodiesel's lustier 247lb ft. And the subjective reason is that driving the V6 feels as if you're wading through treacle.
But theturbodiesel is smooth, relaxed and responsive. Is it really a threat to those upmarket Germans? It's certainly better to drive than the jittery X3, but to regard it as a Touareg alternative is to live in fantasyland. That doesn't stop it being a likeable, capable and good-value SUV, though.
BMW X3 2.0d £27,235
It's rare for BMW to get it wrong, but the X3 is an unsatisfactory car spoilt by its turbulent ride, excessive size (it's nearly as big as an X5) and high pricing. But it's a BMW, so people still buy it.
Volkswagen Touareg 2.5 TDI £30,330
The price shows that we're in another league here. The Touareg is large, sumptuous, heavy and very capable, both on- and off-road. Under its skin it shares much with Porsche's Cayenne.
Nissan Pathfinder 2.5 dCi £24,500
This is a proper off-roader, but in size terms it's closer to the Santa Fe than the smaller Nissan X-Trail. The tough-guy Pathfinder feels restless on poor road surfaces but is willing and rugged.