JORDAN – The new, fourth-generation Hyundai Santa Fe wears a face that is quite unlike that of its predecessor, as well as one fairly far removed from anything else in the Korean brand's current range. And this is the sort of approach we can expect from Hyundai from now on, with its new models set to receive individualistic styling rather than simply an adaptation of the latest "family" look.

In the case of this new Santa Fe, the fresh styling includes a bold new lighting arrangement that sees the daytime LED lights positioned above the dual projector headlamps, with the latter gaining their own pods recessed into the front bumper.

There's a subtle but strong crease that runs without wavering from the narrow lamps up front to the rear lights, while overall the rear treatment is neat, with narrow lenses that curve round the flanks.

Bigger is better?

When it comes to next-generation model redesigns, the trend is almost always to go bigger. When the size reaches its inevitable limit, a new, smaller model range is often released. And so it is with the new Santa Fe. It's longer by 70 mm, wider by 10 mm but no taller than before.

More significantly, the wheelbase has been increased by 65 mm, although the overhangs are shorter. This results in improved off-road clearance as well as more interior space. Road noise, meanwhile, has been reduced thanks to floorpan modifications and the use of additional sound-absorbing materials.

The interior mirrors the rather elegant external appearance and boasts all the features one might need without being overly fussy or complicated in its operation. Rear seat movement for access to the third row (the final two perches fold neatly into the floor) requires a mere push of a button and a forward shove. Controls are logically laid out, with the exception of the all-wheel-drive button in this model, which is sited on the facia to the right of the steering wheel (for right-hand drive) and therefore not easily visible.

Space aplenty

With the Jordanian autumn smothering us with temperatures of over 36 degrees (with a high relative humidity), we appreciated both the dual climate control and the very efficient seat ventilation. Seating comfort is fine and both driver and passenger enjoy electrically adjusted perches in this model.

The final two seats have improved headroom and are thus more comfortable than before. While not suitable for passengers over 1,7 metres tall, these rear pews also gain dedicated air-conditioning vents.

Appreciated features for the driver include a comprehensive head-up display, blind spot warning, lane change warning and rear danger warning (with a 360-degree camera), wireless smartphone charger and six airbags.

Tried and tested

As far as engines go, Hyundai is sticking with what works. This is conservative but important for proven, long-term reliability. While the Hyundai Motors product manager admitted the firm did look at upgrading from the 2,2-litre turbodiesel engine, it decided the best option was to retain the existing layout. That said, revisions to piston design have resulted in less noise when cold while power has increased slightly to 147 kW. So too has peak torque, to 440 N.m between 1 750 and 2 750 r/min.

What makes or breaks (figuratively, that is) a transmission is how smoothly it shifts gears. This is especially important with modern multi-ratio designs. Get it wrong and you end up playing a game of "guess which gear we're in now". Get it right and you can skip the arithmetic and let the computer sort it out.

The new eight-speed (replacing the previous six-speed) had me rather sceptical due to the possibility of continuous hunting up and down the range. Fortunately, the shift algorithms have been well sorted because shifting is almost imperceptible ... which is exactly what you want in a vehicle such as this. Paddle shifters have been provided for those who enjoy flicking through the cogs manually, and there is a gear ratio readout to let you know where you are in the octave. The ratio spread is increased from before for better acceleration and cruising (first gear is a low 4,81:1 and the top gear ratio is 0,65:1).

Off the tarmac

The HTRAC all-wheel-drive system features three drive modes to adjust the traction to the wheels. In eco, the split is 100:0 with a maximum transfer of 80:20. In comfort, you have a 80:20 split with maximum transfer of 65:35, while in sport mode it's 65:35 with transfer of 50:50. Prodding the lock button provides a permanent 50:50 split. Suspension has been stiffened but the travel has also increased, while the steering design now has the electric motor mounted directly onto the rack.

Most of the time we used either sport or comfort modes. In the eco setting, eighth gear could be selected at under 80 km/h where the engine speed was a mere 1 400 r/min (below the maximum torque's arrival at 1 750 r/min). This resulted in some labouring of the engine, with the expected roughness. Not what a diesel engine likes, so we generally stayed away from eco mode. The fuel consumption during our trip was around 8,0 L/100 km.

And in South Africa?

Three specification levels will be offered in South Africa when the Santa Fe debuts here before the end of 2018. The base model will be the front-wheel-drive Premium. This features halogen headlamps, a normal keyed ignition, a remote folding second row, a 3,5-inch display in the instrument cluster, a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment pod (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The Executive model adds LED projector headlamps, keyless start, an electric opening tailgate and 19-inch wheels (with drive again sent exclusively to the front axle).

The flagship Elite furthermore gains heated and ventilated front seats, 19-inch alloys (in a different design), a seven-inch TFT screen between the dials and, of course, the HTRAC all-wheel-drive system.

On the road

We travelled a mix of coastal roads and very windy mountain passes on our way to the historical site of Petra. Fortunately, Hyundai has finally sorted out its electrically assisted steering system, which didn't disappoint. The ride quality is also close to cosseting and bump absorption is adequate (although the larger wheels were not always adept at soaking up small bumps evident on the sometimes poorly surfaced roads between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea).

The sunroof is huge, with the front section opening and the rear glass fixed (an electrically driven screen allows you to block out the heat). The quality of materials is generally good, although the leather used for seat covering cannot match that found in some German rivals.

Overall, the new Santa Fe represents an impressive follow-up to what was already a compelling seven-seater SUV. Pricing, of course, will be key, although Hyundai has stressed that this will be largely dependent on South Africa's wavering exchange rate...