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SANTA BABY Hyundai's new SUV brings plenty of festive cheer, writes Ian Mallon

IT'S Christmas time and I'm stuck in a bit of a mud bath on the eastern side of the Curragh, not far from Donnelly's Hollow.

I'M driving an SUV on a track which the army use to check out their off-road military hardware -- only difference is, I'm in a Santa Fe.

The kids are whooping and hollering as I finally get the car over the hillock I've been negotiating and the Hyundai has passed the test I'd set it.

There are other steeper gradients nearby but this is crossover kind of machine rather than a bonafide 4x4 in its purest form.

My Christmas scramble has ticked another box in what must be one of the most complete driving experiences of the year, and all in a magnificent machine that will set you back just €38k.

Primarily the Santa Fe is a large family car with seven seats -- the back two suit my kids perfectly, although I wouldn't fit -- but this is the most perfect Hyundai I have ever experienced.

Ever since the Korean manufacturer shot onto the market with cheap SUVs and sports cars, it has hurtled into the manufacturer's Top 10 thanks to a consistent quality improvement.

The latest Santa Fe typifies this indulgence in quality, there is nothing missing, it is iPod compatible, it enjoys onboard comfort as good as any of its peers, there is a reverse camera, six CD storage and cruise control with speed limiter.

It is quite the drive -- perhaps just lagging behind the brilliant Honda CR-V, in overall performance and extra onboard aesthetically pleasing dash, but only just.

The engine is a 2.2 diesel similar to its main rivals the Toyota Rav4 4x4 and slightly bigger than the VW Tiguan.

There are 197bhps onboard, so it is more than capable in take off and acceleration and it is roomier than all its comparables.

There is oceans of room inside too and a clever seating system means that carrying most loads, even squabbling ones, shouldn't be a problem.

The last set of seats fold flat into the floor and because all can be dropped down individually, stressed out parents can eliminate the dreaded 'middle' section giving a 2+2+2 arrangement.

Safety-wise all models come with ESP (electronic stability control), VDC (vehicle dynamic control) Downhill Brake Assist, Hill Start Assist, Trailer Stability and tow bar wiring.

And how could I not mention the five-year unlimited mileage warranty, which is sure to appeal to everyone.

But, the most pleasing thing for me is how the Santa Fe has evolved as beautiful sports wagon, thanks to a facelift that has tweaked all the best bits to an even greater level.

For starters, it's sleeker, longer and wider giving it a much more aggressive stance, while the wedge-like design gives it an air of utter indesrtructability.

There's a sharp, sporty nose and a poised, refined rear, with a sleekness in the middle to give this whole affair a real wow factor.

The only area of concern is that the Santa Fe is a thirsty old girl, it absolutely guzzles the juice.

So back to the off-road experience, and it has to be said, this is a very capable overland handler.

There are limits to what she'll do, it ain't no military machine, but it is quite the performer.

The entry level Santa Fe 2WD Comfort costs €37,995 while the 4WD is priced at €41,995.