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Can Hyundai become the next Mazda? Why the brand is moving up in the world with its Ioniq 5 and Santa Fe | Opinion

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The new Hyundai Santa Fe is a design revelation.
The new Hyundai Santa Fe is a design revelation.

I hate the design of the current Hyundai Tucson, it looks busy and has too many weird angles. I love the look of the Hyundai Ioniq 5, it has all the right angles and looks clean and interesting. I also hate the Ioniq 6 and its weird proportions as much as I love the sweeping lines of the latest Sonata.

Or to put it another way - I’m fascinated by Hyundai design.

It’s not newsworthy that the South Korean brand has evolved a long way from its humble beginnings, but having finally had a chance to get up close and drive the all-new Santa Fe, it brought into focus the impact the brand’s bold design choices are having on its image.

Hyundai is, as the kids say, having a moment.

The brand has been brave to take risks with its design and some will hit and others will miss, as I outlined above. But, just to be clear, if you love the look of the new Tucson and Ioniq 6 and hate the Sonata and Santa Fe, I’d totally understand that because design is subjective and that’s ok. Not everything in this increasingly divided world has to be black and white, we can all enjoy our own views and peacefully agree to disagree.

But it’s what these style choices say about the brand that really stands out to me. Hyundai is a company that is willing to take risks, both from a design point-of-view and a product perspective (as witnessed by its early and strong move into electric vehicles).

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe

Hyundai took a risk getting into performance cars, territory it had never previously played in properly, and now boasts an impressive line-up of hot hatches and a loyal audience of owners who flock to officially organised track days. That’s a massive change for a brand that previously only got as sporty as the Tiburon.

Hyundai’s sales have slipped in recent years, seeing the brand lose third place on the sales charts and fall behind its sister-brand, Kia. But for all the positive talk about reclaiming that position, I get a sense local management isn’t worried as much about its final place on the leaderboard and it is instead taking the Mazda perspective of maximising profits on each car sold.

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe

And how did Mazda achieve that? By moving itself into the ‘semi-premium’ space in the market in between mainstream affordability and luxury pricing.

Mazda were the masters of presenting its products in such a way as to be viewed as above average, without really doing anything dramatically different. The Mazda3 was, and is, a very nice small car but is it wildly different to a high-grade Hyundai i30? Not really, but some subtle changes to the design and specifications pushed Mazda into this semi-premium perspective.

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe

However, more recently when Mazda has made a more overt effort to be more premium, with the release of the all-new CX-60 and CX-90, these models have received more underwhelming critical responses. 

This was something that was rammed home to me when I drove the new Santa Fe. Mazda pushed the CX-60 and CX-90 as a more affordable alternative to a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz, but the presentation, particularly the interior, isn’t dramatically different to the existing Mazda line-up. That’s not to say it’s bad, just not a step up as the company seemingly promised.

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe

In stark contrast to that is the new Santa Fe, which feels like a quantum leap ahead from the old model, bringing a fresh, more premium look as well as multiple leather and trim options, all while retaining the brand’s trademark practicality.

True story, someone asked me my thoughts on a luxury SUV in the days after my Hyundai drive and I immediately suggested they instead look at the Santa Fe. That initially drew a circumspect look, so I dragged up a photo on my phone and immediately the Santa Fe was added to his short list.

From a sales perspective Hyundai has a long way to go to catch up to Mazda, the gap was nearly 25,000 vehicles in 2023. But if Hyundai’s focus is on profitability and subtly shifting the brand into that semi-premium space alongside Mazda and Volkswagen, then I think cars like the new Santa Fe, Ioniq 5, Sonata and even the Tucson and Ioniq 6 have a chance to take them there.

Hyundai Santa Fe
Hyundai Santa Fe

Stephen Ottley
Contributing Journalist
Steve has been obsessed with all things automotive for as long as he can remember. Literally, his earliest memory is of a car. Having amassed an enviable Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection as a kid he moved into the world of real cars with an Alfa Romeo Alfasud. Despite that questionable history he carved a successful career for himself, firstly covering motorsport for Auto Action magazine before eventually moving into the automotive publishing world with CarsGuide in 2008. Since then he's worked for every major outlet, having work published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Drive.com.au, Street Machine, V8X and F1 Racing. These days he still loves cars as much as he did as a kid and has an Alfa Romeo Alfasud in the garage (but not the same one as before... that's a long story).
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