► Santa Fe Endurance driven
► First passenger car to cross Antarctic
► Standard aside from huge wheels
If someone tasked you with driving across the Antarctic continent, which car would you choose? Chances are it wouldn’t be a Hyundai Santa Fe. Unlimited-mileage warranties don’t cut much ice in the world’s proverbial freezer cabinet.
And yet, in December 2016, the humble South Korean SUV became the first passenger vehicle to cross the coldest continent on the planet. Read on to find out more about the family-bus turned Master of the Antarctic in our review - we've just driven it.
Why build the Hyundai Santa Fe Shackleton Endurance?
The voyage commemorates the centenary of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic Trans-Atlantic expedition of 1914-1916. After his ship sank in pack ice, Shackleton and his 28-strong party were shipwrecked and had to live out in the wilderness, eventually finding rescue more than a year later.
A century on, and Shackleton’s great-grandson Patrick Bergel helped pilot the Santa Fe into places his ancestor – and any other passenger vehicle – had failed to reach.
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It’s not exactly a standard Santa Fe crossover though, is it?
Not quite. The eagle-eyed will have already spotted the non-standard comedy-car big wheels and accompanying arches. Not available on Hyundai’s online configurator, they look more like something you’d see in the Bigfoot back catalogue.
However, like a monster truck, there is method in this madness. See, while the Santa Fe wasn’t going to be driving over any cars in the Antarctic, it still needed to cross thousands of miles of thin ice and soft snow.
Big and squidgy, the low-pressure tyres dwarf their 15-inch rims and help the Hyundai distribute its kerbweight over layers of soft, pillowy snow. They’re so effective, in fact, that the two-tonne Hyundai could run straight over someone’s hand without them feeling it. Not that we tested this...
Further modifications include a raised body complete with new sub-frames and suspension, plus portal gears fitted inside the wheel hubs; the latter made necessary due to the massive wheels needing to turn more slowly to achieve the same speed.
The fuel tank has also been expanded to 230 litres, while the engine was tweaked to run on Jet A-1 unleaded kerosene – the only type available in the Antarctic. ‘Other than that it was a pretty standard Santa Fe,’ says expedition leader and chief Arctic-vehicle-builder Gísli Jónsson. ‘The engine, the management system, the transmission, front differential and driveshaft were all completely standard.’
It’s worth pointing out, however, that although power remains the same as the standard car at 197bhp, top speed is down to just 75mph owing to those huge tyres. Not that you can do that sort of speed in the glacier-filled wilderness anyway... There's nobody else to overtake, after all.
What’s the Hyundai Santa Fe Shackleton Expedition like to drive?
Pretty damn unstoppable. We didn’t get to drive it on snow (something to do with there not being enough of it in the UK), instead settling for an empty quarry packed with impossible inclines and plenty of wet, slippery mud.
Clamber in and you’re greeted by a surprisingly standard cabin. There are no crazy displays or extra gadgets of any note, until you look in the rear-view mirror… Instead of a second row of seats there’s a humongous fuel tank filled with jet fuel – enough to put you off smoking in your car for life.
Hit the starter button and the familiar diesel rumble remains, as does the super-friendly automatic gearbox. We’re told it's best kept in Sport, so obligingly slide the lever down to S and prod the accelerator. The first thing that hits you is the sound of sloshing jet fuel from the exposed tank. Imagine driving around with a half-full covered Jacuzzi in the back and you get the idea...
We head over to a small slope and thread our way up – the Santa Fe is surprisingly manoeuvrable for a two-tonne SUV. On the way back down, we’re even able to activate the standard hill-descent control, shepherding us along with zero drama.
Yet it’s not until we get to what looks like a near impossible half-mud, half-sand slope that the Santa Fe really shows off its talents. We optimistically gun it, hit the bottom of the slope and watch the sky fill the mud-splattered windscreen. The car bogs down halfway up and we brace ourselves for a nerve-jangling slide backwards.
And then the tyres show what they’re made for. It feels like they’re clawing big chunks of earth from the ground and hurling them behind the car, digging great big craters in the soft sand below the tread. Before we know it, the front tips over the crest and the quarry comes back into view. This thing really is a monster truck for the road.
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Did the actual expedition all go smoothly?
Mostly. The longest repair stop was 45 minutes to attend to a loose bolt, and every one of the support trucks made it to the destination. However, it wasn’t without incident. During a section of driving over the Ross Ice Shelf a decision was made to tie all of the vehicles together.
The reason for this was because the Shelf contained deep fissures which could remain unseen until the last moment before the car plunges into the abyss. The decision, as it turned out, was a wise one.
One of the support trucks did indeed go partially over the edge, teetering on the brink of disaster. Thankfully, the other vehicles – including the Santa Fe – managed to pull the truck from the precipice and tragedy was averted.
Harsh, punishing and savagely cold, there’s a reason nobody has ever driven a passenger vehicle across the Antarctic before. Very, very few cars could have completed the journey undertaken by Patrick Bergel and his support crew.
Granted, much of the Santa Fe’s success was down to its colossal, weight-spreading wheels, but there’s no question it’s a production car underneath. It’s testament to Hyundai's engineering that it made the voyage without any major failures and underlines what a properly prepared vehicle is capable of in even the worst of conditions.
So, if you’re heading anywhere cold soon, keep an eye out for a Hyundai hire car. You might be surprised what it can achieve.
Where can I find out more about the expedition?
Hyundai has made a short film about the Arctic Hyundai’s expedition. Watch it below.
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