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  • Stylish and good looking; quiet on the road; practical family car
  • Some frustrating features; needs a bit more polish

7.5 / 10

by James Ward

This week we took the helm of the seven-seat Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, the sixth-best-selling large SUV in Australia this year and the local division’s current flagship model.

If you remember a time before we had all heard of Facebook, when the world (well, Oprah) was abuzz with ‘The Secret’. It was essentially a well-marketed way of saying if you focus on something, that something will become more visible to you. Long story short, within a day of first stepping into the Hyundai Santa Fe we were seeing them everywhere.

Hyundai Australia says it’s selling pretty much every Santa Fe it brings into the country. You can certainly see the appeal in the styling.

The Hyundai Santa Fe is a good-looking car that looks at home in any suburb. The big Hyundai seems smaller than its seven-seat capacity would imply, with even the 19-inch wheels on the $51,490 Highlander suiting the design well – impressive in a market where big wheels sometimes get ‘lost’ under bodywork.

The interior is modern and functional, albeit with a variety of surfaces and myriad coloured lights that arguably go a bit too far. Each time you enter and leave the car, the Hyundai Santa Fe plays a little musical chime and animates the Hyundai logo on the dash – it’s very Korean but perhaps a little bit too ‘Windows 98’ for my liking. Thankfully you can turn it off.

Hyundai Santa Fe :: week with Review

The electrically adjustable seats are comfortable but it took me a while to find my sweet spot. I am over six foot tall and found my knees would knock the bottom of the steering column housing.  My daughter, ‘Miss Five’, was excited to have a car with “boot seats” to travel to school in, and it was here that I came across the first of a few frustrations with the Santa Fe.

First, a quick little insight into how the collection of press cars takes place. It’s nothing like when you buy a car and take delivery from a dealer. There’s no step-by-step handover process or personalised introduction. We’re all busy people; you usually sign a form and grab the keys. It’s assumed you have a modicum of knowledge about the car you are about to drive away in, but sometimes there are features and functions that just don’t work the way you initially expect – and the third row seating in the Santa Fe is a perfect example.

Deploying the extra seats seems simple at first, but if your middle-row passengers have used the sliding rails to adjust their legroom, the rear seats don’t have enough clearance to lift up. Once you have moved the middle row forward and raised the back row, I used the lever at the passenger side seat base to find it only allowed the back to fold flat, meaning Miss Five had to clamber over the seat to get in to the back.

Hyundai Santa Fe :: week with Review

It turns out there is a second release on the top of the middle row seat that lets you fold the seat and then slide it forward, opening a small access channel to the rear. Good, but not perfect. Also, this function is only available on the passenger side (the driver’s side seat folds down only) – which was where I had installed the booster car seat as it is closer to the kerb. So that had to be moved as well.

The ‘sister’ model to the Santa Fe, the Kia Sorento, has seats that fold flat then forward for third-row access – much better for children to get through and a feature that clinched the sale of a Kia over the Hyundai for a friend of mine. However it also only offers this on the passenger side, where others like the new Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Kluger provide a more thoroughly flexible solution.

The seat movements are certainly not a deal breaker for many buyers, though, and while initially frustrating, would no doubt become second nature after a few weeks of ownership. One thing I do love, however, is the secret storage compartment under the boot floor for the cargo blind – something more manufacturers need to think of (and Toyota has, by following with a similar arrangement in the new Kluger).

On the road, the Hyundai Santa Fe feels solid and quiet – so much so that on the highway with the radio on, I couldn’t tell it was a diesel. Around town the engine noise is a bit more prevalent, especially under load, but is certainly not intrusive.

Hyundai Santa Fe :: week with Review

The large panoramic glass sunroof on the Highlander is a nice addition and can definitely make the interior a bit brighter for front and middle row occupants, but the mechanism was another source of frustration for me throughout the week.

I like to drive with the roof ‘popped’ – it lets in a bit of fresh air but doesn’t add too much to the cabin noise. The switch on the roof console has a back/forward slide function for opening the glass panel (easy) and a push function to tilt the glass (again, easy). Un-popping is another matter as pushing the switch forward retracts the sunblind before lowering the glass. I found myself fiddling with the function much more than I should have, taking my attention away from the road each time. It’s not so much that I didn’t know how to operate the roof properly, as that it didn’t behave the way I expected. We are advanced enough in our understanding of intuitive behavior that these sorts of things, while a seemingly simple gripe, should be more thoroughly thought out.

While on the sunroof, it is worth mentioning that the glass panel on our test car also rattled a bit over suburban bumps.

Another frustration was the touchscreen media system. On one hand the navigation shows great planning by showing localised content, with the blue and yellow Citylink road signs being colour matched in the system as opposed to their normal green and white counterparts. On the flip side the interface is not intuitive to allow a quick zoom in or out – in fact by the end of the week I still hadn’t managed to do this. And at this price point we don’t think it’s unfair to suggest a top-down parking camera should be standard (a rearview camera is, however, included) – if you can get one on a 2012 Nissan X-Trail, you should be able to get one on a 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe.

Hyundai Santa Fe :: week with Review

For mine, usability is the final barrier between a good car and a great car. Overall the Santa Fe is a very good car. Quiet. Comfortable. Economical.

I found it very livable and it would certainly make a good member of the family where it is predominantly run in five-seat configuration. It’s just that some of the functions could have benefited from more research around core usability. It doesn’t make it bad – I’m sure that you would become used to these things after a period of time – but for mine this is the final polish that stops it from being a great car.

Mind you, the main frustrations I had were with features on the Highlander model. The Highlander at $60,000 is really the level where Bluetooth pairing dropouts and annoying rattles should stop. The better option is the Elite, which while it doesn’t have the some level of equipment, is cheaper.

So if you haven’t heard ‘the secret’ yet, the Hyundai Santa Fe is worth including in your SUV consideration set, notably in diesel form. Just make sure you get a good introduction to all the features and functions of the car.

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Hyundai Santa Fe :: week with Review
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