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The Hyundai Santa Fe seven-seat SUV in its current iteration has been the lynchpin to the Korean brand’s rise — not just up the sales charts, but in the perceptions people hold towards it.
That’s because about half of Hyundai’s annual Santa Fe sales have traditionally been of the most highly equipped variants that cost close to $60,000 on the road. No car has done more to put Hyundai on the shopping lists of more affluent buyers — Genesis included.
And so the first update takes on extra importance. About three years into its lifecycle, the Santa Fe Series II arrives with a handful of tweaks to keep Hyundai up to date with rivals led by the newer Kia Sorento, plus staples such as the Toyota Kluger and Ford Territory.
By any standard, the Santa Fe Series II upgrades are relatively minor. There are a few styling tweaks including a new grille and bumpers, some engine tweaks and nicer cabin trims. Small changes to a good package.
The headline aspect is the improved equipment levels on offer. The base Active gets a much nicer new 7.0-inch touchscreen and a TFT instrument display behind the steering wheel with a digital speedo, and fancy Siri Eyes Free and Google Now voice control.
Meanwhile the mid-spec Series II Elite gets brand new features not found in the previous version including an 8.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav and SUNA updates, a bigger 550W sound system, front parking sensors and an electric driver’s seat with a memory function.
Finally, the flagship Highlander — the version that this year accounts for 45 per cent of sales — gets a range of new safety equipment over the old one, which strikes at the heart of its family-oriented segment.
These features include autonomous brakes that work at low speed, radar-guided active cruise control that slows the car to zero, a blind-spot monitor, lane assist and a rear cross-traffic alert that beeps if it spots a car when you’re backing out of a parking bay.
But you don’t get something for nothing. The Active’s price is unchanged ($38,490 plus on-roads for the petrol/manual through to $43,990 for the diesel/auto), but the diesel/auto-only Elite ($49,990) and Highlander ($55,990) are $1500 and $2750 more expensive than before respectively.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, there’s a Series II SR Santa Fe, details of which have not been revealed given the car doesn’t arrive here en masse until January. Once again, the SR gets OZ alloys, bigger Brembo brakes, stiffer springs and a bodykit. Whether it keeps its former $59,990 price remains unknown for now.
All of this makes it clear that Hyundai has hardly turned the Santa Fe on its head. But given the relative lack of change in the car-based, seven-seat large SUV market of late — the excellent new Sorento excluded — it needed little more.
Given we drove the Series II on a launch event, our time behind the wheel was limited to just a pair of variants — the Highlander and SR, both of which sport the diesel engine option and six-speed auto transmission combination. Given this pair accounts for about half of all Santa Fe sales, you can see method to the madness.
The 2.2-litre four-cylinder R-Series diesel in question has always been a corker, something assisted in small part by power and torque bumps of 2kW/4Nm. With 147kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm from 1750rpm on tap, it sports strong outputs for the class.
Performance improvements aren’t noticeable if we’re honest, but they were hardly needed. It’s refined and punchy from a low point in the rev band and relaxed under duress, though be aware the six-speed auto’s 2000kg towing capacity is 500kg less than with the manual option available only on the base Active.
The auto also worsens fuel economy over the manual from 6.3 litres per 100km to 7.7L/100km, though this latter figure is 0.4L/100km better than before. On a 200km-ish round loop with about 70 per cent country roads, we averaged a shade under 8L/100km.
It’s worth mentioning the petrol option available on the base car — a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that’s said to get an improved bottom end but which perversely loses 3kW (to 138kW) and 1Nm (to 241Nm). We’ll report back when we drive it.
But what about behind the engine? The cabin doesn’t feel a whole lot different, despite a few new trims here and there. The layout remains easy to work out, the plastics are well screwed together though some of those used lower down are a touch on the cheap side and there’s plenty of cabin storage — though not enough to best the Kluger.
The new 8.0-inch screen is great, while the system offers rapid response to touch inputs and sufficient processing power to just get on with business. It’s a shame there’s no digital radio, and the Tucson’s Apple CarPlay/Android Auto system isn’t fitted. It will be soon enough, but not until Hyundai gets the licensing sorted out.
The changes are worthy. The new-look sat-nav graphics are better, the 550W Infinity sound system has excellent surround sound, the new parking guidelines on the reversing camera improve its usability and the new digital speedo is overdue and welcome.
Ditto the active safety tech on our test cars. All systems worked just fine, with a notable tip of the cap to the blind-spot monitor and the excellent radar-guided cruise control, which kept pace with the car ahead without hiccup, and slowed the car all the way to stop on a congested highway without raising the heart rate. Better yet, to get the car rolling again you simply have to tap the cruise control button on the steering wheel.
The second row of seats offers decent enough room and outward visibility, though headroom with the roof-length glass roof is slightly impeded. The seats slide and tilt, while the outboard pews have access to a folding ski port with cupholders, blinds, vents and Isofix points.
The third row of seating is limited to kids (occasional use only) with a tight entry/exit technique need and limited legroom, as well as limited outward visibility on account of the small windows and high beltline. Third-row passengers get air vents with fan controls.
Cargo capacity is decent at 516 litres with the third row folded flat, and can increase to 1615L with the second row also folded flat. The middle row can be flip folded via levers in the cargo area. A full-size spare wheel is hidden under the vehicle, and the cargo blind folds neatly under the floor.
Dynamically, the Santa Fe retains what is a fairly excellent balance between steering, ride and handling. All versions benefit from work done on the suspension tune by Hyundai Australia’s Sydney-based development team. The Series II carries over the same package as the Series I, but the results remain good for the class even now.
Both cars we drove rode on 19-inch wheels on low profile rubber, but neither the Highlander or the firmer SR feel particularly jittery or ‘busy’ over sharp edges and corrugations.
Neither version is particularly ‘plush’, meaning limited rebound from the dampers. The SR, notably, settles after speed humps a little faster than you might expect, meaning it doesn’t iron off bumps of that nature and ‘eat them up’ like some family SUVs. The positive trade-off is good body control/handling, given both variants we drove stayed flat in the corners — not to Territory levels, but far less wallowy than a Kluger.
The electric steering has more resistance than some, adding to the slightly sporty feel, though its 2.95 turns lock-to-lock and smallish 10.9m turning circle make it easy enough to pilot in the city. It retains a certain ‘lumpiness’ just off centre, but few buyers will notice it.
Finally, all versions, but particularly the SR on its Brembo stoppers, offer good braking.
We didn’t take the Santa Fe off road, but its credentials are the same as before. All versions send torque to the road via a front-biased, on-demand 4WD system with a full 50:50 torque-split lock mode available below 30km/h. Ground clearance is limited though at 185mm, but who the heck takes one of these off road?
All told, the Santa Fe is a little sportier than something like a Kluger, but never uncomfortably so. The SR still manages to add a little firmness and alacrity without becoming jittery. Hyundai’s local team knows what it’s doing.
As with all Hyundais, Santa Fe customers are treated to one of the better aftersales programs on the market, though not as good as Kia’s seven-year warranty cover.
Included is a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, while those who service their vehicle with a Hyundai dealer also get competitively priced capped-price servicing, as well as 10 years of roadside assistance and free sat-nav map updates. You can find the cost for the first five years here.
All told, the improvements to the Santa Fe in Series II guise — tested here in diesel, Highlander and SR spec — are worthy. The screen inside is better, the active safety tech is outstanding and the price increases are thereby justifiable.
Of course, we’d like to see the Tucson’s CarPlay and Android Auto on offer, and the petrol engine’s output drops appear less than ideal. The Santa Fe’s third row also remains much less commodious than the Kluger or Pathfinder.
But it’s a solid family offering that’s now better than ever, ergo making it well worth consideration. Perhaps we’ll have to put one against that new Sorento sooner rather than later to see which is best, hey?