It’s said that competition breeds excellence, and it’s certainly served protagonists Hyundai and Kia with big forwards strides towards greatness in recent times. That they’re corporate cousins, with a degree of resource sharing, might have fostered laziness in badge-engineered camaraderie in difference circumstances, but quite the opposite is the reality.
Their fierce rivalry – the Reds versus Blues as they playfully refer to themselves – not only propels Korea’s continued march across motoring’s map, its producing cars of leap-and-bound improvement with distinctive differences as each maker bays for one-upmanship.
The Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe seven-seater SUVs are perfect cases in point. Both are marked improvements over their forebears and key for strengthening their respective brands. Both share DNA – conspicuously and not – though even a cursory glance suggests each has an inimitable character. And each throws the proverbial kitchen sink at highly specifying the affordable, family-swallowing format.
Where the pair differs is in lifecycle. Launched locally in June, the fourth-generation Sorento has been revised down to its platform, making it the, well, the newest. The Santa Fe, however, has been around in third-generation form since 2012, but its November Series II update not only makes it the fresher offering, its introduction creates the impetus for this two-way comparison test.
Each has a solid track record in review past. A perennial test victim, this new Sorento range has been reviewed five times already (including two long-termer reports to date), returning strong eight and eight-point-five scores each time.
The Santa Fe Series II range also scored an eight at its recent launch, though it updates myriad Series I variants CarAdvice has tested extensively since 2012, consistently rating between seven and eight from ten in overall scoring. So far, so close, then.
Our choice of variants reaches as high as the respective ranges go, the ultimate Platinum trim for the Sorento and the flagship Highlander version of the Santa Fe. Each is equipped with a 2.2-litre turbo diesel and six-speed automatic powertrain driven through all-wheel drive. And, as we’ll discover, their similarities end far from there.
Proof of how centered Kia and Hyundai are in each other’s crosshairs, is merely suggested by the identical $55,990 (plus on-road costs) prices of their flagship seven-seaters. Digging through their respective, richly appointed standard features lists, though, pretty much cements the level of parity between these two competitors, especially given that neither has any options fitted.
So comprehensive – and frankly exhaustive – are both their equipment lists that space here permits merely the highlights.
Outside, both sit on 19-inch wheels shod with 235/55 R19 tyres and feature automatic on/off, self-leveling HID xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, LED tail lights, heated electric folding mirrors, roof rails, rear privacy glass, panoramic glass roofs and hands-free powered tailgates.
Reverse-view cameras, along with front and rear parking sensors, are par for the SUV course. Both family haulers also feature suspiciously similar infotainment systems with Suna-equipped (live traffic information) sat-nav, USB/AUX/Bluetooth phone and media streaming/iPod integration, and Infinity-branded 10-speaker audio.
Here, the Hyundai pulls a slim advantage in adopting an 8.0-inch touchscreen against the Kia’s 7.0-inch unit, though the Sorento uses a huge, 7.0-inch circular TFT driver’s screen in the instrument cluster against the Santa Fe’s modest 4.3-inch display. Both get digital speedos, but the Santa Fe sits alone in providing Siri Eyes Free and Google Now voice control.
Both SUVs adopt seating trimmed with a blend of real and artificial leather throughout, with heated/cooled front pews and heating in the outboard second row positions. Both cars feature dual-zone climate control with – hallelujah – air vents covering all three passenger rows. The Kia also gets an exclusive heated steering wheel, though the Hyundai counters with a cooled glovebox.
Auto-dimming mirrors, push button start, rain-sensing wipers, manual second-row sun blinds… their features lists go on and on, both brimming with equipment that some European seven-seaters approaching twice the price want added optional cost for.
These Koreans are almost equally generous in kit, but neither really nudges ahead by any meaningful measure in the bells and whistles count.
That is, until active safety weighs in…
Both SUVs enhance core ABS/ESP active chassis systems with advance stability management and hill-start assist. Further, each adds lane departure warning, ‘smart’ adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and lane change assist systems for thoroughly comprehensive active safety credentials.
However, the Santa Fe alone bolsters its credential with autonomous emergency braking and hill descent control.
More convenient than ‘safe’, per se, is Hyundai’s all-singing, all-dancing parking assist system, offering automated self-steering during entry and exit parallel and reverse-entry perpendicular parking.
The pair offers five-cap ANCAP surety, but the Hyundai ups the airbag count to seven against Kia’s six, adding a driver’s knee bag to the shared suites of front, front-side and curtain airbags.
It’s advantage Santa Fe, then, moving into their cabin spaces.
The most conspicuous differentiator here is the highly subjective topic of styling. Canvassing the CarAdvice crew, the consensus is that the Santa Fe's new nip’n’tuck has produced, against its Kia rival, a more modern aesthetic. They are, though, essentially revised bumper, light and grille changes to a familiar old friend, but it’s the Sorento’s more restrained, less-masculine design that is more comprehensively ‘new’.
Its maker calls Sorento’s exterior look “sleek” and “sinuous”, though it’s a little more sonorous in the flesh compared with the angular Hyundai.
Some of the effect is by the pen, some by proportions – the Sorento’s slightly more elongated appearance is no doubt due in part to almost identical dimensions to the Santa Fe in every measure except length and wheelbase, where the Kia is exactly 80mm longer for both.
While we’re certainly not about to rate their respective styling, that both SUVs are so evenly matched on price, equipment and perceived value must surely mean that looks will weigh in substantially in some buyers’ eyes.
Speaking of sight, Blind Freddy could see where inspiration may have struck a design chord at Kia – a touch of Mercedes-Benz in that diamond patterned grille, perhaps..?
Further still, anyone who has sat behind the wheel of Stuttgart-made sports cars of recent generations might see some familiarity in both the Sorento’s steering wheel and instrument cluster (though Kia adopts a speedometer for its central roundel).
That’s no slight. The driver interface of the Kia is clearer and simpler than that of the fussier and more angular treatment inside the Hyundai - though the more technical look, particularly with the tactile button and switch treatment on the door trims and centre console, will appeal to many SUV shoppers’ tastes.
However, the stylized multi-function wheel – which, like the Kia, has simple and intuitive controls – doesn’t afford much hand grip with those fat spokes.
The Santa Fe feels reasonably upmarket - if no more than its predecessor - and not necessarily finer than its Kia rival, which uses a lot of almost rubberised textures that include fake ‘moulded’ stitching – and is a little plasticky despite its own neat ‘clicky’ button treatment.
The Sorento has had a deep dive into glossy wood trim territory in the Platinum variant, while the Santa Fe’s slightly pretentious ‘matte carbon’ sporty trim inserts couldn't be a more different, though no more convincing, approach.
Nitpicking aside, both exude a level of class, solidity and integrity beyond their affordable, unified mid-fifties price point.
Similarly, their infotainment systems punch above their weight and are, on face value at least, identical bar software tweaks. Both are quite intuitive to use, super quick in response with excellent navigation systems. One markdown is that, as we’ve reported in the past, the Santa Fe lacks the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality that's being made available in the smaller Tucson stablemate, and given the technical commonality here the same criticism must be aimed at the Sorento as well.
Seating wise, the Santa Fe offers 12-way driver/four-way passenger electric adjustment, the Sorento 10-way/eight-way respectively, though realistically neither lacks any fine-tuning for the perfect seating position.
Both offer relaxed and supportive long-haul comfort, along with entry and egress heights that even the most vertically challenged owners won’t struggle with.
If there’s a major ownership differentiator in the cabin, it’s the glass areas and the effect on outward vision. The Sorento’s flat window line simply provides better vision from all three rows, while the Santa Fe’s swooping, angular glasshouse taper presents more limited vision the further back in the cabin you sit. It’s a small point made large, given how otherwise similar this pair is for accommodation.
In the socket stouch, the Hyundai runs single USB, single auxiliary and dual 120w 12V outlets up front; as well as single 120w 12V in both rows two and three. The Kia matches the first row count and uses 180w 12v outlets throughout, though where it lacks third-row power it compensates for in a second row USB port. Kids – and tech-addict adults alike – will love that.
If the Sorento’s extra 80mm affords extra row two legroom, it’s not immediately noticeable. And as each SUV’s 40:20:40 split-fold bench offers sliding and backrest adjustment, you’d need adults in all three rows to pick any (slight) compromise in knee room…somewhere. For all-round roominess, they’re very close, though the Kia is slightly better for headroom.
So far, so even. But wait, there’s more.
In either vehicle, all three rows get air vents and controls, the final row featuring 50:50 split-fold that can be dropped with remote switches in the cargo area walls. It’s awkward to climb into or out of the rearmost seating of both SUVs, each requiring two hands and elbow grease to put the second rows back in play.
If there’s a small victory, it’s the Sorento’s slightly superior third-row shoulder room and headroom, nicer air-con controls and, once again, better outward visibility. By contrast, the Santa Fe is slightly more claustrophobic.
Make no mistake. This pair is so close, and so good, at interior packaging and treatment that you will not go wrong with either. They’re tough to separate even when sampled back to back.
The Sorento, though, has a little more luggage space, offering 605 litres against the Santa Fe’s 516 litres with the third row folded, and 1662 litres versus the Hyundai’s 1615 litres once the second row is stowed. Call it a fractional and academic advantage to the Kia.
On the road
With the same 2.2-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder producing 147kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm between 1750 and 2750rpm - well, okay, Kia claims one semantic extra Newton meter for a 441 total – and mechanically identical six-speed automatic and all-wheel-driven drivelines, one might expect an identical driving experience with these Koreans. That’s not the case.
Oily motivation aside, they’re not twins under their skins. The platforms that underpin the two are fundamentally different: technically, the Sorento is newer. The Kia is, at 2036kg, also heavier than the Santa Fe, if by a paltry 52kg.
None of this impacts how this pair drives quite as much as ride and handling development, and while each has benefited from bespoke Australian tuning and calibration, neither the engineering teams, the degree of work or targets set are likely to be identical.
We’ve long rated the R-Series engine as a refined and gutsy unit and little has changed. It's torquey and responsive from the depths of the rpm range, spirited yet untasked when duty bound to haul each SUV’s considerable heft swiftly.
Both SUVs offer Sport mode powertrain calibrations that provide noticeable if hardly marked leaps in characteristic response, and in their default drive mode the Sorento treats forward progress a little more leisurely, particularly in the transmission program. Not better nor worse, just different.
The Series II Santa Fe is more firmly set than its forebear – for both “load carrying” and “a more responsive car” says the company – and this tauter tune is certainly noticeable, compared with the slightly wallowy Sorento that we’ve found wanting for dynamic ability in tests past.
While handling prowess as driving enjoyment isn’t a primary priority for seven-seater family hauling, a sense of surety with the road, the provision of driver confidence in vehicle placement, rates highly in my book of Moving Loved Ones. And the Santa Fe offers more of that confidence.
Almost conversely, the Sorento is a little more jiggly across small road imperfections and there’s more thudding through the suspension over square edges and ‘cats eye’ lane markers.
In isolation, it feels nicely compliant – against the Santa Fe, its ride is a little more terse.
The Santa Fe takes the edge off large bumps, potholes and square-profile speed humps with more resolve, too. As an all-round tune, the Hyundai’s suspension is more multi-faceted and flexible.
The Sorento’s steering is very light and almost completely bereft of connection with the road, which is great for low-speed parking maneuvers, but not so flash when your SUV suddenly understeers in first rain or over black ice and you’re left with the stability system’s intervention to keep you informed.
The Santa Fe, though, communicates – heightened safety in itself – through its slightly weightier steering, and boasts a marginally tighter 10.9-metre turning circle against the Sorento’s 11.1m figure.
Achieving fuel consumption figures close to their combined-cycle claims of 7.7L/100km (Santa Fe) and 7.8L/100km (Sorento) requires a light load and plenty of light throttle long hauling out on the open road, and both are really in their elements lunging across grand distances.
In being tailor-made for the great Aussie family getaway, this pair makes any dual-cab 4x4 ‘lifestyle’ ute you could name feel torturous and agricultural by comparison, and no less handy if you’re planning serious off-road work. Each does offer a degree of light broken road capability – each has an electronically lockable centre differential – though the gravel road to the farmhouse or camping site is about the extent of their wild roaming abilities. The main inhibitors being on-road tyre design and meagre underbody clearances, their all-wheel-drive system more about traction surety in slippery road-going conditions.
Perhaps the biggest letdown here is, unsurprisingly, one shared between the two: their active safety systems. It’s not that they don’t work – they most certainly do – it's just that the on-the-move systems tasked with overseeing lane and collision protocols aren’t tuned sharply or intelligently enough for the mild chaos of Aussie urban traffic and the confined environment in which it lives.
So invasive are both cars' incessant beeping and flashing, even during the most passive driving, that they distract more than they assist, forcing you to turn much of it off out of frustration.
With its inherent friendliness to driver and passengers alike, it’s the Santa Fe that pulls ahead on the move…
The Kia steals the march here with its “triple-seven” scheme of an outstanding seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, seven years of roadside assist and capped-priced servicing for the same duration. Nothing else on the Australian market can match the Kia in terms of longer-term ownership.
Meanwhile, the Hyundai brings five years of surety with no kilometre limit and five years of capped-priced serving but pushes the roadside assist pledge out to 10 years.
Both apply capped-price service intervals of 15,000kms or 12 months, whichever comes first. However, the Santa Fe is cheaper to service: the total cost after 60 months/75,00kms is $2015 against $2442 for the Sorento.
So, added confidence or a hip-pocket saving? We’d favour the former, though buyers may well be more enticed by the latter.
Picking the nuances of each SUV and then stacking the few (and largely inconsequential) together in comparable piles to attribute a victory here unfortunately avoids the most glaring conclusion one might draw: the buyer wins opting for either of these SUVs.
Both play key and more-or-less equally significant roles in moving the game forward for their brands and their nationality, while improving and enriching the price-savvy, seven-seater SUV segment.
During the pair’s week-long tenure in the CarAdvice garage, one question really qualified this pair’s goodness: what else beyond what each SUV offers might a buyer reasonably expect from a mid-$50K price point?
Yes, the Santa Fe is slightly more polished on road, but only by a matter of shades. Equally, the less-stylised – if no less stylish – Sorento provides a marginally more occupant friendly cabin for vision and cargo space if, again, by measures of fractional degree.
If ever there was a two-way comparison where subjective buyer tastes should sway the decision-making process, this is it. You won’t lose, whichever the choice.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.