In a sign of how fast things move in the automotive industry, the still-stylish Hyundai Santa Fe has gone from new kid on the block to one of the large SUV segment's familiar old faces inside only four years.
Launched in September 2012, the Hyundai Santa Fe has long been a stalwart of the company’s range, never quite matching the Toyota Kluger’s stratospheric sales but drawing thousands of family buyers nevertheless.
And it’s easy to see why, given the Hyundai seven-seater’s still-fresh design, fantastic list of standard equipment for the price, and top-shelf aftersales care. The design and equipment equations were only sharpened by the Santa Fe Series II launched late last year.
But as we ascertained in our recent comparison test, the two newest entrants to the segment, the Kia Sorento and second-generation Mazda CX-9, are formidable foes, as is the top-selling Kluger, due for an imminent update.
At the other end of the large SUV spectrum, you also have the outstanding Subaru Outback, which may not have seven seats like the others but mounts a highly compelling case of its own as a family hauler.
So does the Hyundai Santa Fe still stack up as an option worthy of a test drive? Here we test the high-end Highlander specification with diesel engine, which remarkably accounts for close to half of all Santa Fe sales. This car is clearly a money spinner…
Befitting the fact that it’s not the novel new entrant in the class any more, the value equation is outstanding. The Highlander diesel costs $55,990 plus on-road costs, making this upper-spec car a rival to the mid-range CX-9 Touring and Kluger GXL derivatives.
The standard equipment list is exhaustive, including luxuries such as heated leather front and rear seats with memory function for the driver, keyless go, an electric tailgate, auto-folding mirrors and a panoramic glass sunroof. This is properly premium.
The cabin layout is pretty easy to familiarise with, with the Series II bringing a better 8.0-inch touchscreen and a more powerful processor than before, and retaining standard satellite navigation with live traffic updates, and a rear-view camera.
A call out also has to go to the 550W Infinity sound system, which matches and bests all comers at the price point for clarity and bass.
The only infotainment item missing is Apple CarPlay, which you can get on the smaller Tucson. Unfortunately, while the base Santa Fe Active does have this nifty feature, the Highlander’s head unit isn’t compatible, and won’t be in this generation. Shame.
Otherwise the cabin doesn’t feel that different from 2012, though it’s picked up some new trims along the way. The build quality is outstanding and there’s decent enough cabin storage, but the design is a little dated and overall doesn't feel as premium as the Kia and Mazda, which are nudging glamorous Europeans.
There’s plenty of storage, including a deep console and numerous open padded cubbies. Up front there are two 12V sockets and one USB point for phone charging.
Second row passengers get a welcoming array of amenities, with rear vents on the B-pillars, pull-up sun blinds, door pockets, a flip-down arm rest with cupholders, individual map lights and grab handles. There’s also a rear 12V input for USB adaptors and heated rear outboard seats.
The rear seats offer great headroom and toe room, though only moderate knee room behind the hard plastic-backed front seats, (though plenty for two 180cm-plus adults, though). The huge panoramic roof adds to the ambience. The seats recline backwards and slide to and fro, and the outboard units have ISOFIX anchors.
The middle row folds 60:40, with the smaller portion on the kerb-side sliding forwards with one touch to allow third row access. Entry and egress to the third row is limited by a small aperture, while final row headroom is poor for the class, as is outward visibility.
At only 4.7 metres long, the Santa Fe is small by segment standards, and as a result the third row is more suitable for occasional use. This point is magnified by the fact that the side curtain airbags only partially cover it, which is an oversight.
The Hyundai’s cargo area is 516L with the back seats folded, 300L less than the CX-9, and it’s tight with all three rows in use. On the positive side, under the body is a welcome full-size spare, plus the third-row seats fold quite flush into the floor and the middle row flips via clever levers in the cargo area. There’s also an area to store the cargo cover.
How does the Santa Fe drive? Under the bonnet is a familiar 2.2-litre common rail direct-injected turbo-diesel engine producing 147kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm between 1750 and 2750rpm, matched to a six-speed automatic.
Combined-cycle factory claimed consumption is 7.7 litres per 100km, and on our recent comparison test it was the most frugal, with real-world use of around 9.0L/100km. Towing capacity is a handy 2.0-tonnes, though the download rating is a stingy 100kg.
It remains a strong, tractable engine with ample low-down grunt that makes it ideal for hauling a car-load of people and gear, while noise and vibrations are kept relatively well at bay. The only downer is needing gloves at the fuel pump, lest your hands get dirty.
The Hyundai’s heavily Australian-modified suspension and steering calibration is interesting. It rides a little firmer than the Kia (both have 19-inch wheels), and its handling and the sharpness of its steering from centre gives it good performance on twisting roads.
Around-town compliance is generally good, though body control over big hits is less disciplined than some, making it feel less plush and more firm than we think a family SUV should.
The Hyundai was quite noisy for the class over a challenging gravel test road, with middling vibrations coming through the seat. While ostensibly a city focused crossover, the Santa Fe’s on-demand AWD system has the availability of a 50/50 front/rear lock mode up to 30km/h for slippery terrain, though its ground clearance is limiting.
Arguably the most impressive element when driving the Santa Fe Highlander is its plethora of standard active safety technologies, some of which were added with the Series II update. Given safety is a core priority of family buyers, this is a good thing.
Features include low-speed autonomous brakes, a radar-guided active cruise control that slows the car to zero and is among the better systems on the market, 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 perpendicular parking bay.
From an ownership perspective, the Santa Fe comes with a strong five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with up to 10 years of roadside assist if you service your car with Hyundai. Service intervals are 12-months and 15,000km (superior to the CX-9) and the first six visits cost $379, $379, $379, $499, $379 and $460. That’s $2475.
Only the Kia Sorento can claim to be more affordable to own and run. Add to this the fact that Hyundai is always doing deals — right now you can get a 1 per cent comparison finance rate and five-years worth of free servicing — and this is amplified. Indeed, this is the benefit of buying a car deeper into its life cycle than key rivals.
So that’s the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, an offering that remains a well-equipped, viable candidate for your hard earned dollars against the flasher Kia Sorento and Mazda CX-9. Just push hard for a deal, because it’s not the absolute class leader it once was.
Click the Photos tab for all images by Sam Venn.