2018 Hyundai Santa Fe review

The new Hyundai Santa Fe seven-seat SUV is about to arrive in showrooms, bringing improved cabin packaging and more tech. Can it make even greater inroads than its well-regarded predecessor?

Hyundai is preparing a new version of the Santa Fe seven-seater for launch around July, hoping to build on the outgoing model’s strengths and addressing its few key deficiencies.

While this new model remains a little smaller than top-sellers such as the Toyota Kluger and Mazda CX-9, it offers more cabin room than the outgoing model ever did.

There also appear to be improvements in cabin ‘ambience’ thanks to heavier use of high-grade materials and textures, modern active-safety features including some partially driverless tech, and fuel economy gains from an updated drivetrain.

As such, Hyundai naturally wants to sell more, capitalising on the continued growth of SUVs. While held in favourable regard by critics and owners alike, the old Santa Fe’s typical market share of between six and seven per cent was never deemed quite high enough.

The shift in design ethos is marked. The outgoing version had an aggressive aesthetic marked most by the rising belt line that gave third-row occupants only a tiny piece of window to see out of.

This new model rectifies that with a 41 per cent bigger glasshouse between the C- and D-pillars, while the car’s broad shoulders and pronounced flares give a wider stance. The new ‘cascading’ grille and headlight array is cleaner than the smaller Kona’s.

There’s a bit of new Honda CR-V in the side profile, and even some BMW X5 at the rear. In the right colour – the test cars' silver and deep blue in particular – and with some big alloy wheels, it offers ample presence, which is what so many buyers gravitate to.

On first glance, the cabin looks like any modern Hyundai. We had top-of-the-range versions, which was appropriate considering about 50 per cent of all Santa Fe models sold in the ongoing generation were flagship ‘Highlander’ variants.

There’s a floating 8.0-inch tablet-style touchscreen with 3D maps, plus Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and a bird’s-eye camera display, sitting above a clean fascia with HVAC controls and vents, and a storage area with a wireless smartphone charging pad.

But a closer look reveals that the new Santa Fe’s cabin is actually a fairly decisive push upmarket for the brand. Note in particular the Jaguar-aping wraparound curves atop the dash that blend into the doors.

Our test cars also had quilted leather seats with heating and cooling, speaker covers featuring a strange wave-like formation, quality switchgear, leather-coated touch-points along the transmission tunnel, and headlining made of expensive fabric and suede materials, in various colours.

There’s also a new digital instrument panel and a proper integrated head-up display, albeit one that doesn’t offer appropriate visibility for taller drivers (190cm and above). Hyundai trumpets its “class-leading luminance” of 10,000cd/m².

Downsides seem few and far between, though the company is still using some cheap and hard plastic on certain areas of the lower dash, most notably wrapping the open storage area just above the glovebox.

The middle seat row is definitely an improvement. There’s ample head room for tall adults despite the panoramic sunroof fitted to our car, plus plenty of leg room and a flat floor all the way across the width of the car. The 60:40 bench also slides on rails and reclines substantially.

Middle-row amenities on our test car included outboard seat heating, window shades that pull up, ISOFIX and top-tether anchors, air vents, USB points and even a 230V power socket. Also, the requisite flip-down centre armrest with cup holders.

Another neat trick is the new third-row seating access system. The old Santa Fe had a two-stage system that made it a hassle. The new car has an elegant set-up with one button to slide and tilt the middle seat on the passenger side within a second.

It’s still your classic ‘5+2’, with a third row best for occasional use, but it’s certainly more practical than before. At 4770mm long (up 70mm) it’s about a foot shorter than a Mazda CX-9, but third-row leg room (1046mm) and shoulder room (1500mm) are comparable.

Third-row occupants get their own air vents and a few storage areas. The side-curtain airbags are claimed to go all the way along the side of the car to cover third-row occupants, though they appear to actually deploy only in the second and first rows.

The cargo area also has buttons to flip down the middle-row seats to give you a flat loading floor, and the third row folds flush into the floor and can be covered by a mat. There’s also a place to store the removable cargo blind under the floor, plus 40L more boot space. Australian cars will get a full-size spare mounted to the underside of the vehicle.

Driving the Santa Fe in Australia will be a very slightly revised Euro 5 emissions-compliant 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine expected to about match the current model’s 147kW/440Nm. The reason we can’t give you exact numbers is that the test cars on the launch had different Euro 6C-compliant engines with AdBlue destined for Europe.

It’s disappointing that we aren’t getting the latest engine offerings, even though our lax emissions regulations don’t require them like Europe. This sort of cost-cutting has to be called out.

In HMC’s defence, the Euro 5 engine has the slightly higher torque output, and also gets a brand new in-house eight-speed automatic transmission with torque converter. The drivetrain is as punchy as ever, will tow a 2000kg van easily, and thanks to the new gearbox and more sound-deadening is a few decibels quieter both outside and in. It'll also use way less fuel than most petrol rivals.

Australia also won’t get the smaller 2.0-litre diesel offering or the new petrol-fired 3.5-litre V6, which is being engineered only for left-hand drive and focused at the massive US market. We will, however, almost definitely get a 136kW/241Nm 2.4-litre petrol in base versions.

Base cars will likely come with front-wheel drive, though most versions come with Hyundai’s on-demand AWD system that it calls HTRAC, which adjusts torque and braking to each corner of the car depending on traction, and has various pre-programmed modes. You can also watch its allocations on the digital display.

From a ride and handing perspective, it’s a little hard to make much comment because we drove mostly on flat, straight Korean highways. Also, our versions will be retuned extensively by Hyundai’s Australian engineering team, with different springs, dampers, bars, bushes and more.

Our test model certainly felt less ‘floaty’ than the typical Korean-market tune, without sacrificing ride comfort and bump isolation. We hope this is retained and HMCA doesn’t make ours too firm in a mission to inject some Euro-style performance handling. The NVH suppression also proved to be excellent.

One thing we can say is that the Santa Fe’s slightly smaller dimensions than other seven-seaters like the CX-9, Kluger and Pathfinder make it simple to drive around town, while the larger windows make it easier to see out of. The driving position is familiarly high and commanding.

We’re more confident commenting on the active safety features. The ‘usual suspects’ such as AEB (with pedestrian-detecting camera and radars), adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring are there, but there’s also an upgraded lane assist system that kept us firmly in the middle of our lane, even along corners.

There’s also a new system that can lock the doors briefly if an object is coming up from behind the parked Santa Fe, a reminder for if you’ve somehow left your kids in the back seat, and a system that automatically brakes the car if you’re backing out of a perpendicular parking space and the cameras detect cars from 90 degrees.

In Korea, the cruise control even automatically adjusts to match speed limits via a GPS database. Alas, this tech isn’t yet feasible in Australia.

One area where Hyundai is always strong is the ownership experience its dealers offer. This model will get the familiar five-year/unlimited-distance warranty with roadside assist, so long as you service your car within the official dealer network.

After our quick spin of the new Santa Fe at its world launch in Korea, it’s clear that this new model plays to the old car’s strengths while offering a little extra cabin space, more of the latest tech, greater levels of interior craftsmanship, and a new transmission, albeit not matched to the latest Euro-spec engine.

Provided Hyundai Australia gets the pricing right – a starting price of about $42,000 topping out at about $60,000 for the diesel Highlander is to be expected – and the suspension tune sorted, it’ll go right to the top tier of its class.

From another angle, if you’re the frugal type, the company still has plenty of the outgoing (and still pretty good) model in stock that it needs to clear out. It might be a good time to haggle hard and grab one of these for a steal, if you don’t need the latest and greatest.

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