If you were going to rewrite the BBC’s Doctor Who sci-fi series as all-new from the ground up, you wouldn’t make the pivotal plot device a police callbox. You’d opt for something far more ubiquitous. Something seen on every street corner. Something like an SUV.
If you wanted to maintain the Doctor Who theme of infinite rooms cloaked by a compact exterior form, then you’d cast a Hyundai Santa Fe in the role of the TARDIS. Sounds crazy, or at least it would if this ‘behemoth’ seven-seat SUV wasn’t shorter than a Toyota Camry.
That’s part of the magic of an SUV. Maximum space, minimum footprint – all that kind of thing. And Hyundai has made a fine art of getting all parts balanced with the 2018 Santa Fe.
As the range-topper, the Santa Fe Highlander version doesn’t just do the family thing well, though. It also covers the luxury and tech expectations you’d expect to find when handing over $60,500 plus on-road costs.
While the styling takes a step back from the more dynamic look of its predecessor, Hyundai’s softer and taller styling direction accommodates better outward visibility for rear passengers. Practical and thoughtful – a theme that keeps popping up.
The Santa Fe’s range is nice and simple with three variants (Active, Elite and Highlander), all with an auto and all-wheel drive. Opt for the base model and there’s a petrol option, but in top-spec Highlander trim diesel is the only engine available to Aussie buyers.
The 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel is a redeployment of the last Santa Fe’s ‘R series’ engine, with outputs of 147kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm from 1750–2750rpm.
The Santa Fe puts power through an eight-speed automatic (the same as that added to the Kia Sorento in 2017) to an on-demand all-wheel-drive system with a 50:50 lock function.
As the fully loaded flagship, the Highlander comes with a well-padded spec sheet including electrically adjustable front seats with heating and cooling, keyless entry and start, power sliding panoramic sunroof, leather seat trim, dusk-sensing adaptive LED headlights, auto wipers, heated steering wheel and 19-inch alloy wheels.
That’s not a bad list to start with, but there’s also a wireless charge pad, 7.0-inch TFT instrument cluster, one-touch tumble-forward for middle-row seats, rear privacy glass, acoustic windscreen, and a colour head-up display.
On the all-important infotainment front, an 8.0-inch touchscreen plays host to AM/FM/DAB+ radio, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with audio reproduction handled by a 10-speaker Infinity audio system.
Lists of specification are one thing, but the experience of climbing aboard Hyundai’s family flagship is something else altogether. Even though its predecessor put forward a well assembled and well-stocked cabin, the new model advances the game to a whole new level.
Although it may not match premium SUVs just yet, the new Santa Fe comes threateningly close. The design evolves from that of cars like the current i30 and Kona, but uses the extra real estate to pack in a variety of more impressive textures, finishes and surfaces.
From comfortable leather trim that feels sturdy enough to go the distance under family duress, to ripple-effect speaker grilles and even the tweed-look silky-to-touch headlining. Every detail of the Highlander’s interior shows that Hyundai has matured alongside the buyers it hopes to attract.
Looking at the pictures here, it would be understandable if the 50-shades-of-brown colour theme isn’t your cup of tea (it does grow on you), but it or burgundy trim are $296 options with a more mainstream black as standard. The only other available upgrade is $695 for premium paint.
With three-row seating being the new must-have, let’s address that rearmost row first.
Despite a bulked-up exterior, the new Santa Fe still does its best work with mid-teens or below in the furthest seats. Adults can still squeeze back there, of course, but a cap on head room and a low-set seat base may not be compatible with taller folk, and foot space, while passable, isn’t super generous.
Hyundai is kind enough to supply face-level vents and a booster fan for the rear, though, and sure to be welcomed come summer. Getting in and out is a breeze too. Tap a button on the second-row seatback and it tilts forward and slides in one easy action, although doesn’t keep a memory of where to return to.
Those that call dibs early and ride in the middle row will have a much, much, much easier time of it. The seats are big, broad and comfy. Windows are low enough for a good view out, and tilt and slide adjustment makes long trips all the more comfortable, as do heated outboard seats and manual window blinds.
As roomy as the second row is, should you be raising a family of aspiring basketballers, the panoramic roof overhead terminates right at head level. The stowage space for the blind mechanism (you can’t see it, but it’s there) shaves precious millimetres off what would be an otherwise lofty ceiling.
Parents get the best deal (or if the rules of ‘shotgun’ apply in your family, the spoils go to whoever calls it first – and only once the car is in sight, never from inside the house!) with front seats that may as well be lounge chairs.
Big, broad and comfy seats, stacks of storage, real stitching detail, easy to decipher and logical controls – the Santa Fe delivers on all fronts. The driver even gets 14-way power seat adjustment including cushion length – handy to have.
Cartage needs are met by 130 litres of storage with all three rows up, 547L to the second row, or drop all seats and fill to the roof for 1625L. Under the floor there’s a full-sized spare, while towing maxes out at 2000kg with a 100kg ball load – upgradeable to 150kg with an accessory suspension upgrade.
Suspension matters when it comes to ride and handling too, of course, and the Santa Fe delivers more good news on that front.
Hyundai’s local arm develops a unique tune for this market to cope with local conditions and driver preferences, and put through its paces from city to country, the Santa Fe delivers a controlled and comfortable ride that's free from either jarring or wallowing.
Comfy as it may be, the Highlander also holds up if conditions get twisty. It’s not an enthusiastic sports car by any measure, nor does it pretend to be, but the calm and controlled way the Santa Fe feeds through corners belies its role as a plush family rig.
Push the diesel engine to its upper rev range and it can get vocal, with a little more vibration and low-volume rattle detectable at lower speeds than you might otherwise find in Euro competitors.
Rolling noise is subdued, with tyre and wind noise hardly impacting occupants. Overall, compared to the previous-generation Santa Fe, every area of refinement carries an extra layer of sheen.
Despite no groundbreaking upgrades over the outgoing engine, the diesel Santa Fe still feels strong enough with a load on board, and is matched to a smooth eight-speed auto with a well-sorted shift map that sees it rarely second-guessing driver demands.
Moving off the road and onto loose surfaces, the Santa Fe does its best to keep on top of changing conditions. On gravel it does quite well, but wet grass and mud throw up some challenges. It’s in those conditions the 4WD lock button comes in handy.
As with the rest of Hyundai’s range, the Santa Fe carries a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and capped-price servicing that charges $399 for the first three visits, $499 for the fourth, and back to $399 for the fifth.
Keep your car serviced within Hyundai’s dealer network and you’ll also have access to Hyundai Auto Link Premium – a connectivity service that gives you smartphone access to your car and allows functions like remote locking, unlocking or starting, plus access to vehicle status.
For all of the Santa Fe’s positives, the biggest sticking point for urban buyers is the lack of a petrol engine option. While diesels are fine, particulate filters need regular long runs at speed to perform a self-cleaning cycle.
Quick 10-minute trips between home, school and work won’t do the trick. Sure, economy is a benefit, but the option of the 2.0-litre 175kW/350Nm engine from the US-market Santa Fe would round out Hyundai’s offerings nicely for Australia, but isn’t on the table at this stage.
That said, regular weekend trippers who cover decent distances regularly shouldn’t encounter any DPF issues.
Otherwise, Hyundai’s done a fine job with the new Santa Fe, taking real families into consideration and delivering thoughtful solutions to improve daily use functionality. Right down to little details like Rear Occupant Alert to remind drivers if they might have left a passenger in the car in a moment of absent mindedness.
A lot has changed since Hyundai first arrived in Australia peddling cut-price small cars, and the evolution and continual improvement of the Santa Fe proves that the brand isn’t just trying to emulate highly successful brands, it’s trying to topple them.
After a week with the Santa Fe Highlander, it’s clear that Hyundai hasn’t attempted to rewrite a science-fiction legend (that’d be an odd thing for a carmaker to undertake), but the brand has had a fair stab at rewriting the rules for large SUVs in Australia.
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