The Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander won CarAdvice’s seven-seater-SUV mega test, but does the mid-range Elite maintain the form or drop the ball?
The Santa Fe has been a consistently respectable model throughout its existence, which is not something you could say about every Hyundai released prior to 2007’s brand-transforming i30 hatch.
Now this fourth iteration since the Santa Fe’s 2000 debut must step forward to ensure it is competitive, against what must now be considered a glut of large seven-seater SUVs.
Just in the past 18 months alone we’ve seen the new Kodiaq from Skoda, the Tiguan Allspace from Volkswagen, and the CX-8 that gives Mazda a twin-pronged assault on the segment alongside the CX-9. Oh, and the new Acadia from Holden has just been launched.
The Hyundai’s $43,000 starting price is typical for the segment, though here we’re testing the mid-range Elite that costs from $54,000. While that’s an $11,000 jump over the entry-level Active, the gap lowers to $8000 if the Active features the same turbo-diesel engine as the Elite rather than petrol power.
We literally stepped straight out of a Tucson Elite into this Santa Fe Elite, which made for a conveniently immediate in-house comparison.
And the first surprise is that while the Tucson has a more premium-looking cabin after its mid-2018 update, the Santa Fe succeeds in feeling like another step up – with an upmarket vibe that will hold it in good stead if being cross-shopped against the classy cabins of the Tiguan Allspace and CX-9.
Common to all Santa Fes is an expansive, soft-touch dash – complete with a stylish arcing design that blends naturally into the doors.
If that design flourish could have been inspired by the interior of Jaguar’s XJ limo, there’s another Brit nod with the Bentley-esque quilted sections of the Elite’s standard leather seats. More left-field is the distinctive ‘melange twist’ cloth trim applied to the pillars, visors and roof lining.
Our test car also featured an optional ($265) “dark-beige” interior hue that the CarAdvice team appreciated in the Tucson Elite – even if we think it’s more caramel in colour.
As in that sister SUV, the Santa Fe Elite features a ‘floating’ 8.0-inch touchscreen as a smart-looking focal point for infotainment that benefits from a (great-sounding) 10-speaker Infinity audio system and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Elite also adds navigation over the 7.0-inch system in the Active (which does get the smartphone mirroring tech).
Buyers need to step up to the Highlander (as about half did with the previous Santa Fe) to get a high-tech digital instrument cluster, wireless charging, head-up display, and the most advanced version of Hyundai’s Auto Link smartphone app that allows various remote vehicle functions, such as locking/unlocking, hazard lights and horn, and cabin temperature setting for when the engine is started.
Every Santa Fe makes it easier to get into the third row than previous models. Simply press a button on the kerbside second-row seat base and the seat tips and slides forward automatically to create an entry gap to the rearmost pews.
There’s a distinction between '5+2-seaters' and 'seven-seaters' in this segment, and the difference in vehicle size can be just 69mm. That’s how much longer the Santa Fe is compared with Volkswagen’s Tiguan Allspace, and it’s the Hyundai that sits in the latter camp whereas the German SUV is in the former.
Aided by sliding second-row seats, there’s a decent amount of knee space in the third row for the average adult, whereas the Allspace is strictly a kids-only area. Ventilation and storage spaces are provided back there.
Head room is tight, though, and unlike a Mazda CX-8 (or CX-9) the third-row seatbacks lack top tether points, so child seats aren’t an option.
The Santa Fe’s curtain airbags also deploy from across the first and second rows only, limiting their help if there’s a side impact towards the very rear of the vehicle, though Hyundai says the airbags extend to the rearmost window to protect third-row occupants from glass debris.
(The Santa Fe has yet to be tested by independent crash body ANCAP, though the previous model scored the maximum five stars with a similar limitation.)
A 6.5cm-longer wheelbase – accounting for most of the new Santa Fe’s 7cm-longer body – liberates some extra cabin space, ensuring there’s plenty of second-row leg room even if you slide the bench forward to give rearmost passengers some extra space. A flat floor helps to accommodate three abreast, and there are two USB ports to keep smartphones and other devices charged on longer trips.
For any parents who have accidentally walked away from their car with bub or toddler still strapped in aboard, they will appreciate the Rear Occupant Alert feature in the Santa Fe Elite (and Highlander).
Using an ultrasonic sensor to monitor pressure on the rear seats (after the rear doors have been opened and closed), the system will first provide a visual reminder to ‘Check rear seats’ on the instrument display when switching off the car after driving. Ignore that, lock the car, and start heading away from the car with someone still in the back seat, and the Santa Fe then blasts its horn to prompt a swift return. That’s also triggered if kids lock themselves in the car by accident.
There’s also a variation on Audi’s Exit Warning system, where the Santa Fe will provide a visual and audible warning if the driver or rear-seat passenger immediately behind start to open the door when the vehicle’s radar has detected an oncoming vehicle.
They both work – and you can see them in action in our Hyundai Santa Fe video, above.
Elite and Highlander models also feature a ‘smart’ tailgate that will open automatically if you’re returning to the car and stand behind the vehicle for three seconds – useful if your hands are otherwise occupied with shopping bags.
All Santa Fes are equipped with autonomous emergency braking, drowsiness alert, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-keep assist.
We were prompted to switch off the lane-keep assist as the system is intrusive. Operating from 60km/h and above, it’s designed to help keep you centred between lane markings. But it’s overly sensitive, and even when you seem to be smack-bang in the middle of a lane, it feels like the steering is trying to fight your attempts to turn it in the desired direction.
Once off, though, the Hyundai’s steering is far more pleasing.
The low-speed ride isn’t quite as compliant as the Tucson’s, but the suspension avoids any major disturbances and becomes even better at smoothing out progress on country roads.
There’s some rumble from the Santa Fe Elite’s 18-inch wheels, though it’s not irritating and, in a way, simply highlights the Hyundai’s generally excellent cabin refinement – benefiting from some extra soundproofing measures for 2018.
Hyundai’s trusty 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel carries over and is also fairly muted most of the time, if not as quiet as the CX-8’s 2.2-litre equivalent – especially when more revs are on board.
The engine doesn’t need many revs, though. While there’s a touch of lag right off idle, a generous 440Nm delivered from 1750rpm to 2750rpm combines with a new, smooth-shifting eight-speed auto for relaxed momentum – getting punchy when the driver demands more urgent response.
Drivers can determine how torque is distributed to the front and rear wheels via a Driver Mode button. Eco makes the Santa Fe predominantly a front-drive vehicle for fuel economy, the default Comfort mode sends about a third of the torque to the rear axle, while Sport splits torque evenly.
In all modes, the all-wheel-drive system adjusts automatically for slippery surfaces. Consider that helpful for wet roads or gravel tracks, as the Santa Fe’s 185mm ground clearance isn’t going to tackle anything too demanding away from the bitumen.
Comfort was our preferred mode, as throttle response is dulled in Eco and the auto transmission becomes a bit too busy in Sport.
Fuel economy is rated officially at 7.5 litres per 100km, and according to the trip computer, we averaged 8.2L/100km during testing.
That helps running costs (even if the turbo-diesels in both the CX-8 and Tiguan Allspace 140TDI have even lower consumption at 6.0L/100km), as will capped-price servicing that averages $419 per annual visit over a five-year plan (with maximum annual kilometres pegged at the average 15,000km). Hyundai’s factory warranty covers five years.
In tandem with the improved MY18 Tucson, Hyundai now offers a formidable line-up of highly tempting SUVs for families.
And even if you can’t stretch beyond the Elite to the pick-of-the-range Highlander, the Santa Fe should be on the priority test-drive list for buyers looking for seven-seater flexibility.