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There comes a time in many families when the call is made: ‘We need a bigger car’. You’re a bit fed up with jamming all of your gear into something small, or the imminent arrival of another human into your clan will spur the decision.

While smaller vehicles are cheaper to buy, run and drive, they don’t suit all purposes. Sometimes, you’re looking for vast acreages of steel and sheetmetal to call your home on wheels: room enough for family and gear to sprawl out, and keep tempers (kids and adults alike) in check.

If that’s the case for you, you’re either looking at a big 4×4, big people-mover or a large SUV. If it’s the latter, there’s a very good chance you’ve got these two vehicles in your sights.

The 2019 Holden Acadia is a welcome replacement for the aged and decried Captiva. Like a marquee player flown in from overseas, the Acadia is picked from GMC’s domestic line-up in the USA. It’s been training hard and acclimatising to local conditions, however: Holden engineers have been busy fine-tuning the Acadia’s drive and ride at Lang Lang.

Hyundai’s biggest and most expensive vehicle, the Santa Fe, has been a very popular model here at CarAdvice. It even got an invite to our 2018 Winner’s Circle. It’s a popular choice with buyers as well, although it’s outsold by Mazda’s CX-9 and Toyota’s Kluger.

Both models we have here are top-speccers. Holden’s Acadia is the LTZ-V that (at the time of writing) has a drive-away price of $67,990 in AWD spec. At the bottom of the pile is the LT FWD, which has its own drive-away deal of $42,990.

Hyundai’s Santa Fe, in top-tier Highlander specification, has a drive-away price of $66,686 at the time of writing. That’s compared to a starting price of $48,018 for a petrol-powered Active grade.

So, there isn’t much difference between listed prices. How good a deal you can get, in this current climate of slowing sales and stagnant stock, is up to your own enterprise.  

The Acadia you see here is a first for Australia and sourced from GMC in the USA. However, the nameplate goes back to a first generation in 2007. Back in those days, Holden’s Captiva was going into its second year on the market. It’s the same basic recipe from the previous Acadia: a big SUV with three rows of seating, V6 petrol power, and your choice of FWD or AWD on a unibody frame.

The Acadia is a big unit: it’s just shy of 5m long (4979mm) and 2m wide (1916mm). Other important dimensions: 1767mm tall, 2857mm wheelbase and 1638mm wheel track. The front end is big and bluff, with a distinctive American presence about it.

While also a seven-seater, the Santa Fe does feel noticeably smaller and sleeker in direct comparison. It’s not an optical illusion. The Santa Fe measures in with almost 200mm less length (4770mm), a little less width (1890mm), and 60mm less height (1705mm). The Santa Fe’s more streamlined design, with less sheetmetal up front, lessens the visual size.

The Santa Fe you see here is its fourth generation since first appearing back in 2001. This is a fresh all-new Santa Fe that came out mid-late 2018.


Safety

While all specifications of Acadia get low-speed AEB, the LTZ-V gets this important safety feature at all speeds. There’s also lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist and lane-edge detection for roads without markings, blind-spot monitoring with lateral impact avoidance, rear cross-traffic alert, seven airbags, Forward Collision Alert and Follow Distance Indicator.

Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality is present in the convenience section for the LTZ-V, along with a nice and effective 360-degree camera set-up that helps slide the big rig into tighter spaces.

If you’ve got an inclination for towing, the Acadia comes with a towbar standard and 2000kg towing capacity. We haven’t tested how well it tows, but the rear camera would make hitching up a doddle.

The Acadia has a traffic sign recognition system, which uses cameras to read changes in the speed limit. A little sign flashes when you’re going over the indicated speed limit. This does get annoying when it misreads or doesn’t read a change in the speed limit, which did happen once to me. Or, it’s equally annoying if you’re driving according to some kind of GPS speedometer. It doesn’t stop flashing, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

When you’re discussing safety, ANCAP scoring is perhaps the most important point: the Acadia scored five stars. Digging deeper, it scored 94, 87 and 74 per cent for adults, children and vulnerable road users respectively, and 86 per cent for the safety assist system.

In direct comparison, the Santa Fe scored five stars as well, with 94, 86, 67 and 78. So, you’re splitting hairs in trying to decide which is most safe – both are very much so.

Standard fare in safety for the Santa Fe Highlander is extensive. All of the up-to-date acronyms are present and accounted for: AEB, BSM, RCTA, LDW and lane-keep assist. There are six airbags throughout the cabin, however unlike the Acadia, the curtain airbags don’t fully cover the third row.

The Santa Fe has a great 360-degree camera that makes parking and manoeuvering quite easy, which is helped by great visibility from the driver’s seat. And while it has a 2000kg capacity, a towbar is an optional accessory.


Engine

The engine is General Motors’ 3.6-litre V6, which is happy to dine on 91RON. It makes 231kW at 6600rpm and 367Nm at 5000rpm in typically peaky naturally aspirated petrol fashion. However, it only climbs the tacho when you’re really leaning on it.

Typical driving rarely sees more than 2500rpm, and the engine gives more than enough impetus from these speeds. At the same time it’s quiet and refined, only becoming audible when under load.

Take off hard from standstill and you’ll quickly outstrip the front end’s traction. One wheel spins briefly and electronics intervene quickly and effectively. The AWD system uses an electronic twin-clutch set-up in the rear differential, which can decouple the rear end or split torque between sides. It’s a smoother operator on blacktop with AWD engaged.

We managed to get 9.6 litres per 100km on my long commute home, however this is mostly sitting between 70 and 110km/h. Hardly onerous stuff. Harder driving in heavy traffic and whatnot will see that head north to around 11 or 12 litres per hundred.

This is in line with what Holden quotes: 12.7 urban, 7.3 extra urban, and 9.3 combined over 100km. These numbers are helped by a good stop-start system as well as cylinder deactivation. Having nine ratios in the gearbox is no doubt good as well.

Hyundai’s Santa Fe has only one engine option as well: 2.2 litres of turbocharged diesel, which makes 147kW at 3800rpm and, more importantly, 440Nm at 1750–2750rpm.

That thousand-rev pocket of peak torque sits just above where the eight-speed gearbox plants the tacho; where it’s a muted diesel rattle inside the cab. Plant it, wait a moment for a gear or two to shift as those exhaust gasses build up, and you’ve got smart enough acceleration to get moving.

Although the diesel engine can’t equal the petrol competition in terms of outright refinement and quietness, the Santa Fe’s powerplant is still quite nice for daily driving and well matched to the gearbox.

A small-capacity turbocharged diesel engine is quite efficient, surprise, surprise. You’ll have to be doing something ridiculous, or stuck in some truly awful traffic, to get into the double-digits: our usage varied between 6.5 litres per 100km on highway runs to 8.5 litres on a more combined cycle.


Interior

The second row folds down flat for a huge, usable space. Little bugbears here include the small gap between the second and third rows you can lose things into, and you need to remove the centre-seat headrest completely to fold it down. The great boot size is complemented by a decent-sized bin on the right-hand side and some underfloor space at the back, along with a 12V socket.

The Acadia’s American roots mean the second row’s 60/40 split is on the wrong side, so the best access to the third row is on the road side. All five rear seats have a top-tether, and there are ISOFIX points for the two outside seats on the second row.

Up front, the accommodation is good. It’s all about being spacious and comfortable, with a fairly traditional and conservative overall design and feel. It’s comfy, in a 1990s sofa lounge kind of way. Inductive charging is nice, along with two USB points and a 12V port.

At this pricepoint, the Acadia is let down a bit by some cheap-feeling finishes: the wood-look trim feels chintzy on close inspection, and hard plastic along the centre console betrays the softer touches around the dashboard and doors. In an automotive landscape that is forever climbing a ladder of premium-ness, the Acadia is lacking a bit of a special feeling.

The infotainment unit is a new-generation set-up from General Motors. It’s an 8.0-inch unit compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. There’s also built-in satellite navigation, and its good design makes it a very slick and easy system to use, being fast and responsive to the flicking, squeezing or prodding finger. It’s a definite improvement over what’s currently offered in the Colorado and Trailblazer.

When I set up my own driver’s position in the Acadia, leftover second-row legroom is huge. Only when I slid forward the full amount did I manage to get knees to touch the front seat. There’s stacks of toe and headroom, as well. The seats are similar to the offering upfront: comfy and spacious. While the interior might lack some of the nice finishes and details of other models, you can’t argue with the outright space offered. There are two big sunroofs for the first and second rows, which are separately controlled (front slides, rear tilts). There’s no transmission tunnel to impinge on legroom in this AWD, either.

Along with a couple of USB points and cup holders, there a flimsy sliding storage bin in the centre console for the second row, which does give you some thoughtful and usable space for stowage.

The third row is impressively comfortable, for a third row. The seats are raked enough to not feel like a bench, and the floor sinks down to allow for decent comfort. You need to slide the second row forward to fit your knees in – luckily they have room to burn. By my figuring, you could fit three average-sized adults behind each other, and have enough room to not be tormented. Visibility from the third row is quite good as well, thanks to the generous amount of headroom and big, wrapping glass panels at the back.

While the Acadia has a more traditional and potentially demure interior, the Santa Fe’s interior is a bold representation of what Hyundai is capable of. It’s an interior that is truly impressive to look at: quilted and perforated leather trimming, soft-touch multi-layered dashboard and textured speaker covers. All surfaces that the casual eye gets cast over are impressively high end.

Functionally, the interior of the Santa Fe is also a winner. Hyundai’s familiar 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment unit is easy to operate, with all of the right boxes ticked. Touchpoints are all nice and easy to use, and a head-up display that includes blind-spot warnings and GPS-fed speed limits (it’s sometimes wrong, with roadworks).

Our test unit had the optional dark beige interior finish, which is more accurately described as milk and dark chocolates. It’s a $296 option (as well as burgundy) and will split opinions, or you’ll have a black interior. The roof lining is also a nice touch with a textured fabric finish.

Second-row comfort for passengers is very good. You’ll start noticing the slightly smaller footprint of the Santa Fe when compared to the Acadia here. While it’s plenty with great adjustability, there just isn’t as much overall as the Acadia. Seating is finished nicely like the front pews, and are excellent in terms of comfort.

You’ve got a heated second row in the Highlander, but no controls for the air-conditioning. And those with dozing infants and toddlers will like the retracting window screens for the second row.

Open the boot, and you’ll think for a second you’ve got a five-seater: the third row is smartly concealed by carpet lining. Reach in under the carpet, pull the tabs, and… No… Wait. You’ll need to slide the second row forward a little to deploy the third. Once that’s done, and you slide into the cramped access from the side (with a 60/40 split, with RHD orientation), you’ll find something less roomy and comfortable than the Acadia.

Headroom is limited, and the floor doesn’t drop down enough to accommodate much comfort. That sloping roofline and big sunroof do eat into the headroom noticeably, and the windows are a little smaller. It’s probably enough space for what most need, however, and is big enough for smaller humans. I’m sure most adults could handle it for shorter runs, and they would appreciate the air-conditioning control, some storage, and 12V plug within reach.


Ride

Riding on 235/55R20 Continental rubber, the Acadia is a composed and comfortable operator on the road. Although it feels like a big vehicle (it is), it’s easy enough to punt around.

Don’t assume it handles like a big boat either – it doesn’t. It combines noise suppression and bump absorption well, while staying connected and in control. The electric power steering system was retuned by Holden for Australian tastes, and I reckon Holden has done a great job.

The suspension was also retuned at Lang Lang, which varies between specifications. Lower specs get a straight passive damping set-up, while the LTZ-V gets the Flex Ride system.

This has adaptive dampers and a variety of drive modes: 2WD, 4WD, off-road, performance and towing. I’m not sure why you’d swing the dial around on a two-tonne Acadia for twisty-road fun, but you can do it regardless. Leave it in 2WD or AWD and you’ll have a ride that’s on-point for a big SUV – comfortable and in control.

The Santa Fe doesn’t have flash adaptive dampers, but it still gives a great ride regardless. The steering feels responsive without being busy, and the suspension soaks up big and small hits alike very well. It doesn’t feel like a big car to drive. Visibility is great – only when you look through your rear-view mirror do you remember the 4.7m of length.

The adaptive cruise-control system works well, and the combination of a head-up display and LCD binnacle gives you all the information you might want.


Servicing intervals

Service intervals for the Acadia are every 12 months or 12,000km. Service costs over seven years or 84,000km total $2153, with prices varying between $259 and $359.

On the other hand, the Hyundai has 12-month or 15,000km intervals. You’ll rack up $2866 over the same time period, with prices ranging between $389 and $510. So, the diesel-powered Hyundai will cost you an additional $713 over the seven years, although you do have an extra 21,000km up your sleeve over that time period with the longer intervals.


VERDICT

Although the petrol-powered Acadia will no doubt be beaten by the smaller turbocharged diesel under the Santa Fe’s snubnosed bonnet in terms of fuel economy, there is appeal in a petrol engine’s simpler mechanical set-up for those looking for long-term ownership. It’s not something you can put a number on or really quantify, but not having a turbocharger, intercooler or diesel particulate filter is advantageous. And take note of the slightly more expensive servicing.

In many ways, these two vehicles are hard to separate. They’re both seven-seaters with a big focus on family functionality. They’re both very safe offerings with a great ride and driving experience. Mind you, I didn’t put high-speed dynamics very high up on the list. These will absorb lots of family bodies and incidentals well, while also charging phones and fitting in baby seats.

If third-row comfort and safety, along with outright space, are right at the pointy end of importance for you, the Acadia will be the pick. It’s simply a larger vehicle overall, and has more space inside. This is particularly evident in the third row, where you’ve got the added safety of better airbag coverage.

The Acadia is a quantum leap in front of what Holden previously offered in this segment, and is correspondingly more expensive. The driveline is smooth and powerful enough, and will return decent economy figures unless you’re forever in stop-start traffic. Infotainment is great, and the gamut of driving aids makes the 2032kg of heft pretty easy to manage around town.

If the third row is needed, but not so often, then the Santa Fe is one you’re going to look at closely. It’ll fit kids in well enough, but note the less safe set-up in the event of a prang. Adults won’t fit in as well, especially if you’ve got some long limbs in the first and second rows. The interior is otherwise a huge highlight for the Highlander specification. It’s quite decadent and full of impressive designs and finishes. The driveline is efficient and torquey, and the ride barely puts a foot wrong.

While similar money nets you more car and space with the Acadia, the Santa Fe is a more impressive vehicle overall. The interior is much nicer, which is an important point when you’re spending over 65 large on a family jalopy. The Santa Fe has the edge in being lived with day-to-day, with an easier drive. You’ll need to be aware of that less comfortable and less safe third row, however. 

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