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We all know how good the Santa Fe Highlander is, with its flash interior and great attention to detail. It’s a top-spec $60,000 proposition, however, which is a $14,500 premium over the base-spec Active. No small amount of money.
How does that bottom-rung option stack up? We’ve got a $46,000 Hyundai Santa Fe Active, with the 2.2-litre turbo diesel. The outright price leader has a 2.4-litre petrol engine (138kW at 6000rpm and 241Nm at 4000rpm) and a $43,000 price tag.
Not everyone gets their heart set on those warm-and-fuzzy feelings we get from heated, electric quilted leather seats and contrast stitching. When it comes down to the task, those nice-to-haves don’t really help wrangling the family through the labyrinth of urban life.
There’s another option, too: the diesel-only Elite specification sits between the Active and Highlander, with a $54,000 price tag, and shares a lot of equipment with the Highlander.
One thing this Active does share with the rest of the gang is that driveline, the 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine. Considering you get more power (147kW at 3800rpm) and torque (440Nm at 1750–2750rpm) with the diesel engine, along with better quoted combined fuel economy (7.5 litres per 100km versus 9.3), there is a pretty good case to stump up a few grand for the diesel motor.
It’s an engine that’s quiet and smooth, with a 1000rpm range of peak torque giving you a nice, tractable punch for merging and overtaking.
There’s certainly enough grunt for a people mover, made accessible via the eight-speed automatic gearbox and all-wheel drive. The petrol engine is no doubt a little quieter at idle and at a thrum, but this diesel is far from intrusive.
Fuel economy from the oiler is impressive, especially when compared to the (mostly petrol) segment. I flirted with figures in the high fives for short periods on the highway, but an overall number settled down to around 7–7.5.
With a 71L fuel tank, you’ve got a pretty impressive range of almost a thousand kays.
I’m not sure how much people will care, but I love the design of the air filter on this Hyundai. It’s the most accessible design I’ve seen in any vehicle, sliding out like a cartridge in about five seconds flat. I’m sure the folks in the workshop appreciate it.
The Santa Fe is classed as an SUV, but it doesn’t feel like one. It feels more like a big, slightly tall wagon. The design is all about maximising interior space, without falling into the trap of looking like a Ssangyong Stavic.
The snout is short, and the roof line gently falls away into a broad D-pillar to lessen that people-mover look.
Looking a little more sleek than other models, the Santa Fe gets away with 4770mm of length and 2765mm of wheelbase. Its 1705mm of height is deceptive, but your rear storage is pretty good with a quoted 547–1625L available, depending on your configuration.
Going with the looks, the Santa Fe drives more like a big car than an SUV. Its ride is nicely tuned for comfort and control, the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear leaving little room for criticism.
Steering, equally, is on point. There are equal doses of comfort and control from the electric power steering, without feeling onerous at low speeds.
When deployed, the third row isn’t as safe or spacious as other options in the segment. The second row will need to slide forward to allow a bit of legroom, but your headroom isn’t great.
Likewise, a curtain airbag that doesn’t run the full length of the interior leaves the third row a little bit compromised. There are air-con controls, however, along with roof vents and cup holders.
There are no ISOFIX or tether points on the third row, which rules out baby seats.
While visibility in the third row isn’t great, the second row doesn’t suffer the same affliction. It feels airy, spacious and comfortable. It’s a 60/40 split, and feels nicely salubrious without a piggy in the middle.
Load up the full quotient, and while shoulders do rub a little, it’s still pretty good. There are no sunshades built into the doors, but two USB ports are good, and there’s enough storage for bottles in doors and documents in the seat backs.
Visually, there are a few differences with the Active model. While higher specs get 18- and 19-inch wheels, the Active makes do with 17-inch wheels and 235/65R17 Hankook Ventus rubber. There’s a bit less chrome splashed around, making the difference between models more noticeable than striking.
The interior is a big difference, too. Gone are those soft-touch materials and impressively detailed leather seats. You’ve got manually operated cloth seats in the Active, but I’ve got to say they are a nice seat regardless. The bolstering is supportive, and the material feels nothing like a bargain-basement option.
There’s a familiar theme of milk chocolate tones throughout the cabin, which is a bit polarising. I don’t mind it, because it feels refreshing compared to the many common, staid black interiors out there. Others reckon it’s at risk of ageing too quickly.
Along with the flash wraparound design and soft dashboard, there are a few hard plastics still in use on the doors and seat backs. You can call it cheap and low-rent, but you can also call it pragmatic and hard-wearing.
I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer not to spend time worrying about how trashed my family wagon’s interior is going to get, and don’t mind a bit of hard plastic here and there. Good news is, it doesn’t mark too easily, like others can.
The infotainment is similar across the range, and shared with the broader Hyundai stable. The Active gets a 7.0-inch unit, while higher specs get an additional inch in screen size.
It’s responsive and easy to navigate: two twisting knobs and eight buttons supplementing the touchscreen functionality. While there’s no native navigation or digital radio, you do get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
So, what does your penny-pinching miss out on? There’s no push-button start, no proximity key, no front parking sensors, and no wireless phone charging on the Active model. No climate control, which could prove irksome for families.
The biggest visual difference is the cloth seats and black headlining, but there are a handful of other smaller features omitted, like puddle lights and an air ioniser.
There is a lot of safety gear bundled in with the Active, which is really commendable. Blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control (with stop-go) are there, along with a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors.
Forward-collision warning, along with autonomous emergency braking, are notable inclusions, with AEB operating between 8km/h and 64km/h (pedestrians)/75km/h (vehicles). There’s also tyre pressure monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, driver-attention warning, and an electric park brake.
Hyundai’s impressive five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is only bested by Kia’s Sorento in this segment. Servicing is a capped-price affair for the lifetime of the vehicle. Every 12 months or 15,000km, you'll be paying $399 for your first three visits, then $499, $399, $425, $370 and $610. So that's $3500 for your first eight years or 120,000km.
The Active specification goes to show that the Santa Fe is a well-resolved family hauler, with all of the right credentials ticked. It’s spacious and comfortable inside without the high-spec niceties, and that program of local suspension tuning continues to pay dividends.
Safety is a strong point as well, although the third row is left a bit vulnerable without full airbag coverage.
If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, or you’re happy to go without the nice-to-haves, then the Santa Fe Active definitely stacks up nicely.