While the designs may be different, key mechanical and electronic tech is shared between the closely related Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento. Is that enough to put one ahead of the other?
When it comes to fresh metal, the large-SUV class is set to boom with either new models here already or coming soon. By the time 2020 came to a close, Kia had rolled out a new-generation Sorento, while Hyundai had a heavily revised Santa Fe.
Behind the scenes, these two seven-seat SUVs are closely related. Hyundai and Kia share development costs and things like engines and transmissions. Rather than one car badged two different ways, the design and specifications give the two a little breathing room in the busy large-SUV market.
Are those differences enough to give one a clear lead, though? We pick apart the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander and Kia Sorento GT-Line to find out.
Pricing and Spec
With a near match of list pricing, the Santa Fe Highlander diesel from $65,200 plus on-road costs is just a touch ahead of the list price for the Sorento GT-Line from $63,070 plus on-road costs.
As is often the case for Kia, though, there’s a drive-away offer that makes the value look sharper: $66,290 drive-away nationally. Hyundai doesn’t match with a national drive-away deal, so pricing may vary by state and location, but expect to pay around $70–71K on the road.
Advantage Kia, at first glance.
Safety specification of both is comprehensive. Highlights include blind-view monitor camera that displays in the fully digital instrument cluster, traditional blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic assist, lane-keeping assist with steering intervention, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, and 360-degree cameras.
Autonomous emergency braking also features on both, with the ability to detect cars, cyclist and pedestrians – as well as junction assist to help out where visibility may be limited, and a rear-park collision avoidance.
Despite the Sorento’s newness, and the comprehensive overhaul given to the Santa Fe, curtain airbags only cover the first and second rows of seats, with no third-row coverage.
Both do include a rear-seat reminder function to alert the driver to make sure no-one’s been left behind, and safe-exit assist to help prevent opening a door into oncoming traffic.
On key safety spec, then, it’s an even match.
Externally, it’s a similar story. While the Sorento uses a crisper-edged styling theme, and Hyundai’s look is slightly more organic, both follow a mostly well-worn path for flagship SUVs.
There’s plenty of satin chromework around the body, adorning the window line and front and rear bumpers of both. Both bodies sit atop 20-inch wheels, and both feature LED lighting at each end.
The Sorento looks the larger of the two when parked side-by-side, but with matte finishes on the lower plastics, it doesn’t match the premium appeal of the all-colour-matched Santa Fe.
The Sorento’s slightly grander appearance translates into its dimensions. It is a touch bigger: 4810mm long, 1700mm tall, 1900mm wide and on a 2815mm wheelbase, putting it 25mm longer, with a 50mm longer wheelbase than the Hyundai, though 10mm lower and a match for width.
Tech and Infotainment
With a contemporary platform underpinning the infotainment systems of both, and a 10.25-inch widescreen display in each car, the specs look very closely matched. Even the graphical layout is similar though not quite identical.
Again, the included features are closely matched. Integrated satellite navigation, Bluetooth, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, and wired connections for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all included.
Playback is via branded audio. Kia uses a 12-speaker Bose system, while Hyundai opts for a 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system. Despite being down on speaker count (and maybe ever so slightly less bassy), the Santa Fe’s audio is a little clearer.
Both pack in wireless charging, though the upright pad of the Santa Fe was sometimes temperamental about charging, unlike the flat-surface pad in the Kia, which worked every time we tested it.
Powering other devices in the cabin is via five USB ports in the Santa Fe, two up front, two in the second row, and one in the rear compartment. The Sorento provides one for each occupant, with three up front, three in the second row, and two in the rear. There are also 12-volt sockets up front and in the boot.
As for party tricks, both cars come with remote start and remote smart-park assist. This basically allows you to move the car in or out of a tight space using the key fob as a remote, with the front and rear sensors keeping the car from tapping anything.
It feels like a bit of a novelty, and you’ll likely impress your kids with it, then the neighbours' kids with it, then maybe the kids on the school run with it, more than finding regular practical applications to use it. Once you find a close-parked car at your local shopping centre car park, though, the system beats climbing over the centre console from the passenger’s door, hands down.
Both the Santa Fe Highlander and the Sorento GT-Line present beautifully, with nappa leather-lined interiors, LED ambient lighting, and fresh modern decor throughout.
The Hyundai edges out the Sorento ever so slightly in terms of premium appeal, with a suede-look headlining trimmed in black compared to the grey fabric weave used in the Sorento. Hyundai’s approach is just a touch more upmarket-looking than Kia’s.
The same applies to colour choices, with black leather the only colour available on the Sorento in Australia, compared to the option of black or camel beige for the Santa Fe. The latter fitted to the car seen here, again, giving a premium Euro-vibe along with some extra leather-wrapped and stitched surfaces that extend down the console.
Beneath the Santa Fe's high-set 'bridge type' console there's a second stowage shelf that's right-sized for stashing a handbag, satchel, or compact laptop case out of the way. The Sorento's more traditional console layout isn't as generous or flexible, on the other hand.
In terms of space, there are similar dimensions in both. The front row is spacious and comfy, though with my short-legged stance I found both a touch long in the seat base. Both have adjustable cushion length, but are geared towards longer legs, it seems.
Front seats are power adjustable, 14-way adjustment for the driver, 10-way for the passenger including lumbar support for the Sorento’s passenger seat, but eight-way for the Santa Fe (sans lumbar).
There’s heating and cooling for the front seats, and a heated steering wheel. In row two there are heated outboard seats – on both Highlander and GT-Line.
The second rows of both split, fold and slide to configure to taste. There’s one-touch third-row access for quick and easy slide-forward – the Santa Fe has its smaller section on the kerb side (left), the Sorento on the street side (right).
Some prefer one layout over the other, but the thinking follows that the smaller section is the one you’ll use to load the third row. However, everyone’s situation and use case is different here. It’s also possible to electrically release the second rows of both from the boot.
Second-row space is plentiful, though there’s just a few more millimetres of leg room in the Sorento, based on our measure and seat impressions. Manual sun blinds on the doors and console-level air vents also feature on both cars.
Into row three and, with the second row slid forward just a little, there's useful space in the back-back. The third-row seats aren’t ideal for adults, but tweens should be a decent fit. Once again, by millimetres, the Sorento gets the nod.
If you’re packing in kids' seats, the Sorento takes the lead: five top-tether mounts and four ISOFIX points, across rows two and three. The Santa Fe, meanwhile, limits seat fitment to the second row, with three top tethers and two ISOFIX points.
At the rear there’s similar space in both. Behind the third row you can fit a trio of school bags or a quartet of green grocery bags (have you mastered the art of stack-packing yet?). Drop row three and the space is a large, almost square space with the flexibility for sporting goods, prams, camping gear, small furnishings, or quick Bunnings stop-ins.
Both brands use a slightly different measuring point for boot capacity. Behind the second row, Hyundai claims a minimum of 271L and maximum of 782L. Kia keeps it simple and splits the difference with 616L. Again, there are a few small dimensional differences, but nothing significant to give one the nod over the other.
While some aspects of these siblings vary here and there, the drivetrain is essentially like-for-like the whole way through.
No matter if you lean towards the Santa Fe or Sorento, you’ll get a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine producing 148kW at 3800rpm and 440Nm between 1750 and 2750rpm. An eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission sends drive to on-demand all-wheel drive.
Fuel consumption for both is rated at 6.1L/100km on the combined cycle, but the Sorento suggests 7.4L/100km around town versus 7.5L/100km for the Santa Fe. With testing largely conducted in and around suburban streets, the Sorento recorded 8.2L/100km compared to 8.1L/100km for the Santa Fe – close enough to call it an even match.
There is a slight difference in maximum towing capacity. Kia lists 2000kg braked, 750kg unbraked and a 200kg towball load, but Hyundai steps up slightly with a 2500kg braked capacity; however, the ball limit is no higher at 200kg, which may still be a limiting factor.
On the Road
Before hitting the road, there’s a standout quirk to the new dual-clutch auto – and that is a stubborn hesitation to launch on steep driveways. Getting up a car park ramp or starting off on a steep street shows a real reluctance to get moving.
Otherwise, the news is much better. On more level surfaces, and for motoring through town, the new automatic is swift-shifting and smooth, with no gremlins or untoward behaviour.
From a usability standpoint, there’s a different transmission interface in each car. The Sorento uses a rotary selector with a button in the middle to select park, while the Santa Fe has a push-button selector, but with P offset to the side.
Breaking the habit of park being up top wasn't easy at first, making it easy to select reverse instead of park. Not ideal, but easier to get the hang of with time.
There are minor differences in the way the two cars are set up. Each brand conducts its own local tuning for steering and suspension, so the end result is two cars that offer some subtle ride and handling differences.
The Hyundai was a touch softer and more compliant over ragged road surfaces. The Kia felt a touch firmer and could come across a little jolty cresting speed bumps or across road surface joins.
Hyundai’s steering also felt just a shade more settled at higher speeds. On the open road, there was more driver input to keep the Sorento tracking true, while the Santa Fe felt more settled and relaxed.
Overall, though, there’s nothing uncomfortable about either. Road and wind noise are well managed, and on the go the 2.2-litre diesel engine is quite smooth and quiet.
Stopped at traffic lights, or idling away, there is a little vibration through the cabin – nothing too dire, but a little more than you might find in the petrol alternatives of these models.
Hyundai provides a five-year warranty with no kilometre cap for non-commercial use. Capped-price servicing is available at 12-month or 15,000km intervals. The first five visits are $459 apiece, or $2295 over five years, and charges vary for the next two services bringing the tally to $3155 over seven years.
Kia’s seven-year warranty is longer, and again features no kilometre limit for private use. Despite being mechanically identical, Kia varies service pricing at each visit, up to $2393 over five years (priced between $335 and $729 per visit). Up to seven years you’ll pay $3463 in total, making the Sorento slightly more expensive over the full term.
With so much in common, but still enough difference to stand apart, it’s no surprise that this pair of seven-seat SUVs are as closely matched as anything you’ll find in the segment.
There are no losers here, just a pair of winners with space, comfort and technology high on the agenda.
If you were aiming for a shade more space in a slightly more down to earth package, lean towards the Sorento. Something more plush inside with a nicer ride? The Santa Fe has your number.
More likely, though, your sense of style will pull you towards one or the other, be that the more athletic look of the Santa Fe, or the proud, square-jawed aesthetic of the Sorento. Either one would be a fine family chariot.