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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe

Our Opinion

We like
Classy new look; persuasive equipment; impressive dynamics; refined diesel drivetrain; plush up-spec interiors
Room for improvement
Base Santa Fe’s cheap trim and plain dashboard; rear parking collision avoidance assist only on Highlander

Facelifted Santa Fe joins new Palisade in Hyundai’s fight for large SUV supremacy

22 Dec 2020



HYUNDAI’S Santa Fe has come along in leaps and bounds since the original V6-engined model arrived on our shores in late 2000. Over time, Santa Fe has increasingly become known for its keen dynamic ability and classy top-shelf variants, however it wasn’t until the fourth-generation’s arrival in early 2018 that Santa Fe could confidently claim to be a pukka seven-seater.


Almost three years later, this substantially altered 2021 model proves that Hyundai has been working hard at making Santa Fe a consistent high achiever. Along with its Kia Sorento cousin and Mazda’s excellent CX-9, Santa Fe competes with the most talented large SUVs around, and this extensive makeover is all about ensuring it’s the perfect companion to Hyundai’s even larger new Palisade.


“Youthful” is the buzz word, with an increased focus on dynamic finesse, drivetrain slickness and interior tactility. For any model beyond the rather austere base ’21 Santa Fe (which carries over its 17-inch alloys and plain interior), that youthful flavour extends to striking new wheel designs, impressive LED lighting signatures and a greater focus on transcending its value-for-money pricing.


You get plenty of kit for your coin in the new Santa Fe, as outlined in detail by GoAuto on December 15. But does it deliver beyond the showroom?


First drive impressions


After the sharp-handling but overly firm-riding third-gen Santa Fe, 2018’s fourth-gen model offered welcome relief for anyone who appreciated a more supple ride. Or anyone suffering night sweats from the previous model’s claustrophobic third row.


Yet not everything is entirely up to scratch – not if you wanted a decent petrol engine. Lumped with an ageing 2.4-litre four-pot from the old ix35, the base Santa Fe Active gave everything it had but struggled to cope when faced with challenging terrain, especially when carrying a load.


Hyundai addressed that situation a year ago when the familiar ‘Lambda II’ 3.5-litre V6 buried the 2.4, but due to low right-hand-drive volumes, the V6 is only available with front-wheel drive (as per Palisade and Kia’s Sorento).


For 2021, it’s a rinse-and-repeat scenario … until you start to sift through the details. While the new ‘SmartStream G’ 3.5-litre petrol V6 is an evolution of the previous Lambda II, it has been internally reworked to reduce friction and recalibrated to deliver a stronger mid-range and improved driveability.


Mated to the same HMC-developed eight-speed automatic as before, the V6’s outputs fall slightly (now 200kW/331Nm compared to 206kW/336Nm) and so does fuel consumption (down by 0.1L/100km to 10.5 litres per 100km), though we’re yet to drive the V6 because it won’t arrive until January.


Santa Fe’s alternative power source – a new ‘SmartStream D’ 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four – is also a development of the engine it replaces (the circa-2009 ‘R-Series’) but it has been substantially re-engineered and has lost a heap of weight by switching to an aluminium block (instead of cast iron).


The new diesel is slightly smaller in capacity than the R-Series (2151cc versus 2199cc) yet has near-identical outputs (148kW at 3800rpm, and 440Nm from 1750-2750rpm compared to 147kW/440Nm). The big news, however, is a 19 per cent fuel-efficiency improvement on the combined cycle (down from 7.5 to 6.1L/100km).


It also scores a new transmission – an eight-speed ‘wet’ dual-clutch ’box from the updated i30 N – which features oil-submerged clutch packs, ‘sports mode’ dynamic shift mapping and downshift rev matching. In combination with the pleasantly refined, impressively punchy new diesel, it is mostly slick in operation and helps support an increased 2500kg braked towing capacity, just like the updated petrol.


Hyundai has also tweaked the Santa Fe’s chassis to deliver a sportier drive without affecting its comfort, and that’s how it feels most of the time, even wearing new 20-inch wheels (with 255/45R20 Continental Premium Contact 6 tyres) on Elite and Highlander.


HMCA says the engineers at the Namyang proving ground now have enough data and tuning knowledge from a decade of Australian development that they relish the challenge of achieving the correct dynamic “flavour” for our market.


What that means is a planted, neutral cornering stance, quite meaty steering weighting (though with a pleasing degree of finesse) and a genuine affinity for both corners and straights – combined with all-wheel-drive traction in the diesel. Indeed, bombing along country roads and motorways in an up-spec Santa Fe has never been such a rewarding experience, though the larger Palisade is quieter.


A lot of the Santa Fe’s appeal can be attributed to the 2021 model’s visual upgrades. In terms of overall architecture, little has changed – just the grille, front and rear bumpers, lighting detail and (most) wheels – but the effect is quite dramatic.


The ’21 Santa Fe’s striking ‘Cheshire cat’ front grille works best wearing dark chrome as per Elite and Highlander variants (it’s black in the base Santa Fe and Active) and so does the new lighting signature with very cool T-shaped DRLs running from the upper light to the lower twin main beams that sit adjacent in Santa Fe, not stacked like the Palisade’s.


The Elite and Highlander in particular, but also the 18-inch-wheeled Active, really do pack a premium visual punch. Given that Highlander has traditionally accounted for almost half of all Santa Fe sales (70 per cent if you also include the Elite), there’s plenty of sense behind favouring the stars of the show.


Clever changes continue inside, where new Santa Fe carries over much of its cabin from before but introduces a fancy new bridged centre console with ‘shift-by-wire’ push-button gear selector (shared with Palisade) on Active, Elite and Highlander for a newfound level of designer chic.


Combined with a leather-clad dash on upper variants, the flagship Highlander uniquely benefits from Nappa leather (in charcoal or camel), black suede headlining, a perforated-leather heated steering wheel, fan-cooled electric front seats (14-way for the driver, 10-way passenger), heated second-row outer seats, ambient lighting, a head-up display, surround-view monitor, a 12.3-inch full-LCD instrument cluster and a panoramic glass sunroof, as well as full-LED head- and tail-lights and unique 20-inch alloys.


That’s in addition to the Elite’s power tailgate, third-row USB ports, rear occupant alert and slick 10.25-inch multimedia navigation system with (wired) Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and 10-speaker premium Harman/Kardon sound system.


The Active and base Santa Fe feature a six-speaker, 8.0-inch multimedia system with wireless phone charging, but curiously they also get wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. Hyundai Australia is working on a solution here and may be able to retro-fit wireless smartphone integration to Elite/Highlander further down the track.


New features aside, the Santa Fe continues to impress as a well-rounded seven-seater. Its seats feel more supportive than Palisade’s, the second row gains an 39mm of additional legroom, and one-touch access to the useful third row is facilitated by a seating arrangement set up for right-hand drive.


Santa Fe’s overall boot space has also been expanded slightly – now 571 to 782 litres (was 547L), depending on second-row seat position, and 1649L with all seats stowed (was 1625L).


About the only real dud note inside is the base Santa Fe’s cabin. From a distance, its textured seat trim appears very fashionable but up close it feels very thin and artificial, and its carry-over dashboard – while eminently functional – seems dowdy when compared to its classier siblings.


At the launch of the fourth-gen Santa Fe back in 2018, HMCA’s chief executive JW Lee told GoAuto he expected sales volumes of the new model to lift by 50 per cent to around 12,000 units a year. At that time, Santa Fe’s record was 7974 sales, achieved in 2017.


Instead, Santa Fe managed 7523 sales in 2018 and 5857 sales in 2019, placing it behind key rivals such as the Toyota Kluger (11,371) and Mazda CX-9 (7168).


Year-to-date in 2020 (Jan-Nov), Santa Fe has managed 4208 sales, maintaining its third-in-class position behind Kluger (7977) and CX-9 (6167), and placing it marginally ahead of Kia’s new Sorento (3808).

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