Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - Active diesel
Superb visibility, excellent driver-assist tech, airy and pleasantly upholstered cabin, plentiful onboard storage, interior quietness
Room for improvement
Low-speed drivetrain lag, heavy steering, we expected more third-row space, unfortunate cabin rattle and cargo-blind rustle
Latest Hyundai Santa Fe moves the needle, but we still prefer its Kia Sorento sister
10 Jun 2019
HYUNDAI had a major re-think with its fourth-generation Santa Fe seven-seat SUV, crafting from metal, plastic and glass a grand statement of intent about its ambition to move upmarket as a brand.
It’s now possible to spend more than sixty large on a Santa Fe, in fully kitted Highlander trim, but here we are testing the base Active variant that has a more modest list price beginning with a four.
At this end of the spectrum. it’s still a plush-feeling thing and striking to look at, but has Hyundai sufficiently bettered its incumbent rivals to justify the premium push and rise to the top of Australian seven-seat shopping lists?
Price and equipment
The Santa Fe line-up is pretty simple, with three trim levels and only the base Active offered with a choice of petrol or diesel powertrains. The mid-spec Elite and flagship Highlander are both diesel-only.
We tested the diesel Active, which at $46,000 plus on-road costs is $3000 upstream of the petrol range-opener and $1150 more expensive than its direct predecessor. All variants, both petrol and diesel, have all-wheel-drive as standard, while premium paint is $695 extra.
The full Santa Fe range is fitted with Hyundai’s ‘SmartSense’ active safety and driver-assistance systems, including include forward collision avoidance assist (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), adaptive cruise control (with stop and go), lane-keep assist, high-beam assist and driver attention monitor.
Other standard safety equipment comprises electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, downhill brake control, hill-start assist, a tyre-pressure monitoring system, a reversing camera and six airbags – although the curtain airbags only run the length of the side windows and don’t protect third-row occupants from the D-pillar.
All variants have daytime running lights, foglights, a security alarm, remote locking, an electronic park brake, heated electric door mirrors, air-conditioning with second-row temperature controls, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel and a trip computer.
The Active has a 7.0-inch touchscreen multimedia set-up (higher grades get an 8.0-inch unit) with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring plus voice recognition, auxiliary audio and USB ports (with iPod compatibility), Bluetooth audio streaming and a six-speaker audio system. Active variants ride on 17-inch alloy wheels.
From outside, it’s easy to assume the Santa Fe will be one of those slit-windowed SUVs that are hard to see out of, but it’s deceptive. Visibility is excellent and Hyundai seems to have borrowed a blind-spot-busting trick from Subaru by positioning the door mirrors relatively low and beneath a quarterlight window.
We really liked the Active cabin and its stylish, classy tweed-looking but boardshort-fabric-textured grey upholstery that provides a welcoming and cosy look while promising to be easily kept clean. This, compared with the lack of lighter ‘dark beige’ upholstery and trim of higher-spec variants, the black plastics – particularly the geometric relief-map-like texture of the door speakers – contribute to a toned-down and a less in-your-face look.
But fake carbon-fibre trim on the dash and doors? Come, on Hyundai.
The majority of touch points are pleasantly squishy, with the now-ubiquitous stitched-effect upholstered dash and a quite minimalist layout with small clusters of buttons that are sensibly grouped.
We never felt the need to search around and ‘learn’ the Sante Fe cabin, which shows how much Hyundai cabin design has moved on from its busy button-fest recent past, and we appreciated the clear instruments with a digital speed readout available from the clear useful and easy-to-use multi-function display.
Seat comfort is pretty good in the first two rows, although the Santa Fe joins a growing list of SUVs in which the front seats seem to be designed with a misalignment of head restraint and backrest that results in a lack shoulder support. And at base Active level, the amount of seat adjustment is pretty minimal, with a lever-activated backrest angle from which the two closest settings to perfect are either too upright or too reclined.
Hyundai has clearly thought long and hard about the Santa Fe’s seat-folding system. The second-row seats have a remote fold release in the boot and the 60/40 split bench has the smaller section on the kerb-facing passenger side (each section also slides independently). A button on the shoulder of the seat enables third-row passengers to fold and slide this seat out of the way so they can exit the car, which is replicated on the side of the seat for people entering the third row.
The doors also open almost 90 degrees, providing plenty of space for people to get in and out of the Santa Fe and the fairly low-set seats provide plenty of height when clambering about the cabin or installing small children in their bulky restraints.
With the centre row set for the minimum level of legroom and recline for a six-foot passenger behind the same-height driver, there’s not quite enough kneeroom for another tall person in the third row, although there are unusually generous amounts of toe room. As such, it’s only really suited for five children at the back or strictly temporary transit for adults. A Mazda CX-8 or Kia Sorento is in a different league, space-wise.
But at least the Hyundai’s big windows, light grey ceiling and seat coverings and three-row air-con help quell claustrophobia.
A smallish touchscreen that lacks native sat-nav, the lack of dual-zone climate control and the old-style twist key are the only real reminders that this is a base variant.
The presence of impressively accurate adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist systems certainly help towards providing Santa Fe drivers with good value, but we couldn’t help but feel that a Mazda CX-8 provides more equipment – and space – for similar money, although we far prefer the Santa Fe’s classier upholstery.
Hyundai’s multimedia interface remains one of the best in the business for ease-of-use, and the Santa Fe is no exception. Smartphone integration via Apple CarPlay/Android auto makes for an easy life, too, and setting up Bluetooth is simple.
Cabin storage is a Santa Fe strong point, with a handy shelf above the large glove box, big recesses in front of and behind the gear selector, plenty of room in another bin beneath the front central armrest, a ceiling-mounted sunglasses holder and well-sized map pockets.
By comparison, the door bins front and rear are something of a let-down as they won’t hold drinks bottles much larger than 600ml, mainly due to the fancy bulging door speakers. A handy phone-sized tray is located beneath the middle-row air vents and all three rows get a pair of cupholders, with middle-row occupants accessing theirs via a fold-down central armrest and the rearmost pair also having a small wedge-like storage tray.
Device-addicted Santa Fe passengers will also appreciate the smattering of conveniently located USB and 12V charging ports.
An underfloor storage area in the boot can be used whether or not the cargo blind is stowed, but like third-row passenger space, cargo volume is on-par with some mid-size SUVs such as the VW Tiguan (and the five-seat version at that), at 547 litres with five seats in use, or a maximum of 1625L with them all folded. For reference, these figures are respectively 31L and 10L bigger than the previous Santa Fe.
When we drove a top-spec Highlander variant, it disappointed us with its noisy engine but the diesel donk under the bonnet of this Active test car was comparatively hushed. Perhaps the extra weight of the equipment-packed Highlander caused the engine to work harder?
We’re not sure, but road and wind noise were also impressively hushed during our test, with a notable absence of roar on coarse-chip country lanes and an almost eerie lack of gravel patter or rumble on unsealed roads.
Shame, then, that the cargo blind of our test car emitted a constant rustling sound and the bumpy roads of our dynamic test route uncovered a cabin rattle. And for some reason, the interior rearview mirror seemed to constantly vibrate, blurring the image.
While we’re at it, the Active’s audio system is not the most sophisticated-sounding set-up, with an unpleasant harshness as higher volume levels. It’s just as well the Santa Fe cabin is otherwise so hushed.
Engine and transmission
Hyundai has kept with the 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel we knew and respected in the previous Santa Fe, having applied a few revisions but not altered the peak power and torque outputs of 147kW and 440Nm.
Where the Santa Fe driveline has progressed is in joining seven-seat SUV rivals such as the Kia Sorento and Toyota Kluger in upgrading to an eight-speed transmission.
In our test car, we found this new eight-speeder would cause low-speed lag and hesitation, particularly from a standing start. It made things a little unpredictable when pulling out of junctions, whereas we didn’t have anywhere near as much trouble with the mechanically identical set-up in a Sorento.
More happily, once up to speed, you’d barely know it was there and it particularly impressed us on fast, twisty roads where it was always in the right ratio or poised to select it. But family SUVs tend to live in town, where we never had the same easy-going sense of ‘get in and go’ as we so enjoyed in the previous-gen Santa Fe.
Apart from the aforementioned step-off delay, we had no qualms with the engine’s performance once on the move, the new eight-speed auto helping keep it in the torque sweet spot for smooth and punchy progress, confident overtaking and the prompt dispatch of motorway on-ramps.
During our week of suburban and urban driving, a motorway trip and dynamic road look, we averaged 8.5 litres per 100km (the official combined-cycle figure being 7.5L/100km) but noted that in traffic this rises to 13L/100km (official urban cycle: 9.9L/100km). On a motorway trip, it sipped just 6.0L/100km (bettering the official extra-urban cycle figure of 6.2L/100km).
Ride and handling
Like the best bitumen-biased SUVs, the big Hyundai looks after its occupants with excellent body, roll and pitch control when tackling corners. It also shrugs off with mid-corner bumps and ripples without straying from its line or causing the steering to kick and fight.
The point is not to cut fast laps, but to enable the driver to maintain enough pace on twisty, hilly roads – or even negotiate major roundabouts – without frustrating following traffic or turning the cabin into something resembling a Roman vomitorium.
Grip and traction levels are good, surprisingly so in tighter bends where the Santa Fe reveals unexpected talent. It’s a competent and tidy handler, this thing. When you have two rows of precious cargo behind you, it’s good to know the car you are driving will react predictably and controllably in the event that evasive action is needed. From that perspective, we can also report the Santa Fe’s brakes to be excellent.
Hyundai’s Australian chassis tuning team has done a great job here, as for all its dynamic smarts, the Santa Fe’s ride comfort remains incredibly well balanced. There’s a well-planted firmness about it and occupants know about the condition of road surface beneath, rarely becoming jarring or jostling.
The most persistently patchwork surfaces seem to build up in the firm initial part of its suspension travel, but the Santa Fe absorbs pretty much everything else smoothly. On that note, the Santa Fe doesn’t feel all that confident on gravel compared with more softly-sprung rivals, but at least its vice-free dynamics prove consistent on loose surfaces; it just has lower limits of grip and traction.
Gripes? We’re not sure why Hyundai set the Santa Fe’s steering up to be so heavy at urban and suburban speeds, to the point where we found ourselves checking more than once that we hadn’t inadvertently activated sport mode.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP awarded the whole Santa Fe range a full five-star safety rating, broken down into 94 per cent for adult occupant protection, 86 per cent for child occupant protection, 67 per cent for vulnerable road user protection and 78 per cent for safety assist systems.
All Hyundai models are covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with 12 months’ roadside assistance and a capped-price servicing plan with maintenance intervals of 15,000km or 12 months, with costs ranging between $399 and $499 – dependent on interval – for the diesel.
We found the Santa Fe Active to be a mixed bag. It hasn’t quite as much equipment and nowhere near as much space as the equivalent Mazda CX-8, but the interior – especially upholstery – is much nicer. Then again, the Hyundai is 130mm shorter than the Mazda and has superior visibility, making it easier to park.
The drivetrain is excellent when up and running but often worryingly unresponsive in town. Similarly, the ride and handling are excellent at speed, but the steering is too heavy when going slowly.
Where Hyundai has excelled is in making this a truly modern-feeling family SUV, from the cutting-edge looks to thoughtful and practical – yet still stylish – cabin design. Although it’s not amazingly capacious as a seven-seater for legroom or boot space, the designers have made the most of the space available and clearly been thorough of thought when coming up with ways of easing of entry and egress.
As you’d expect, the new Santa Fe comes with many improvements that will delight owners of the previous model. But does the Santa Fe do enough to upstage Kia’s Sorento as our favourite all-round family hauler? Not quite, as the Kia is ageing gracefully due to its understated looks and polished personality, plus the fact it barely puts a foot wrong practicality-wise and comes with a market-leading aftercare package.
Kia Sorento Si diesel ($45,490 plus on-road costs)
Despite the arrival of several newcomers, it’s hard to look past the Sorento, which packs practicality and comfort into a stylish and understated shell, then surprises with the level of driving pleasure provided. It feels a lot smaller to drive than it looks. Shares a lot under the skin with a Santa Fe but it’s a better-executed family wagon.
Mazda CX-8 Sport AWD ($46,490 plus on-road costs)
If you prioritise space, the CX-8 has it in spades, but at base Sport level, the cheap-feeling seat upholstery lets it down, especially compared to the lovely fabric used in the Santa Fe Active. There’s a heap of standard equipment, though, and it’s a real pleasure to drive.
Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace 110TDI Comfortline ($46,990 plus on-road costs)
The German seven-seater is here because it’s not that much smaller than the Santa Fe and its third-row accommodation is similarly cramped. But in typical VW style, it’s a slick and smooth operator and we’re impressed by the many thoughtful interior touches.
Model release date: 1 July 2018
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