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Car reviews - Hyundai - Santa Fe - Highlander

Our Opinion

We like
Space, lots of features, ownership affordability
Room for improvement
Noisy engine, higher than expected price


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3 Feb 2015

Price and equipment

REMARKABLY, this Highlander is the most popular Santa Fe variant, accounting for 49 per cent of sales and dispenses with the belief that people consider Hyundai a price-led brand.

At $53,240, plus on-road costs, it is priced up against the ubiquitous - but segment smaller - CX-5 but isn’t quite as refined as the Mazda in cabin trim and engine smoothness. However, in these departments it is line-ball with the similarly-sized Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Territory with the bonus of the extra two seats.

So while it’s not a cheap SUV, it does have a string of desirable features and a solid safety net. The seven-seater wagon features standard gear such as sat-nav, 10-speaker high-end audio, leather upholstery, vented and heated front seats with heating for the second row, park-assist auto steering, electric tailgate and a panoramic sunroof.

Park it in the driveway and envious neighbours will note the 19-inch wheels, sunroof, privacy glass and chrome-nosed styling and concede that Koreans can make desirable machines. As a car to be seen in, it can turn heads and impress.

But before you open the wallet, consider the mid-spec Elite model. It has the same drivetrain but misses out on some frills including 19-inch wheels (it gets 18s), automatic parking, sunroof, heated and vented seats and high-end safety gear. Trim these niceties and you’ll pocket $4750.


Hyundai neatly balances simplicity with a strong features list and hasn’t made the dash anymore complex than one of its i30 hatchbacks. In fact few of the big-ticket items – heated/vented seats, sat-nav, air-conditioning controls and so on – aggressively show their presence in the displayed switchgear.

It’s all pragmatic and easy to use. The colour monitor is large and bright, the switches are flush-faced and modestly indicated, the instrument panel is simple and clear and even the audio has touch controls to minimise searching.

Perforated leather is used to face the seats and supported by vinyl panels to the sides and back – a compromise that will suit families with young children.

For welcome flexibility, the centre row is split 40/60 with a separate fold-down armrest. Both sections slide fore and aft. There are two secondary levers on the cargo area’s walls that remotely fold this row flat. The third row can also be folded flat within the floor. The Santa Fe carries seven but the third row is best suited to children with the restriction being the headroom.

Accessing the third row isn’t particularly easy, thwarted by the limited room offered when the second row is tilted forward. Despite its seven-seat category, this wagon isn’t as long as some competitors and space is limited.

Once ensconced, occupants of the second and third row have small personal storage spaces, cup-holders and air-conditioning vents. The third row also has a control for the rear air-conditioner – a task the centre row passengers would prefer.

With the rear seats folded, there’s 516 litres of luggage space and that expands to 1615 litres with the second row down.

That compares with Kluger at 529-1171 litres, the Territory at 523-1153 litres and the Grand Cherokee with five seats at 782-1554 litres. The Santa Fe is about 150mm shorter than these rivals.

Engine and transmission

The Hyundai-Kia sisterhood has created the impressive R-Series diesels, the example here being the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel with 145kW/436Nm and the latter torque figure trucking in flat from 1800-2500rpm.

Most of the action is in this torque band and owners find no joy breaching about 3000rpm, a place inhabited only by noise and fuel thirst. The engine is willing but a bit lethargic, especially off the mark as it spools up to its peak torque band.

But that suits the suburban-focused application of the wagon and mechanically, slots in with the character of the six-speed automatic. The low-speed torque quickly engages the cogs before a bit of a gap before the overdrive cruising sixth ratio slides in.

The result is a wagon that’s not quick, but steady and capable of a fuel consumption average of 7.3 litres/100km (8.0 on test).

Drive is the now SUV-benchmarked on-demand system where (generally) the front wheels are the primary traction providers. The Hyundai system engages the rear wheels when a central monitor senses a loss of traction at the front wheels.

It has the ability to lock the front and rear wheels in a 50:50 split for low, sub-40km/h speeds in off-road situations. It has a 185mm ground clearance which is on the upper-side of large SUVs.

It indicates it’s capable off the road, and on firm sand tracks it shows a degree of confidence. But the weight of 1923kg and the low-profile tyres means it’s no LandCruiser and adventures away from the bitumen should be treated with caution. That’s the same recommendation we would give the Territory or Kluger, by the way.

Ride and handling

No surprises that the Santa Fe platform is related to a passenger car with the addition of a central tunnel for the prop shaft. That’s the main reason why the big SUV is so capable on the road and why it shows car-like handling properties.

As a front-wheel drive, there is some understeer through corners when hurried.

It would take a lot of coercing, however, to lure the rear drive into action on a sealed road unless it’s greasy or wet. So racing-car thoughts of a road-going all-wheel drive handling weapon should immediately be washed from the owner’s mind.

It also displays body roll typical of a wagon that’s 1.7m high. It serves, however, as a blunt warning to slow down.

Not that the wagon is unsafe as the electronic chassis and brake control is first class.

Ride comfort is generally good. The dimensions of a wide body and track indicate stable road holding.

But while it has good cruising comfort and lopes over longer roads with ease – reflective of its ability to be a solid family holiday wagon – it suffers from some low-speed rumblings and is sensitive to bumps. We are making a comparison here to the CX-5.

The electric-assist steering improves with each model. The Santa Fe is probably the best Hyundai in this area but the three-mode weighting that produces artificial steering “feel’’ is not worth the value of the button.

Safety and servicing

The top-shelf wagon gets all the necessary safety equipment including a five-star ANCAP crash-safety rating, seven airbags, lane-departure warning, front and rear park sensors, a reverse camera and even a graphic park display overlaid on the camera’s image.

And there’s a heap more. The lights have a host of accoutrements, from corner lights at the front, headlights with washers, daytime running lights, an auto mode and for the back, LED tail-lights. The mirrors fold and are heated and the wipers are also automatically engaged.

For off-the-road exploits, there’s a hill descent button to slow downhill progress and a hill holder to keep it stable on hills.

And then there’s automatic park assist that with a push of a button will attempt to put the wagon in a park bay and remind you what should have been learnt when you got your license.

Hyundai impresses with its five-year, unlimited distance warranty and its lifetime capped-price servicing. It costs $1137 for three years of annual servicing and after three years, the resale value is estimated at a high 58 per cent.


Practical, family-focused and easy to live with. The Santa Fe ticks a lot of boxes and has affordable ownership costs. Simply, it suits our Australian family-sport-leisure lifestyle. Almost.

The problem is it’s a little soul-less. It’s not especially fun to drive, isn’t in the least bit sporty and it’s main reward is its efficiency.

For many people, that may be enough.


FORD TERRITORY TITANIUM AWD $56,740, plus on-road costs
Aussie-born SUV is in its final guise before retirement and presents good value as a rugged seven-seater with a reasonable 2700kg tow rating. Performance and durability rate highly as does ease of servicing but while features are good, it can’t match the Hyundai. Isn’t as frugal, either.

JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE LAREDO $53,000, plus on-road costs
Bargain price for a very competent off-road wagon loaded with features. But it only has five seats.

This is the most economical of the three rivals (but loses to the Santa Fe), has the most torque and the highest tow rating at 3500kg. For bragging rights, it also has an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Still carries quality control concerns, though.

TOYOTA KLUGER GXL AWD $53,990, plus on-road costs
The only non-diesel here but its popularity shows buyers don’t much care. It’s comparatively thirsty (10.6L/100km) and has a weak 2000kg tow rating, but has a lot of versatility in the seating despite a smallish 1171-litre boot area with all seats folded. It’s quiet, smooth and very well built and has a Toyota badge. Say no more.

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