In this review: The 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander versus key competitors. Maybe - just maybe - an upstart from South Korea can be authentically David, against Goliaths from Japan and Europe.
If you want upmarket family transport, good value, reasonable performance and seven seats - you need to put the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander on your list. In this review we'll do objective benchmarking of Santa Fe Highlander against key competitors. Because this is what buying a new vehicle like the Santa Fe Highlander is really all about: selecting the best option, often from a massive pool of competitors. Let’s assess the Hyundai Santa Fe’s value, against real competitors.
Before we kick off with that: This is the second instalment of my long-term Santa Fe evaluation. Hyundai has supplied the vehicle, but they are not paying for this review, and and I’m receiving no compensation from Hyundai for producing it. The views expressed here are entirely mine, and completely independent.
THE RISE OF THE SUV ON AUSTRALIAN ROADS
Everywhere you look: SUVs. They’ve become the default family wagon. Prolific. Ubiquitous. Omni-present. A salient feature of the modern motoring landscape. According to official sources there are more than 350,000 SUVs being sold here in Australia, annually. One in every three new vehicles sold is an SUV - a very profitable segment for carmakers. Big-ticket items with lots of fruit.
Have a guess how many different SUVs are actually on sale in Australia today. It’s 93. If the damn things were locusts, it’d be biblical. As things stand, buying an SUV in Australia today is worse than going to JB HiFi for a new TV. At least at JB HiFi, all the TVs are situated under the one roof. You'd have to drive for hours to sample all the available SUVs in the flesh. However you dissect this market to arrive at a list of contenders it’s going to be - initially - like wrestling an octopus. An octopus with 93 tentacles.
Sophisticated unreliability - I could only be talking about the Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Touareg is a direct competitor with the Hyundai Santa Fe on fundamentals, but it is European and fundamentally more expensive. It's beautiful ... but still an unreliable basket case. I’ve had girlfriends like that, so I kinda get the attraction.
The poverty pack Touareg costs $15,000 more than the Santa Fe Highlander, here in Australia. Five seats for the Touareg, seven for the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander. So, accommodation is not what you’re paying more for in the Volkswagen. Touareg has a 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine. Hyundai Santa Fe is only 2.2. So, maybe that’s it. You spend your $15,000 extra, load another three or four rounds into the Russian roulette revolver of reliability - and drive home in the Volkswagen. With a bigger engine.
You get only five kilowatts more than the Hyundai Santa Fe - five! - plus 14 additional Newton-metres in the Touareg. (That’s three thousand bucks per additional kilowatt. An expensive way to get a tiny increase in power and torque.) So, that’s three per cent more peak power and three per cent more maximum torque in the Volkswagen, out of 36 per cent more engine displacement, costing $15,000 more.
Based on these figures, which company’s R&D department do you suppose is doing a better job on fundamental thermal efficiency? Four words: Brake Mean Effective Pressure. Here, Volkswagen is outrageously out-gunned.
The Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander has a stack of standard equipment which the poverty pack Touareg misses out on. The Touareg also gets a hateful space saver spare tyre. Full-size alloy spare with the Hyundai Santa Fe.
And, finally, don’t forget to bring your own personal lubricant to the Volkswagen dealership, because one of the many different flavours of happy ending available there involves you blowing $1500 extra, should you prefer any Touareg coloured other than white. $1500 for coloured paint. That’s the kind of customer experience you don’t forget in a hurry. However much you want to.
Nissan X-TRAIL. I quite like the X-TRAIL, in isolation. To drive around, it’s fine. But even X-TRAIL starts looking downright anorexic in seven-seat form, when you compare it with the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander. Nissan’s product planners have apparently had a brain aneurysm with the Australian-spec X-TRAIL - because you can’t actually buy a fully-loaded seven-seat X-TRAIL. Doesn’t matter how hard you try. You just can’t have that. It’s not on the menu. X-TRAIL is the Schroedinger’s Cat of seven-seat SUVs. The more you want seven seats, the less you can have all-wheel drive. Every box on X-TRAIL simply cannot be ticked. Or, maybe that’s Nissan’s cunning price plan, because it certainly does drive the price down.
The works burger of X-TRAILs is the all-wheel-drive Ti - but you can’t have an all-wheel drive seven-seater. So the X-TRAIL Ti is about $7000 cheaper than a fully loaded Santa Fe Highlander. And the X-TRAIL also has a hateful space-saver spare tyre.
So, let’s summarise: seven-seat X-TRAIL, versus Santa Fe Highlander - inferior spare tyre, inferior drive system, inferior engine performance … a CVT versus a proper auto transmission in the Santa Fe. No auto reverse parking system, and no auto opening tailgate, either. And X-TRAIL is cheaper than a Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander. Go figure.
The Nissan X-TRAIL is therefore a case of ‘buy me; I’m cheaper’. The Santa Fe is ‘buy me; I’m better’. What a complete philosophical role reversal for South Korean and Japanese vehicles. When did they change sides?
HOLDEN CAPTIVA 7
You’re kidding, right? A complete, comprehensive, unabashed lemon. You’d be better off cruising through the Barrents Sea in the Kursk, on the 12th of August 2000. Less would go wrong. I get more complaints about only one other car - and that’s the Holden Cruze. Or maybe the Volkswagen Golf. They’re all pigs. (Not to denigrate pigs - especially the large white and the landrace. Without pigs: there’d be no bacon. And I don’t want to live in a world without bacon.)
Holden was the product safety recall king of 2014, and they’ve had almost 70 recalls in the past 10 years - about one in 10 of those is for the Craptiva. Hyundai has had just 16 recalls in 10 years. So, contemporary Holden recalls outnumber Hyundai recalls by more than four to one. That’s a pretty good reliability barometer right there.
Anything made by by those wombats at GM Korea is a liability. Not to denigrate wombats.
Hyundai Santa Fe’s biggest threat is probably the Toyota Kluger - a real example of Toyota playing to its core strengths. But like the Touareg, the works burger of Klugers - the Grande - is $15,000 more than a fully loaded Santa Fe Highlander.
That Kluger Grande is a very impressive vehicle: Striking looks. Petrol-only - so it’s got more power but less torque than Santa Fe, as well as being significantly thirstier. But fundamentally Kluger is well sorted out … and it’s a Toyota, even if it is made in, and targeted for, the USA, primarily.
Toyota knows the game, and rarely drops the ball. Especially with SUVs. But $15,000 is a lot more cash. It’s the biggest speed hump on the road to Kluger Grande ownership. And of course the Toyota warranty is less than Hyundai’s.
DO YOU WANT A DIESEL?
Let’s talk about Santa Fe’s diesel, because a lot of people e-mail me and it’s pretty clear a significant number think diesel and urban driving are mutually exclusive propositions. Sometimes this is so, but not with Santa Fe. See, the Santa Fe does not have an exhaust particle filter. That’s a good thing.
Exhaust particle filters are not required in Australia - but they can be a problem for you if you are a highly urbanised driver and you buy a vehicle with a diesel vehicle with an exhaust particle filter. The theory is - on the vehicles with these filters - the filters catch microscopic exhaust particles, and you need then to go for a reasonably long drive on the highway every fortnight or so - minimum - so the exhaust can heat up and the filter can regenerate.
Regeneration is where the filter heats up and burns them away. However - and here's the catch - if that timely regeneration does not happen, the engine control computer enters ‘limp home’ mode, leaving you virtually stranded. Next stop is the dealership, which is time consuming. And possibly also expensive. Diesel particle filters suck, basically, and they really don’t help clear the air in Australia, so they’re also a joke. Anyway, you can drive continuously through the ‘burbs in a Santa Fe, and it’s just not going to present this kind of problem, ever. Because: There’s no stupid ‘save the planet’ filter in a Santa Fe. Big tick for that.
Finally, the Hyundai warranty - because the 2015 Santa Fe has an outstanding warranty: five years with unlimited kilometres, and 10 years of roadside assistance as part of the package. Kia, of course, has just upped its warranty to seven years, in Australia, and Mitsubishi offers five - but only with 100,000km on much of its product range. The rest of the competition is, overwhelmingly, still locked at three years and 100,000km on warranty, which is kind of like the automotive equivalent of still writing on clay tablets, or throwing your night soil into the streets.
For all these reasons, the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander is one of those ‘must drive’ propositions if you’re in the market for a family-friendly SUV. In the next instalment I’ll be looking in depth at crashing - and you’ll find out why you’d rather be in a Santa Fe than some other allegedly premium SUVs when the laws of physics militate brutally against you out there on the road.