2018 Hyundai Santa Fe seven-seat SUV review

The new 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe makes it even harder to justify that German SUV you’ve always wanted. Here's a seven-seat SUV that's better equipped - and half the price

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Some new models are a giant leap forward, but this fourth-generation Santa Fe is more of a series of incremental steps in the right direction.

They all add up though, and gestalt theory is in play. The totality of the new Santa Fe is greater than the sum of those individual improvements.

The headlines are: new eight-speed transmission and a big safety upgrade across the range.

Fuel consumption and CO2 are down about four per cent, and interior space is up. The wheelbase is 65mm longer - and that translates directly into cabin space. Not a huge improvement dimensionally - but better.

Thankfully, row three access is substantially improved as a consequence of smarter ergonomics. The one-touch ‘walk in’ switch on the kerb side is brilliant. There’s more configurability of rows two and three, and row three is a lot less claustrophobic now that there’s more glass.

There’s a lot more more advanced high-strength steel in the structure. All up, 57% of the body is now made of it. This is a plus for fuel efficiency, safety and dynamics. I guess that’s one of the cool things about having your own steel mill.

I don't normally discuss styling (because you've got eyes, right?) But one of the things you can definitely see (from space) is the ‘distinctive’ front end. It’s a bit ‘Kona’ after the whole ‘Steve Rogers/Captain America diet and workout plan’. It just says: I’m comin’ through here…

They also spent a heap of the development budget on the interior. It’s sensational. It’s premium German sensational. Take my advice here - go look at a $100,000 German seven-seat SUV.

Coming up: I’ll lay out the objective comparison between a $100,000 Audi Q7 and this $60,000 Santa Fe Highlander. Brace for impact over the additional cash you have to splash to option up the Q7 to the point of approximate equivalence with the Santa Fe we’re driving today.

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ON THE ROAD

Dynamically, it’s a little bit better everywhere: Steering - better. Ride and handling - better. Eight-speed transmission - significantly better.

This is such a comfortable vehicle for long-distance cruising, and the eight-speed transmission is a huge powertrain improvement. There’s some incredibly smart software driving the shifting decisions. At times it’s uncanny. It certainly knows when to hold a gear, and when to shift. That new transmission is fundamentally what’s responsible for the fuel economy improvement.

But the real triumph in the cabin is almost subliminal: Every surface you interact with; every switch you flick; every control you operate - someone spent the big bucks making all those tactile details feel properly upmarket.

There’s a big safety story with this new model. Across the range, from Active to Highlander, you get forward collision mitigation with pedestrian and cyclist detection, plus adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, driver attention alert, high beam assist and lane-keep assist. And maybe you’d expect all that stuff in the Highlander - but having it on Active and Elite as well means nobody who buys a Santa Fe is a second-class citizen on safety.

The thing about dynamic performance is: It’s gotta be right for the kind of vehicle you’re in. Performance cars need to feel different to family wagons. City cars need to feel zippy. Seven seaters need to be comfortable and relaxing without being appalling to drive. Santa Fe feels just right for a premium seven-seat SUV.

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The servo motor that gives you power assistance on the steering has been moved from the column to the rack now - which they say is better - and it certainly feels pretty direct. The good news is that the steering weight is selectable via the drive mode - so if you like it somewhat heavy and she likes it light, nobody’s going to be disappointed. Drive mode selection is standard across the range now - not just in Highlander.

Frankly, I have OCD for dynamic design shortcomings, and the new Santa Fe really doesn’t have any. The local suspension tuning and the hi-tech metallurgy in the monocoque have paid off. If you’re the driver, Santa Fe does exactly what you tell it to. There are no dynamic skeletons in its closet.

I’m trying to warm up to the Highlander’s instrument cluster, and I do appreciate its inherent overall cleverness, the cool graphics, the colours matched to the drive modes. It’s definitely slick. But the tacho is an afterthought. It’s like an inconvenience that had to be accommodated. Like someone lost a bet.

And yeah, I know it’s not a driver’s car. I know most owners will never want to know anything about how many revs the engine is doing. I know the Santa Fe lap record for the Nurburgring is not of generally interest. But, speaking as a driver, I hate the tacho.

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MODEL RANGE

Santa Fe Active is the only one with a petrol engine available - the 2.4-litre four. It’s $43,000 plus on-roads. You can also get the 2.2 diesel for $3000 extra.

On the diesel - I never get complaints about Hyundai-Kia DPFs. They must have cracked some code there in R&D - perhaps they could sell the secret sauce to Toyota. They need that right now.

Active includes Adaptive cruise (which is remarkable value for the price) plus rear cross traffic alert, forward collision mitigation, blind spot alert, lane-keeping assistance, Apple and Android phone integrations, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring and 17-inch alloys.

Santa Fe Elite adds front parking sensors, 8-inch sat-nav system, leather, proximity key, paddle shifters, power front seats, Infinity premium audio system, dual-zone air conditioning, privacy glass, auto folding mirrors, power tailgate and 18-inch alloys. That’s a lot of extra kit for $54,000.

Elite is probably the smart value variant if money’s reasonably tight and you need seven seats.

Santa Fe Highlander is just packed with stuff - and so it would want to be for $61,000 plus on-road costs. And for that you get the 360-degree camera system, auto parking for parallel and reverse, dynamic LED lights, panorama sunroof, 14 different power adjustments for the driver’s seat, the brilliant instrument cluster with the dodgy tacho, LED interior lights, heated and ventilated front seats and heated outboard row two seats as well, plus wireless phone charging, a head-up display and 19-inch wheels. Not cheap, but fully loaded. A burger with the lot.

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PRICE RISE

There’s been a price rise: Santa Fe Active is up just $1150 over its predecessor. Which is tremendously good value when you factor in just the safety upgrades across the range, plus adaptive cruise. Highlander is up almost $4000, which is perhaps a bit harder to swallow.

I’m sure it was an interesting conversation with the factory, on price. If you think importers and the mother ship are all on the same team, I reckon 10 minutes as a fly on the wall during a pricing negotiation would set you straight. They hate each other, generally, right across the industry.

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REGIONAL USE & TOWING

Across the range, thankfully, Santa Fe has retained the full-sized spare wheel and tyre of its predecessor. Tow capacity is maintained at 2000 kilos (that’s with trailer brakes, obviously).

In standard form, 100 kilos the static download limit on the towball. If you want to boost that there’s a genuine load assist kit, which is essentially a set of variable rate rear springs that increases the download limit to 150 kilos.

It’s is a well thought out and properly engineered upgrade for heavy towing, and totally warranty safe. The unladen ride quality does not suffer, because of the variable rate character of the springs. They only stiffen up as you add load. It’s pretty clever.

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HTRAC AWD

The Santa Fe’s all-wheel drive system is called HTRAC now, and its operation is drive mode-dependent. In ‘Sport’ mode it’ll shunt up to 50 per cent of the drive rearwards to give you maximum traction under heavy acceleration. Kind of a plus if you’re a leadfoot and it’s raining.

In ‘Comfort’ mode, the rear gets up to 35 per cent of the available drive, and in ‘Eco’ the vehicle basically defaults to front-drive to maximise fuel efficiency. You can also lock the drive system manually in 50:50 for traction-limited off-road situations, by hitting a button on the dash.

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OFF ROADING?

In the context of off-roading, Santa Fe is at best a light-duty all-terrain vehicle. Dirt roads - no problem, and even some easy tracks and reasonably straightforward mud and sand. Ice and snow - OK, as long as you’re not aiming for the South Pole, or something. All good.

But anything truly hardcore or rough - you’ll probably break something. And remember, abuse is not covered by warranty. You need a full-on all-terrain wagon, with low-range gearing, like a Pajero Sport, for the properly blue-singlet stuff.

Beating the wilderness into submission is not Santa Fe’s forte - but mild adventuring is OK.

VERSUS AUDI Q7 (VALUE ANALYSIS)

Up the other end of the ‘roughing it’ spectrum - for example, in the cut and thrust of the queue for the kiss and go at that elite private school, you probably would not look out of place in a $100,000 Audi Q7. That’s what you pay for the base model shit-tious, here in ‘Straya.

That German build quality (made in Slovakia). It’s $40,000 more than a Santa Fe Highlander, ballpark. It’s actually listed at $97,800 plus on-road costs.

The Q7’s V6 diesel is about 14 per cent gruntier, albeit through a seven-speed auto. Plus it’s a slightly bigger vehicle and it tows more. To be fair.

But the wireless charging, standard on Santa Fe Highlander, adds $500 to the ‘poverty’ Q7. This is the tip of the upgrade iceberg, however.

Also standard on the Highlander, but additional on the Audi Q7 are heated and ventilated front seats ($3450), panoramic sunroof ($3990), privacy glass ($1100), and a head-up display projected on the windscreen for a paltry addition of ‘just’ $3200.

Lane departure and adaptive cruise, which is standard even on the Santa Fe Active, adds $3850 to the Q7, via the Assistance package.

Automated parking with front and rear cameras, adds $1300 to the Q7.

And if you want the bumpers fully coloured, that’s $1300 extra on the Audi.

Plus of course LED headlamps on the Audi, which Highlander has standard: $4850. Ouch.

All-up, to option up to the point of rough equivalence - you’ll be adding almost 25% to the base price - $23,540 extra, for a total of double the price of the Highlander, which admittedly lacks the four rings and of course the monkey-spanking heritage. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Santa Fe Highlander is not cheap, but if you want the underlying value proposition, just look at the features, compared with a hastily tweaked Touareg from Slovakia, at twice the price.

BILL SHOCK

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The incredible cost of optioning up a base Q7 to approximate equivalence on spec with Santa Fe Highlander

Base Q7: $97,800
Wireless charging: $500
Heated & ventilated front seats: $3450
Panoramic sunroof: $3990
Privacy glass: $1100
Head-up display: $3200
Lane departure/adaptive cruise: $3850
Automated parking: $1300
Coloured bumpers: $1300
LED headlamps: $4850

TOTAL: $121,340

Santa Fe Highlander: $60,500

* All prices before on-road costs.

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VERSUS KIA SORENTO

Kia Sorento: It’s no surprise that this vehicle shares the platform and the diesel powertrain with Santa Fe. So they’re - kind of - dizygotic twins. There’s the 2.4-litre petrol four in the Santa Fe Active, versus the V6 petrol in Sorento.

So that’s a key difference - no V6 on Santa Fe, at least for now.

Kia offers a seven-year warranty against Santa Fe’s five - both with unlimited kilometres for non-commercial use. The Sorento is a little cheaper, model for model, but the Santa Fe feels more polished. And I don’t know about you, but I like feeling polished. More on Sorento >>

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VERSUS CX-9

Mazda CX-9 is slightly bigger, and has the most hi-tech petrol engine of the seven-seat SUV set - a turbocharged version of the 2.5 atmo engine in the CX-5.

CX-9 is also polished product, but it is hobbled by both a short warranty and a space-saver spare tyre - and that spare would concern me on long regional trips or if I was planning on tasking the vehicle with heavy towing, or if I was visiting a remote area.

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VERSUS TOYOTA KLUGER

Toyota Kluger: It’s a decent SUV from a reputable manufacturer, and you get a full-sized spare, but once you scratch the surface you discover that Toyota is the king of mediocrity - big, thirsty petrol V6, no Apple or Android phone integration, plus an anorexic warranty. Kluger is robust, but it would not be my first choice.

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CONCLUSION

The new Santa Fe is just a bit better everywhere. The additional space alone is probably not a reason to upgrade, but the major safety upgrades - especially in Active and Elite - certainly are. As a family wagon with loads of versatility and solid adventuring potential, it's hard to beat.

Hyundai is a good company here in Australia. Customer support is excellent, the warranty, likewise, and reliability is high.

If you land here from Alpha Centauri next Wednesday at lunchtime, and humanity’s ambassador, the Donald, together with Stormy Daniels, flanked by a neo-Nazi Space Force, hands you a poverty pack Q7 and a Santa Fe Highlander as a peace offering, you’d probably conclude that the Santa Fe was the premium SUV.

My advice if you’re in the market: Drive the CX-9, Sorento and Santa Fe, and make a choice based upon your own objective needs. There’s no objectively wrong answer to be found in this trio. More on Santa Fe at Hyundai's website >>

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