2015-2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Range Review

The Hyundai Santa Fe is a seven-seat SUV with sharp handling and strong petrol and diesel engines. It is great with your phone, and auto braking is standard.

Hyundai Santa Fe 30 Special Edition 2016 Drive MAIN Jpg
Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Excellent diesel engine
  •   Stylish interior
  •   Auto braking
Not so much
  •   Airbags don’t cover third-row passengers

What stands out?

The third-generation Hyundai Santa Fe is a seven-seat, road-focused SUV with sharp handling and strong engines – among them a fuel-efficient diesel. It is well suited to long journeys, and comfortable for families who like to get out of town. Most Santa Fes drive all four wheels. All have auto emergency braking and are great with your phone. This model was replaced by the fourth-generation Santa Fe in June 2018.

What might bug me?

That the Santa Fe’s head-protecting, side-curtain airbags do not extend to passengers in the third row of seats. Vision out and headroom are in short supply back there too.

Listening to the diesel engine. While its performance is great, its dull drone is not.

That you can’t listen to music directly from your CD collection – there’s no player.

What body styles are there?

The Santa Fe drives either its front wheels (the Santa Fe Active X) or all four wheels. (A limited-run Santa Fe 30 Special Edition offered in September 2016 also drove the front wheels only.)

All-wheel drive Santa Fes use an on-demand AWD system, which optimises fuel consumption. They drive the front wheels all the time, and distribute power to the rear wheels when that’s helpful. To improve performance at slow speeds in slippery going, you can lock-in 50-50 power distribution to the front and rear wheels by pressing a button on the dash.

The Santa Fe is classed as a large SUV, lower priced.

What features does every Santa Fe have?

Active cruise control, which can match automatically the speed of a slower car ahead on the highway, resuming your preferred speed when the way is clear. (It can also hold your place in stop-start traffic, halting and restarting the car as required.)

A reversing camera, and rear parking sensors. Automatic transmission.

A sound system with an AM/FM radio, Aux and USB inputs, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, and at least six speakers, controllable from a colour central touchscreen.

Support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which lets you display mapping and other apps from a compatible smartphone on the car’s touchscreen, and control them from there.

A leather-clad steering wheel, from which you can operate the cruise control and audio system. (If you have a compatible smartphone plugged in, you can also switch on voice control from the wheel.)

Headlamps that come on automatically at night or in a tunnel, and windscreen wipers that work automatically when it rains. A digital auxiliary speedo.

Aluminium alloy wheels, which are lighter than steel wheels and don’t need plastic trim, and a matching full-sized spare wheel.

Broadly effective autonomous emergency braking, as part of Hyundai’s SmartSense active safety suite – which also brings you a lane departure warning, blind-spot detection, and a rear cross-traffic alert.

Seven airbags. Anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control - which can help control a slide or skid. (For the placement of airbags, and more on Santa Fe safety features, please open the Safety section below.)

The Santa Fe is covered by a five-year warranty that is not limited by distance.

Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?

Three engines are offered in a Santa Fe. The most broadly available is the diesel, which is optional in the least costly all-wheel drive Santa Fe, the Active, and is the only engine supplied with the more expensive Elite and Highlander. A less powerful petrol engine is standard in the Active. And a more powerful petrol comes with the Santa Fe Active X (which is the only Santa Fe that drives only the front wheels).

Of the three engines, the diesel is the most fuel-efficient. This turbocharged 2.2-litre uses 7.8 litres/100km in the official test (city and country combined). In real world driving you might not match this figure, but you could get close if you drove gently and did plenty of country trips.

A Santa Fe Highlander with this engine averaged 9.4 litres/100km in comparison testing of large SUVs for the September 2015 issue of Wheels magazine, ranking second for fuel efficiency of five cars reviewed – and only marginally behind a diesel Kia Sorento.

As the diesel also feels much more powerful in most driving conditions than the petrol alternative in the Santa Fe Active, the main reason you would not order it is that it commands a price premium.

The petrol engine in the Active is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that uses about 20 per cent more fuel than the diesel.

A second important reason why you would not order the diesel could be that you don’t need AWD, and would be happy with front-wheel drive. In which case you could choose a Santa Fe Active X and get the more powerful petrol engine – a 3.3-litre V6. (This engine was also available briefly, from September 2016, in the limited-run Santa Fe 30 Special Edition).

Santa Fes with the petrol V6 are quicker than other Santa Fes, but they are also thirstier. On the official test, the V6 consumes 10.5 litres/100km. In the real world, expect to average 13-14 litres/100km over a mix of city and country driving.

All Santa Fes come only with a six-speed automatic gearbox.

Power outputs and all other specifications for each Santa Fe can be reached from the Cars covered carousel near the top of this review.

What key features do I get if I spend more?

The least costly Santa Fe is the Active X, which comes with the powerful V6 petrol engine, 19-inch wheels, and drives only the front wheels. It also has part-leather seat trim, heating for the front seats, and dual-zone climate control (which lets the driver and front passenger set their own ventilation temperatures). There is a 7.0-inch touchscreen, and the features that come with all Santa Fes.

For not much more than you would pay for an Active X, you could have a Santa Fe Active. This would bring you all-wheel drive, but you would have to make do with the less powerful, four-cylinder, petrol engine – or pay about $3000 more again for the diesel. And you lose some of the luxury: seats are trimmed in cloth, and air-con is single-zone with manual control. An Active has 17-inch wheels, and the other equipment in all Santa Fes.

To restore Active X comfort (and more) in an all-wheel drive Santa Fe, you need to shell out for a Santa Fe Elite. That gets you the diesel engine as standard, and 18-inch wheels (with a tyre profile slightly lower than on the Active, for marginally sharper steering and a more sporty look).

The Elite restores dual-zone air-con and leather seats, and adds power adjustment for the heated front seats. The touchscreen is bigger at 8.0 inches, and it supplies satellite navigation that does not depend on your phone. Smart key entry allows you to unlock the front doors, and start the engine, while the key remains safe in your pocket or bag. The tailgate unlocks and rises automatically if the key is nearby for three seconds. The sound system in an Elite has 10 speakers, an external amplifier and a bass-boosting sub-woofer. And there are blinds for those in the middle row seats.

The most luxurious Santa Fe is the Highlander, which has the diesel engine, AWD, 19-inch wheels, and tyres with a still lower profile (matching those on the Active X). The Highlander has a sunroof that covers the front and rear seats. Front and middle-row seats can be heated, and the front seats also have perforations and a fan, for ventilation. Headlamps are extremely bright HID units. And a self-parking system can automatically steer the car into or out of a space while the driver controls the throttle and brake.

Does any upgrade have a down side?

The steps up in wheel size – from 17-inch on the Active to 18-inch on the Elite and 19-inch on the Active X and Highlander – reduce ride quality slightly, because the lower profiles of the bigger tyres leave less air between the wheel and the road.

Moving from the front-wheel drive Active X to the more expensive all-wheel drive Active removes some luxury features, such as leather on the seats, and downsizes the petrol engine.

White is the only standard colour, with the other eight costing extra.

How comfortable is the Santa Fe?

Any Santa Fe looks elegant inside, thanks to carefully placed silver finishes and a user-friendly layout.

The front seats provide good comfort, with long bases under your thighs. The driver’s seat adjusts for height, and has power-adjustable lumbar (lower back) support in all versions. The steering wheel adjusts for height and reach, but you might wish the reach adjustment were greater.

A deep storage compartment in the centre console has a removable shelf, and there is a big binnacle ahead of the gear lever with dual power outlets and a USB plug.

On any Santa Fe you can plug in a compatible smartphone and operate several apps – from maps to music and text messages – via the touchscreen or (if you’re driving) by voice. A button on the steering wheel lets you toggle the voice control system built into your phone.

Visibility is good out the front and the side, with the reversing camera completing the picture out back.

The Santa Fe’s Australian-tuned suspension is compliant, and the car does a good job of supressing unwanted noises, with the exception of the drone from the diesel engine when it is under load.

Nevertheless the ride is less settled than in many cars of this sort, and that gets more difficult to ignore as the wheel size rises. “Its suspension is constantly busy, jostling away underneath like a massage function,” senior reviewer Nathan Ponchard wrote of a Santa Fe 30 Special Edition, which like the Active S and Highlander had big 19-inch wheels, in a Wheels magazine review of October 2016.

The 2.4-litre petrol engine often leaves you wanting more power. The diesel engine is more enjoyable, and climbs hills more easily with the family on board. The 3.3-litre V6 petrol is very strong, placing the Santa Fe Active X among the quickest of popular seven-seaters.

What about safety in a Santa Fe?

Every Santa Fe has anti-lock brakes, stability control, seven airbags, LED daytime running lights, auto- headlights and wipers, a reversing camera, and rear parking sensors.

In addition, all Santa Fes have Hyundai’s SmartSense active safety suite, which brings auto emergency braking and other sensory safety aids. (SmartSense was extended to all Santa Fes for the 2018 model year, on cars arriving from late August 2017. Previously, it had come only with the Santa Fe Highlander and SR.)

There are two airbags at the front for frontal impacts; an airbag in front of the driver’s knee; one outside each front-seat occupant to protect the body in side crashes; and a curtain airbag down each side to protect heads in a side impact.

The side-curtain airbags cover only passengers in the front and second-row seats, however. No one riding in the third row has airbag protection.

The auto-braking on Santa Fes is a broadly effective system that draws on radar and camera sensors and (Hyundai says) can detect pedestrians. If it predicts a collision with an obstacle in front (typically a sharply slowing car), it sounds and flashes a warning. If you ignore that, it will brake the car automatically. At speeds under 80km/h it will brake very sharply; at speeds in the range 80-180km/h, less sharply – but you can of course apply maximum braking yourself.

The Santa Fe’s Lane departure warning uses a frontal camera to monitor your position in relation to highway road markings. Should you veer towards an adjacent lane without indicating (perhaps from distraction), it will sound and flash an alert.

Blind-spot detection uses rear-facing radars to check for vehicles hidden near your rear corners, registering them with a light in the relevant mirror. The related Lane change assist operates when you indicate to change lanes, warning you of cars approaching fast from behind.

Rear cross-traffic alert helps you reverse safely from blind parking spaces, looking to either side for approaching vehicles as the car’s tail protrudes.

The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the Santa Fe its maximum of five stars for safety, in December 2012.

I like driving - will I enjoy this car?

There is a good chance you will. Among seven-seat SUVs of this size, Santa Fe is at the sharp end for driver-appeal – sacrificing some cossetting for a responsive chassis.

The Santa Fe is very good through bends, with accurate steering and a planted feel. Cornering grip from the standard tyres isn’t particularly high – even from the 19s on the Active X and Highlander – but for a big car of this kind it is easy to place on the road, and fun to drive, in both front-drive and all-wheel-drive trim.

The locally tuned suspension recovers beautifully from the big hits you’ll find from time to time on many rural roads.

The diesel engine has great punch, which makes overtaking easy. The Active X with its petrol V6 also overtakes breezily, ultimately supplying considerably more go than even the diesel.

The Santa Fe has adjustable steering weight, which can alter the effort required to turn the wheel, and (inversely) the feedback coming through the wheel from the tyres. The Comfort setting is very light and with little feedback. The Sport setting is arguably too heavy around town, but on the open road it’s still short on feedback. The Normal setting is a good compromise.

All Santa Fes but one drive all four wheels but it’s more about better traction on slippery surfaces (such as snow or gravel) than tackling rugged trails. If you do get off the beaten track, you have the security of a full-sized spare tyre, however.

How is life in the rear seats?

In the middle row it’s really good. A wide seat easily allows for three across it (that middle person will be perched higher, due to the shape of the outer seat cushions). There’s great head room, and plenty of room for big feet under the front seats. Little touches, such as the mild scalloping in the backs of the front seats, ensure good leg room too, and if you want even more you can slide the middle seats rearwards.

The Santa Fe Highlander also has heating for the middle-row seats, and mesh window blinds that will keep sunlight off a sleeping child.

Ventilation around the cabin is good, too. There are air-conditioning vents in the pillars between the front and rear doors, and outlets for rear passengers in both the second and third seat rows.

That third-row seat is much tighter for room than the second, however. Headroom is best suited to children, and there is very little space for feet under the seats in front. And those riding right down the back don’t get much of a view.

As with most seven-seat SUVs, the child-seat anchor points are on the middle row of seats. So when child seats are in use, it is harder for people to get into the third row of seats.

How is it for carrying stuff?

With all seven seats in use there is not much boot space. However, the retractable luggage cover slots neatly into a compartment under the floor when not in use, maximising what little space you have – about enough for a couple of soft bags. There’s also space under the floor for small items.

Boot space is far more useful if only five seats are in play. The 50-50 split-fold third row retracts into the floor, to create a broad, flat luggage space.

The middle row seats split-fold in a 40-20-40 configuration, which is great for flexibility. You can flip just the centre section, for example, to accommodate a long item, and still have two comfy outer seats.

The tailgate rises very high, so there’s no stooping to load stuff in the back. The Elite and Highlander have hands-free tailgates that add convenience when your arms are full of cargo.

The Santa Fe can tow up to 2000kg.

Where does Hyundai make the Santa Fe?

All Santa Fes are produced in South Korea.

What might I miss that similar cars have?

Curtain airbags that protect passengers in the third row of seats against side impacts – such as fitted to the Toyota Kluger, Mazda CX-9, and Nissan Pathfinder.

Among other seven-seat SUVs you might consider is the Kia Sorento, which uses the same diesel engine as the Santa Fe and also offers a similar 2WD petrol V6.

If carrying seven people in comfort is a high priority, and use off-tarmac is not, it could be worth taking a look at the Kia Carnival.

In contrast, if you would contemplate trading some on-road comfort and precision for the ability to tackle rough tracks off-road, you might want to look at the Ford Everest and the Toyota Prado or Fortuner, all of which offer seven seats.

When did Hyundai update the Sante Fe?

The third-generation Santa Fe went on sale in 2012 and received a minor update late in 2014, which brought more equipment. An SR model based on the luxurious Highlander, but with a sportier look and firmer suspension, was added in 2015.

A Series II update In November 2015 brought bigger touchscreens and, on the Highlander, an active safety suite with auto braking. A Series II Santa Fe SR, again based on the Highlander, arrived about July 2016.

A Santa Fe 30 Special Edition, with front-wheel drive and a V6 petrol engine, went on sale about September 2016 (in a limited run of 300 vehicles). The very similar Santa Fe Active X went on sale about April 2017.

Late in August 2017 Hyundai extended its SmartSense active safety suite (with auto braking) to all Santa Fes, for the 2018 model year. It also added support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, previously only on the Active and Active X, to the Elite and Highlander. The manual-gearbox Active variant was dropped for MY18, along with the Santa Fe SR.

This model was replaced by the fourth-generation Santa Fe in June 2018, which brought a fresh design, roomier cabin and additional equipment including autonomous emergency braking across the range.

The new model features the same four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, though the diesel is now paired with a more efficient eight-speed automatic gearbox. The V6 petrol engine has been dropped.

We will publish a fourth-gen Santa Fe range review soon.

I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?

It is hard to go wrong with a Santa Fe diesel. All have the same engine, all-wheel drive, and SmartSense active safety with auto braking.

If you don’t need AWD, then very arguably the Active X is the pick. You get a lot of style, luxury, power, and driver assistance, for less than you are likely to pay up front for any diesel. Consider whether what you save balances the V6 engine’s greater thirst.
Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Excellent diesel engine
  •   Stylish interior
  •   Auto braking
Not so much
  •   Airbags don’t cover third-row passengers


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