WHAT IS IT?
A much-needed total makeover of the South Korean giant’s large SUV, elevating it to the sophistication level of the current Tucson and i30, and closer to where it needs to be when packaging seven useable seats.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT?
With a drive route encompassing a dizzying array of corners and close to 50-percent dirt, Hyundai Australia is confident of the TM Santa Fe’s impressive all-rounder status, especially the AWD diesel with new eight-speed auto. But without a V6 anywhere on the horizon, will the four-pot AWD petrol be a sufficient entry-level substitute?
Toyota Kluger, Kia Sorento, Nissan Pathfinder, Skoda Kodiaq, Peugeot 5008, Mazda CX-8 and CX-9, as well as (at Santa Fe Active level), seven-seat versions of several medium SUVs (Honda CR-V, Nissan X-Trail, Mitsubishi Outlander).
THE WHEELS VERDICT
After its handling-biased, one-trick-pony predecessor and two earlier generations of dull-but-dependable dross, the new-gen Santa Fe shines like Centrepoint tower above Sydney’s skyline. Handsome, roomy, excellent to drive and lovingly crafted, it’s the polar opposite of its contrived and plasticky forebears. The brawny eight-speed diesel has all its ducks in a row, and the $60K Highlander has enough visual swagger to support its price-tag, though if it’s V6 petrol power you’re after – or Mazda CX-9-rivalling thrust – you’ll need to shop elsewhere.
PLUS: Well-balanced and involving to drive; terrific diesel powertrain; welcoming interior; interesting design
MINUS: Torque-deprived atmo petrol; unremarkable refinement; no performance flagship; luggage space with seven seats in use
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IT’S TAKEN almost 20 years but the Hyundai Santa Fe has finally crossed the threshold to desirability.
Acting as a metaphorical flag-waver for the Korean brand’s burgeoning credibility, the fourth generation of Hyundai’s large SUV debuts a purposefully handsome shape with a BMW X5-rivalling presence, and backs that up with a much more sophisticated interior design. Overstyled plastics, undersized rear-window apertures, and overbearing ride firmness are now distant memories for the newly mature Santa Fe. It’s goodbye ‘Gangnum Style’ and hello Broadway.
In terms of platform geneology, the Santa Fe leapfrogs its circa-2014 Kia Sorento cousin, though even with an extra 65mm between its axles, the new-gen Santa Fe trails the Sorento in wheelbase length (2765mm v 2780). Otherwise, they’re now almost identical in size, and that plays out in the TM Santa Fe’s newfound packaging efficiency.
With a near-flat second-row floor, plus an extra 30mm of second-row seat travel, an additional 36mm of third-row access space, a 42mm growth in third-row headroom, and a massive 41 percent increase in glass area for anyone imprisoned back there, the Santa Fe is no longer a five-plus-two seater. Adults can actually squeeze into the third row, though the Hyundai still cedes packaging prowess to the larger, class-leading Mazda CX-9. And the same applies to boot space – 810 litres (CX-9) versus 547 (Santa Fe) in five-seat mode; and 230 litres v 130 with all pews in place.
What the Santa Fe’s comparatively compact dimensions do achieve is an unexpected level of dynamic agility. Improvements in body strength and torsional stiffness of around 15 percent combine with new rack-mounted electric power steering and standard (on-demand) all-wheel drive to give this elegant bus the legs of a power lifter. Extensive Australian suspension tuning results in a much more well-rounded driving experience – one that now manages to achieve both ride and handling adeptness, without one discipline being detrimental to the other.
Not surprisingly, it’s the petrol-engined Santa Fe Active that feels lightest on its 17-inch-wheeled feet, blending delightfully keen turn-in (and 2.6 turns lock-to-lock) with crisp steering response and layers of inherent grip and balance. Pity its carry-over engine – the 138kW/241Nm 2.4-litre direct-injection petrol four from the base Sonata, tied to an ageing six-speed automatic – is such an unsuitable foil to its dynamic talents. It’s no complete boat anchor, but there’s a noticeable lack of torque, leaving the transmission to hunt through its stunted ratio set like a stray pooch pining for scraps.
The 147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel – also carry-over – is far better served in the Santa Fe. Mated to an excellent new eight-speed automatic, its seamlessly muscular operation is the perfect antidote for atmo-petrol frustration. The heavier Santa Fe CRD may feel slightly less wieldy as a result, but the performance benefits far outweigh any reduction in front-end point. In fact, there’s really very little to complain about dynamically, apart from merely competitive levels of tyre noise on coarse surfaces, in particular the flagship Highlander on its flashy 235/55R19 Continental ContiSportContact 5s.
Note that a 3.3-litre petrol V6, a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four nor a front-drive Santa Fe starter aren’t on the cards right now. Hyundai Australia says it is pushing for whatever it can get its hands on, though the V6 will likely be front-drive only for right-hook markets, as per the previous DM Santa Fe.
From launch, three model grades bolster the new Santa Fe line-up – Active ($43,000 petrol; $46,000 diesel), Elite diesel ($54,000) and Highlander diesel ($60,500). All are pricier than before, but this is far outweighed by Santa Fe’s likeable new interior and enticing levels of kit. Even the base Active gets a comprehensive safety suite (AEB, collision alert, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise), tyre-pressure monitoring, smartphone mirroring, Hyundai Auto Link (a way of monitoring key vehicle functions via an app on your phone), a rear-view camera with parking sensors, LED running lights, air-con with rear temperature control, and a ‘walk-in’ switch on the second-row backrests that electrically flips and slides the seat forward for rear deck access.
The posher-looking Elite adds stuff like leather, electric front seats (10-way driver; 8-way passenger), paddle shifters, an Infinity premium stereo, dual-zone climate control, rear door sunshades, 18s, and a power tailgate, while the Highlander embellishes that via a surround-view monitor, park assist, adaptive LED headlights, LED fogs and tail-lights, 19s, a panoramic glass sunroof, memory settings for its 14-way electric driver’s seat, a configurable TFT instrument cluster, a heated steering wheel, heated outboard rear seats and heated/vented front seats, wireless phone charging, a head-up display and the full-fat version of Hyundai’s Auto Link phone app diagnostics.
As an indicator of just how chubby the upper-spec Santa Fe’s kit list is, the only options are premium paint ($695) and a beige or burgundy interior colour ($295, instead of charcoal) for the Elite and Highlander’s leather. And while the overall interior design errs on the side of conservatism, it gives a strong impression of quality, and seat comfort is bloody good. Even the brown doesn’t look too poopy … providing you like brown, that is. A pleasing mix of textures and stitching lift the new Santa Fe well beyond the Korean/Japanese norm, and even the Active’s cabin holds some interest.
In brown (with ’80s spa-finish trim inserts) or grey (with technical-print trim), the Active’s two-tone cloth seats are upholstered in what looks like synthetic mouse fur, which is a welcome change from the colourless boredom of so many base interiors. Pity its HVAC section can’t escape the look of poverty.
Given that a sizeable wedge of Santa Fe numbers will be the Elite and Highlander, the Active’s slight tinge of entry-level motoring won’t spoil Hyundai’s ascension among the large SUV ranks. In AWD diesel form, the Santa Fe is an incredibly strong contender, right-sized for families and driving enthusiasts alike who don’t need the full-size acreage of a full-time seven seater. As for the petrol version, watch this space.
Model: Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander CRD
Engine: 2199cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, TD
Max power: 147kW @ 3800rpm
Max torque: 440Nm @ 1750-2750rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.0sec (estimated)
On sale: Now
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