At the top of Hyundai’s SUV line-up is the Santa Fe, curiously named after the sexy capital of the American state of New Mexico, and also happens to be one of the South Korean marque’s first foray into the space starting in the year 2000.
They’ve come a long way since then, the Hyundai of today being of the major forces in the global automotive scene. A clear progression can be seen when observing the evolution of the Santa Fe, now sporting a strong-shouldered design that’s still handsome in a European sort of way, adopting the Fluidic Sculpture philosophy.
With 7 seats and quite a cavernous interior, making the decision to choose a Santa Fe based purely on practicality arguments isn’t a tough case to win. Add to that the decent-to-impressive levels of equipment that come with each variant, high quality interior, a particularly strong turbodiesel, and supreme long distance cruising prowess, the all becomes quite an enticing proposition.
In Australia, buyers will be able to choose from four variants that are logically split kicking off with the entry-level Active, Active X, the mid-spec Elite, and finally the more luxurious Highlander or sportier SR filling a more or less equal role at the top of stack.
It’s natural rivals are some of the other large SUVs from equally mass market automakers such as Mazda’s all-new CX-9, the Kia Sorento, Toyota Kluger, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Nissan Pathfinder. Holden and Ford have alternatives too, though their own Trailblazer and Everest aren’t purpose-built SUVs in the same vein given their pick-up origins, though that shouldn’t deter a prospective buyer too much as they still offer a similarly complete all-round package.
“…the tweaks nicely square up the Santa Fe’s look to match current Hyundais such as the Sonata and the Elantra.” - Car and Driver
The Santa Fe certainly isn’t the biggest SUV we’ve seen, but here’s something about how its bold fascia and muscular shape can punch above its weight to give it real presence on the road, whether approaching it from the front or rear.
Much of that can be attributed to the Fluidic Sculpture design philosophy that informs the exterior lines seems to be more suited to larger vehicles, one more example of this is their Genesis luxury saloon. It looks….premium.
Hyundai might have wanted to give the Santa Fe a dash of ruggedness as they were developing this third-generation version Though the athletic shape, front and rear skid plate, and generous protective cladding does well to maintain this facade, it hasn’t fully masked the Santa Fe’s urban-bound character. After all, nearly every variant comes with 18-inch alloys or larger as standard.
That personality split does not apply to the sportily styled SR, though - dark wheels, a bodykit, firmer suspension and other accoutrements leave no doubt that there is a demand for sporty big SUVs that require customers to spend a premium atop the more sedate (and otherwise as-well-equipped) Highlander.
Engine and Drivetrain
“[The 2.2-litre turbodiesel] …smooth, willing and more than up to the challenge of hauling nearly two tonnes of SUV. Torque is what makes something like this relaxing on the move.” - Top Gear
There are only two engines on available for the Santa Fe and powering all four wheels, but luckily they’re both quite adept at their task. The Active and Elite receive the less performative 2.4-litre GDi naturally aspirated four-cylinder that supplies 138kW and 241Nm.
The Highlander and SR, though, have their grunt supplied by a 2.2-litre CRDi four-pot turbodiesel that cranks out 147kW and a hefty 440Nm of twist from 1,750rpm. That’s an addictive amount of torque even for the 2-tonne SUV, making high speed cruising and overtaking a breeze.
Engine noise and refinement are both well managed and shifts from the 6-speed Aisin-sourced Shiftronic transmission are smooth and adequtely snappy. Buyers can also have a 6-speed manual is they so choose, which improves fuel economy to 6.6-litres/100km in the oil burner while the petrol stays level at 9.4-litres/100km no matter which transmission is chosen.
Limited to the Active X variant, Hyundai has also recently included a 3.3-litre naturally aspirated V6 petrol engine that some might remember from the previous generation, only here its output has been improved to 199kW and 318Nm.
“That third row really is for rare situations like the one above or for kids, so for the most part they’d be folded down and that frees up 516 litres of luggage space…” - CarsGuide
We’ve been impressed by many of the newest Hyundai cars as they’ve all seemed to take a sizeable step up in cabin materials and build quality - the Santa Fe isn’t any different. In some lights, it does look stylish, but clearly straightforwardness was given a much higher priority.
Matched to an overall well judged list of materials and solid build, the Santa Fe’s perceived interior quality is up there with some more expensive European callers. Button clutter could be reduced, though, but shouldn't get in the way too much.
Front or rear passengers will not be wanting for space, however, as the Santa Fe boast an excellent amount of room for a comfortable journey, even with the Highlander and SR’s panoramic sunroof. The leather seats are quite comfortable provided not too long a time is spent slumming it in the middle of the second row, and visibility is a strong point as well.
The third-row seats can be used to ferry adults in a pinch, but really should only be reserved for children. Once seated there, though, the kinked window past the C-pillar means things can feel a little claustrophobic.
Naturally, whether or not those final row of seats are left up or down can have a dramatic effect on cargo space. With them down, a very useful 516-litres worth of items can be loaded, and with the second row also folded can accommodate a yawning 1,615-litres.
Behind The Wheel
“…retains what is a fairly excellent balance between steering, ride and handling. All versions benefit from work done on the suspension tune by Hyundai Australia’s Sydney-based development team.” - CarAdvice
The hushed cabin and a rather plaint ride equate to a very talented highway cruiser, especially when paired with the turbodiesel engine and its muscular midrange. The steering is predictably quite numb but is surprisingly direct, allowing for easy manipulation over place on the road even for a car as substantial as the Santa Fe.
Standard on-demand all-wheel drive also means that all the rubber is used to generate usable mechanical grip through the kind of corners that should easily befuddle some front-driven SUVs, and overall the Hyundai is quite forgiving even at the hands of the ham-fisted - though this can be traced to the clever (and always on) stability control (ESP).
The SR gains 19-inch alloys shod in lower profile 55-series Michelin rubber to transmit the work of Hyundai’s Australian suspension tuning boffins. Namely, a set of stiffer springs that should counteract body roll while improving road-feel. It’s an improvement, but nothing to write home about, but at least the sportiest Santa Fe looks the part.
What is more appreciable is the upgraded Brembo brakes that does a much better job of stopping the 2-tonne SUV than the standard set. Given that both the SR and Highlander are equally fast, the extra stopping power is a safety boon.
Safety and Technology
“The infotainment system compares well with those in rivals, too. It’s on a par with the one in the Land Rover Discovery Sport, and easier to use than the Nissan X-Trail’s set-up.” - What Car
Hyundai has a strong track record in safety and the Santa Fe, being their flagship SUV, certainly keeps that untarnished. There’s driver and passenger front, side airbags, a driver knee airbag, and side (curtain) airbags for the 1st and 2nd row passengers.
It should be noted, though, 3rd row passengers do not get airbag protection.
Autonomous emergency braking is available in the higher-end Highlander and SR spec and works both a low speeds all the way up to 180km/h. In addition, there also include features such as forward collision warning, blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning, and active cruise control.
Every Santa Fe does come with a fairly large infotainment screen, centrally mounted, that also feeds in the view from the reversing camera (Elite, Highlander, SR) on the larger 8-inch display. The Active and Active X variants have a smaller 7-inch central panel, but curiously are the only ones that do get proper smartphone connectivity with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
With regard to the Santa Fe, Hyundai has clearly struck a chord with buyers. It’s a very practical, rather stylish SUV that also has some love lavished on it to make it handle with above average verve in this segment.
Add to that the amount of technology and safety features on offer at this price paired with an interior that in many respects punches above its weight, and the big Korean’s success becomes clear to see. Even better, all the above can also be said (in varying degrees) to a lot of Hyundai models as of late.
Top Gear - 7/10 - “The Santa Fe might just be all the car you ever need. Think cut-price Discovery.”
What Car - 3/5 - “The seven-seat version of the Hyundai Santa Fe is a fine family SUV, although there are better-value rivals out there.”
Car and Driver - 3/5 - “Hyundai’s changes for the 2017 Santa Fe seem destined to disrupt the rig’s fundamentally sound formula of offering a ton of standard features in an attractive, comfortable package. The only difference is that now buyers will have more choices to consider.”
CarAdvice - 8/10 - “…it’s a solid family offering that’s now better than ever, ergo making it well worth consideration.”
CarsGuide - 4/5 - “…the Hyundai Santa Fe SR is not a track day warrior. It’s better than that – it’s a Christmas Day warrior. A handsome beast that rides comfortably, has plenty of grunt and comes with excellent advanced safety equipment, including adaptive cruise control.”