HYUNDAI'S SANTA FE HIGHLANDER - THE FLAGSHIP MODEL IN THE RANGE - HOGS ALMOST HALF OF THE LARGE SUV MODEL'S SALES.
Priced from $55,990 (plus on-road costs), the diesel-engined automatic-equipped Highlander is certainly not cheap.
However its attributes clearly resonate with buyers who bypass the cheaper four-cylinder entry models – and we would too – then politely step over the middle-range $40-50,000 diesel variants to this ‘top dog’.
The third-generation Santa Fe has been around for four years now, but it was given a light facelift last year bundled with new active safety features reserved only for the Highlander we’re testing here.
Vehicle Style: Large SUV
Price: $55,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 147kW/440Nm 2.2 litre 4cyl turbo-diesel | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 7.7 l/100km | tested: 10.1 l/100km
Sales for the Santa Fe are steady in the market this year, with 2240 units shifted from January to April, down 5.6 percent compared with the same period last year.
Rivals are plentiful, and the Hyundai is now outsold by other seven-seaters including the Ford Territory (2394 units), Holden Captiva (3264) and Toyota Kluger (3864).
But only the $56,740 (plus orc) Territory Titanium TDCi and petrol-only $55,190 (plus orc) Kluger GXL click as rivals to the Santa Fe Highlander, in addition to its South Korean foe, the newer and identically-priced Kia Sorento Platinum.
- Standard equipment: active cruise control, automatic park assistance, panoramic sunroof, power windows and mirrors, keyless auto-entry, multi-function trip computer, leather seat trim with front ventilation and front and middle row outboard heating, 12-way driver/4-way passenger electrically adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control air conditioning with third-row fan control, electric tailgate, automatic dimming rear-view mirror, automatic on/off headlights and wipers
- Infotainment: 8.0in colour touchscreen with AUX/USB input, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, 10-speaker Infinity audio system and satellite navigation
- Options fitted: None
- Cargo volume: 516 litres (5 seats), 1615 litres (second and third row folded)
With a relatively parking-friendly length of 4.7 metres, the Hyundai Santa Fe is a fine fit for urban-based families needing room for domestic duties, but who don't want to pilot a tank.
Keeping this in mind, the Highlander isn’t the roomiest seven-seater out there. Its rear row is for kids only (as with the third row for the Territory and Sorento), where a Kluger will effortlessly take lanky teenagers in its third row.
The seat base is short and headroom non-existent for this 178cm-tall tester.
At least legroom can be increased by sliding the second-row bench forward, because there is plenty of legroom for three passengers plonked in the middle.
There isn’t a whole lot of boot space when all seven seats are occupied, either, but Hyundai has been smart when it comes to design details.
There are B-pillar-mounted face-level air-vents for the second row, third-row air vents with a separate fan control, and an easy-to-use tilt-then-slide second row backrest to access the third row.
Outboard middle-row riders also enjoy seat heating, bottle holders, door pockets and an airy view thanks to the standard panoramic sunroof (or less of a view if required, thanks to the manually adjustable side blinds).
In any row, leather seat-trim quality is impressive and the front buckets in particular are nicely supportive and comfortable. Storage space is plentiful up front, with particular mention going to the vast cave-like centre console bin.
The Santa Fe’s dashboard is feeling its age, however.
The steering wheel is massive and the climate controls feel a generation old, while the infotainment system is basic and lacks the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone-mirroring connectivity available in newer Hyundais.
The newer Kia Sorento Platinum feels far more ‘premium’ inside, with a similar equipment level for the same price as this Highlander.
Still, there is absolutely no shortage of equipment for Hyundai’s $56K model grade and that extends to impressive active safety aids and active cruise control.
A family will want for little, unless that family is large: in which case, look to a Kluger GXL, which sacrifices some features but delivers extra space.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine output and configuration: 147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre 4cyl turbo-diesel
- Transmission type and driveline configuration: AWD
- Suspension type: Strut front and independent rear
- Brake type: ventilated front and solid rear discs
- Steering type, turning circle: electric assisted mechanical steering, 10.9m
- Towing capacity: 750kg (unbraked), 2000kg (braked)
Hyundai’s Australian engineers are getting more of a say in crafting the chassis kinetics of new models coming from South Korea these days, with impressive results delivered by new releases such as the Sonata, Tucson and Elantra.
The Santa Fe is an older design, however, and it is feeling its age on the road.
There is nothing wrong with the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine, which provides quick response and decent performance whenever a prodded throttle calls on it do so. The six-speed automatic it mates with is superb in fluently picking, then holding the correct gear to balance driveability with economy.
Even in Sydney traffic, and with some speedier country driving thrown into the mix, on-test consumption of 10.1 litres per 100 kilometres is impressive for a 1984kg large SUV.
However the oversized steering wheel delivers fairly flaccid response when manoeuvring around town and parking.
And, on the freeway the vacant on-centre patch is noticeable when changing lanes. The solution is to engage the Sport mode that adds steering weight and tightens up on-centre feel.
Unfortunately this also means activating a sportier transmission calibration that is not required for arterials or the freeway.
The steering becomes nicely accurate through corners, however, and the Santa Fe remains impressively balanced when hurried through bumpy country-road bends. It is not particularly sharp or overwhelmingly dynamic, but it is responsive.
More focus should be given to ride quality, though, which can turn tetchy on the lower-profile 19-inch wheels of the flagship Highlander (the $49,990 (plus orc) Elite gets chubbier 18s).
It's not poor on road, this Santa Fe generally rides okay, but it absorbs bigger hits better than it does filtering out smaller road irregularities.
There is an elephant in the room, however, and it wears a Kia badge. The Sorento is both more dynamic and more comfortable, with superior steering.
That should come as no surprise given it is a newer SUV, though. Neither can match the Territory for dynamics, but then the Ford can’t equal either South Korean for cabin quality.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 35.63 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Six airbags including dual-front, front-side, rear-side and full-length curtain, ABS, ESC, reverse-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot alert, lane-departure warning with lane-change assistance, rear cross-traffic alert.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Territory remains the sweetest large SUV to drive by some margin, but the interior is dated and the diesel engine lacks responsiveness.
The Kluger and Pathfinder are fine picks if you need absolute sprawling space, and the Toyota is the better of the two. It is the Kia Sorento that absolutely provides the best balance of quality, room and zoom – it is simply fantastic.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
A testament to its original design, the handsome 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander remains a worthy large SUV pick.
If you never drive a Sorento – or a Territory – then many will find it drives just fine, and the loaded equipment level and comfortable seating is fine compensation for the ageing dashboard design and infotainment system.
It remains better value and nicer to drive than the larger Kluger and Pathfinder, too.
Not brilliant at anything, but neither obviously lacking, the Santa Fe Highlander takes the middle ground rather than a high path in the segment.
Nice looking, and very well-built, it is certainly worth a trip to your local Hyundai dealership.
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