Mainstream and premium brands have converged in recent years. Hyundai, once known for $13,990 hatches, has exceeded the $60,000 mark with its new flagship Santa Fe large SUV – while Mercedes-Benz offers a mid-SUV for just $1500 more.
But the South Korean brand isn’t alone, and it isn’t just about a coalescing of pricing, because Japanese foe Mazda has lobbed its new flagship CX-8 priced within $500 of a Benz GLC, which is really more of a brand-benchmark than a direct size-rival here.
Both the vehicles tested here have seven-seats in elongated bodies, bigger than a GLC but not as large as a Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Kluger or Mazda’s own CX-9 already on-sale. And that inbetweener size helps these ‘mainstream’ models lunge for a ‘premium’ German level of technology and luxury, while also still seating seven.
What we are out to find, though, is whether the Santa Fe Highlander and CX-8 Asaki really can manage that balancing act and bridge the mainstream-to-premium divide.
Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander ($60,500 plus on-road costs)
147kW/440Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel 4cyl | eight-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 7.5L/100km | tested: 11.4L/100km
Mazda CX-8 Asaki ($61,490 plus on-road costs)
140kW/450Nm 2.2-litre twin-turbo-diesel 4cyl | six-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 6.0L/100km | tested: 10.6L/100km
With the Santa Fe Highlander costing $60,500 plus on-road costs, and the CX-8 Asaki asking $61,490 (plus orc), there is barely a top dealership deal between them. And they even each team 2.2-litre turbo-diesels with automatic and all-wheel drive.
Costly, sure, but both include bountiful equipment: 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and foglights, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, electric tailgate, leather trim, electrically adjustable front seats, front/middle row heated seats, climate control, 10-speaker audio, digital radio, satellite navigation and head-up display.
Likewise, safety technology is strong in both, each with active cruise control, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning with active lane-keep assistance.
From there, the Hyundai exclusively adds a panoramic sunroof, ventilated front seats, third-row fan control with vents, automatic reverse-park assistance, wireless phone charging and the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto set to be added to its rival later this year. And that Mazda responds with adaptive-automatic high-beam (versus auto up/down in its rival), tri-zone climate control (versus dual-zone), voice control for nav, AEB in reverse and – more on this later – certified third-row curtain airbag coverage.
If the Highlander and Asaki – the latter not to be confused with the Japanese beer Asahi – don’t feel fully premium inside, then they at least get perilously close. And the same could be said for a Benz GLC, anyway, quite frankly.
The flagship CX-8 excels with its high-quality Nappa leather upholstery, and lashings of thickly-padded soft-touch plastics that cover a greater part of the dashboard and doors than its rival. The flagship Santa Fe, while delivering a slightly lower grade of leather and some scratchy hard plastics around the lower-to-middle cabin, still feels suitably high-end with its stitched-leather-look main dash panel and large screens.
Indeed, the Hyundai’s 8.0-inch centre touchscreen and 7.0-inch colour driver display deliver consistent resolution and graphics matching, although while the former offers slick usability it would be ideal if the latter displayed extra functions (such as a map).
Until that occurs, there’s no real advantage to having a big driver display other than looks, and the Mazda’s more traditional analogue instruments and small colour screen still looks as good and functions as well. Its 7.0in screen is also a match for usability – via a centre console-mounted rotary dial flanked with shortcut buttons – and graphics quality, while the standard voice control is near-flawless in its ability to accept a street, number, suburb and state in one go.
That is something for which the South Korean has no answer, though it eclipses its rival for 360deg camera quality and then thumps home a decent infotainment victory with wireless charging, CarPlay/A-Auto plus brilliantly crisp and clear Infinity audio – the other contender’s Bose stereo is louder but not nearly as clean and detailed.
We have to be picky and dissect these items because it’s the main reason you pay $60K and not $43K for these seven seaters, and the same is true with active safety technology.
The Japanese win back the tech divide with AEB in reverse, plus adaptive high-beam that can detect individual traffic and block out only the portion of light affecting them, a superb night-time touring feature that works so much better than its rival’s stuttering up-then-down-then-up-then-down auto high-beam.
However, the Asaki also features among the most intrusive and glitchy blind-spot monitors we’ve tested, holding a light on each door mirror and then sending a shrill beep into the cabin when attempting to change lanes, despite being well past traffic.
The Highlander’s active cruise is inferior, however, taking longer to speed back up to a set 110km/h after indicating from behind slow-moving traffic into a free lane (but one that could have suddenly-approaching vehicles given its slowness to respond).
Where they come together is with fantastic head-up displays complete with speed-sign detection and active lane-keep assistance, the latter of which is so well calibrated, subtly holding the vehicle lane centred but without being overly intrusive.
In this case, the tech feels like money well spent here.
While both offer sumptuously supportive front seats with a broad range of adjustment, however, it’s the Hyundai that takes a healthy lead in the centre row. It may offer slightly less legroom than its rival, but its centre bench is shapely and supportive yet plush compared with the other contender’s high-set, but flat item.
The Mazda also initially seems to dip out with its middle-row folding arrangement to access the third row, first requiring a pull of a lever to tip the backrest forward and then pushing the bench forward. By contrast the Santa Fe offers just one button-press that folds-then-slides the whole piece forward in a superbly simple fashion.
Where it dips slightly is where the backrest doesn’t return to its previously set position, requiring a middle row rider to then re-adjust it. While both place the 40 per cent portion of the 60:40-split bench/backrest on the kerbside for our right-hand drive market, which is a safe move, only the 60 per cent portion of the CX-8 also tips and slides forward – in its rival, the backrest awkwardly flops over flat onto the bench.
In essence, it makes for kerbside-only entry in the Highlander. And once a sixth and seventh passenger are seated back there, they will endure a shorter and flatter squab than its rival and notably less headroom – the lid of this 178cm-tall tester wedges into the roof here, whereas it lands on the headrest of the Asaki as it should. That contender also includes a plusher bench and greater visibility.
The Japanese contender loses major points for a lack of air vents and fan control like its rival offers, but wins them back by certifying airbag coverage to the third-row, whereas the South Korean brand says the curtains will cover all side windows only – which means only some coverage, but not by enough to claim full head protection.
Hyundai and Mazda measure their boot volume in different ways – 547 litres to the windows and 742L to the roof as five-seaters respectively – which is unhelpful. And while the former doesn’t quote space with all seven seats in place, according to our tape there’s nothing in it for room when only the front and middle rows are used.
To our measure the CX-8 takes a leap ahead when seven seats are in place, owing to its ‘hump backed’ styling that makes for a broader, rounder space. It claims 209 litres of room, plus another 33L in underfloor space, making for a 242L total.
On the flipside, only the Santa Fe offers a full-sized spare wheel mounted under the vehicle, as opposed to a space-saver temporary spare mounted underfloor.
As an interior summary, if you mainly use five seats with the sixth and seventh pews for short hops and kids only, the Highlander is the go. But for maximum third-row safety and all-seats luggage space, the Asaki takes an early in-cabin win overall.
ON THE ROAD
Mazda has long been renowned for making the most dynamically rewarding vehicles in each of the segments it plays in, and this seven-seat medium-to-large SUV attempts to continue that trend. What the Japanese have also been working hard on is improving ride quality and refinement, and that has mostly worked a treat here too.
We say ‘attempts’ and ‘mostly’ because Hyundai has taken a huge leap forward with this freshly designed and engineered SUV. Its steering, for a start, is beautifully sharp and consistently weighted, just edging out the slightly slower and more vacant, yet also wonderfully consistent and still-excellent electric-assisted set-up in its rival.
Rolling on enormously grippy Continental ContiSport Contact tyres, the handling is also superb and not just for such a tall and heavy (1870kg) vehicle. There’s control and poise to spare, all backed by a subtle but sure electronic stability control (ESC).
It only feels like yesterday that the Santa Fe had slow and sloppy steering, and blunder-bus handling, so in these respects it really has turned a new leaf.
And where does that leave the CX-8? Well, it’s heavier at 1957kg, and its Toyo Proxes don’t deliver as much grip. The suspension tune feels markedly softer, but the chassis balance remains as superb as it is in the smaller CX-5 and larger CX-9.
The way this model moves around its driver, slipping subtly between front and rear, could almost be considered anti-SUV – it really is just a big and lovable hatchback.
While ultimately its rival is the tauter and sharper steer, though, a downside for the Highlander comes with its ride quality – if only slightly. At speed and over rough roads the compliance and control divide is well sorted. Around town it can feel unsettled, however, and there’s a decent bit of suspension noise thrown in as well.
When teamed with a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel that remains far too noisy on light throttle – and which is probably the most unexpected trait of what should be a new and quieter generation – the Hyundai can almost feel unrefined around town. It doesn’t have stop/start tech like its rival, either, meaning it churns away at a set of traffic lights, thrumming its vibes through to a cabin that deserves greater serenity.
By contrast the same-sized four-cylinder in the Mazda is smoother and quieter, the ride over mock-parked surfaces being notably plusher. Even if there’s still slight surface intrusion from the low-profile 19-inch rims, as well as greater body movement than its rival, its ride and refinement still feels more ideal in an SUV application.
Where the South Korean wins back other points is in terms of overall road noise, which is lower than its rival on coarse-chip surfaces. With eight gears inside its auto transmission, it also lowers engine speed to 2000rpm on the freeway at 110km/h, versus almost 2500rpm with the six-speed auto-equipped Japanese contender.
Perhaps that, trumping the lack of stop/start tech, helped narrow the economy divide.
On paper, the Santa Fe’s combined-cycle fuel consumption is 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres versus the CX-8’s 6.0L/100km – a difference of 1.5L/100km. But over a mix of urban, freeway and backroad driving, we returned 11.4L/100km versus 10.6L/100km respectively – a difference of 0.8L/100km.
Both join together with a superb auto calibration, however, and excellent response from diesels that hook up tightly and immediately with their autos, whether taking off from a set of traffic lights or asking for a quick overtaking manoeuvre.
In this respect, each beats several pricier Euro diesels, and with 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque from the heavier Asaki, and 147kW/440Nm from the lighter Highlander, performance is basically identical and decently impressive as well.
The only other differences come with offroad driving and ‘off road’ servicing costs.
The Hyundai includes a 50:50 drive-split ‘lock’ button on its dashboard to fix equal proportion of torque front and rear with its all-wheel drive system, and which is generally more trustworthy than its rival’s ‘adaptive’ but front-biased torque split. It also includes annual or 15,000km servicing intervals with a capped-price program to five years or 75,000km, asking $399 for the first three and $499 for the fourth.
Mazda has just switched to a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty to match its rival, but its annual or 10,000km servicing intervals are sub-par and its capped-price program covers four years or 40,000km. Even so, prices are similar, with the first check cheaper at $319, the second totalling $459, the third returning to $319 and the fourth asking $390.
In some ways there is no outright winner because the Hyundai and Mazda diverge in specific areas that could be more or less suitable to a particular buyer. It’s a dead heat for dynamics, with the former edging ahead for steering and the latter for ride.
Likewise for performance, with the CX-8 taking honours for economy and engine quietness. It also wins for technology with rear AEB, adaptive high-beam and voice control, while dipping for road noise, luxury equipment and middle-row comfort.
The Santa Fe steps up with demonstrably superior second-row plushness, and it makes up for a short bench in the third-row by adding air vents in with greater equipment – such as nicer audio, a pano roof, ventilated seats and auto-park assist.
In addition to the personal value of those pros and cons, ultimately if only five seats are often needed and cash-saving is the go, pick the Highlander. But if seven seats are used regularly and extra boot room is needed, the Asaki wins this. Either way, both feel just premium enough to justify their pricing. Better watch out, Germany.
Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander – 4.0 stars
Mazda CX-8 Asaki – 4.0 stars
- Interested in buying Hyundai Santa Fe? Visit our Hyundai Santa Fe showroom for more information.
- Interested in buying Mazda CX-8? Visit our Mazda showroom for more information.