Our second SUV in a row is the new offering from Hyundai, a dramatically updated Santa Fe. It is a little bigger, much better looking and more accomplished and a giant leap forward as a statement for where Hyundai is at in the motoring world. Better still, it also has more safety packed into than ever before and has as much gear as anything we have seen.
I don’t know whether you noticed, but when we blinked between decades Hyundai moved from being a discount car maker to an automotive innovator and a builder of quality vehicles. It is now time to take it seriously as a prestige car maker and to shift our mindsets.
The new Santa Fe, particularly in Highglander trim, is a very stylish beast indeed. Externally it is imposing and the new grille makes a statement, but it is inside where the quantum leap has taken place. There are layers of colour and texture that work beautifully together and create a cabin area that is among the best we have ever seen.
The hues of brown inside a blue car are so well executed I could even get over my aversion to brown shoes with blue suits (our test car was blue). The quilted highlight layer on the seats matches the door trims and shows how far seat design is evolving. They are nicely contoured and comfortable as well as being heated front and rear (not the third row) and cooled in the front. The climate control system is zoned as well, and the rear seat passengers get their own controls for their little bit.
All manufacturers of 5+2 SUVs are trying to find ways of making the third row easier to use, and Hyundai may have just found the easiest set-up short of electrical controls. The seats go up and down with the pull on a cord, and getting in and out is just as simple with an easy button push to gain access. As ever, the ‘+2’ is exactly that, and you won’t be tripping adults too easily over anything but short distances.
The big sun roof let’s plenty of light into the cabin, but sucks a little bit of headroom, although there is still enough for extremely tall children, such as one of mine.
Think of where you’d like an airbag, and aside from the seatbelts as in the Ford Mondeo, they are there. The airbags couple in with the electronics to provide the highest levels of safety we have seen in a Hyundai to date. They’ve even fixed the feature I disliked most in the old model by dramatically reducing the size of the C-Pillar, and hence improving visibility through the rear three-quarter window. I know it sounds like a funny thing to be excited about, but I have always shied away from car makers that decided to block this window for stylistic reason. Safety is enhanced by vision, hence this car without any evolution in technology is safer than the car it replaces.
One other nice safety feature is that a rear door cannot be opened if the sensors pick up passing traffic, just a nice little touch on top of all the other sensors for things like cross-traffic, blind spots and the like. The cruise control is also the smart system and it works well with lane keeping assistance to help if you get a little distracted.
The infotainment system is OK, although the sound is exceptional. The screen is large and glued to the dashboard in the style that seems popular, although I don’t understand why anyone would prefer a system that looks like an afterthought in an otherwise stylish interior. There are plenty of USB charge ports and inductive charging up front for me.
You aware from the second the key turns that it is a diesel engine in the Highlander, the sound is unmistakeable. So it is far from silky smooth in terms of its idling, but it is a strong engine and works well with the 8 speed gearbox. It has happy just chugging along – which is not such a bad thing in the nanny state – or can lift its skirt and run quite well when pushed.
The chassis is shared with the Kia Sorento, and that is not such a bad thing since that car has been best in class for a while. Hyundai has possibly just gone that little bit further with nice body control to match the urge of the engine, and the electronic trickery on display does a great job of getting you from A to B. It is probably now the most dynamic car in its class.
The Highlander comes with 19-inch wheels and premium Continental tyres and with shift paddles to control the eight-speed auto it can been driven with quite a bit of fervour in the twisty bits. The chassis responds to steering input and it changes direction with a little more urgency that its size would suggest.
It also stops well. The brakes do the job, and a quick change of direction while braking hard is completed without drama.
I liked the new Santa Fe a lot. We drove the top of the range, and that can sometimes be a bit misleading, but hey we’re executives and we are going for the top of the tree. It has plenty of rivals as you’ll see from the list below, but it is not bested by any of them.
Expect this car to carry away a swag of awards when all the newspapers start their car of the year awards.
Active – from $47,277
Elite – from $58,827
Highlander – from $65,652
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Land Rover Discovery Sport