Winner: Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander
Hyundai’s Santa Fe leapfrogged its mechanically related cousin, the Kia Sorento, to take first place in this category for 2019. The fourth-generation Santa Fe – introduced in July 2018 – built on the positives of its popular predecessor, with larger dimensions in almost all areas, a notable lift in interior space and comfort, and more safety tech. It’s a perfect all-rounder for buyers that need the flexibility of a genuine seven-seater, but who also appreciate an engaging drive experience.
Hyundai ushered in a bold new design for the latest Santa Fe, with an ultra-modern look featuring split headlights and the brand’s signature ‘cascading’ grille at the front. But some of the biggest changes are in the cabin. In flagship Highlander guise, the Santa Fe has soft-touch materials on the dash and doors and interesting design elements throughout. It provides a feeling that this is a much more premium vehicle than its price-tag suggests. Superb front seats aid in this feat – not only do they look the part, they’re perfectly bolstered and have 14-way adjustment (including a cushion extension) for the driver and eight-way adjustment for the passenger.
Space in the second row is ample and is well-shaped for child seats. A switch folds the second row flat and there’s easy access to the third row. It’s more spacious back there than the previous model, with room for kids and plenty of storage, but adults might find it a little too compact. The Santa Fe was awarded a five-star ANCAP crash rating in 2018 and the Highlander has the full suite of Hyundai SmartSense active safety gear that includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, safe exit assistance, and active cruise control with stop and go.
The Santa Fe Highlander’s overall standard features list was rated highly in the category. The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel in the Santa Fe isn’t a new engine, but it was revised for the new model and is paired with a smooth-shifting, eight-speed automatic transmission, driving all four wheels. Even though it shares the engine with the Kia Sorento GT-Line, it’s slightly more responsive in the Hyundai, missing the lag of the Kia. It’s also quieter, reflecting Hyundai’s focus on cabin insulation and eliminating road and engine noise.
The Santa Fe coped with nasty corrugations surprisingly well and its all-wheel-drive system proved effective on unsealed road during testing, but its off-road ability is limited in ground clearance. Hyundai’s Australian engineers tuned the suspension setup for local conditions and it makes for a dynamically engaging drive experience through twisty roads, something not a lot of large family SUVs can manage. Combined with the torquey diesel and nicely weighted steering, the Santa Fe has one of the best drive experiences of any large SUV on the market right now – regardless of badge.