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Hyundai Santa Fe 2021 review: Highlander

Getting up in your grille, there's already a new face for the Santa Fe

It's all new and big SUVs all the time at Hyundai. Well, and a small one. In the space of a few weeks, the Korean juggernaut has launched the giant Palisade, the updated Kona, and the newly (and early) updated Santa Fe. The Tucson is coming soon.

The Santa Fe update is slightly curious as the all-new machine landed in the middle of 2018, which isn't actually all that long ago. And when it landed it was very, very good while also showcasing Hyundai's new design direction.

The Highlander diesel remains at the top of the Santa Fe range, with an asking price of $65,200, a solid $3500 more than the petrol V6.

You get 20-inch alloy wheels, a big 10.25-inch media touchscreen, a 12.3-inch digital dashboard, sat nav, powered front seats (which are also heated and cooled), a wireless phone charger, front and rear parking sensors, heaps of safety gear (some new, some exclusive to the Highlander), active cruise control, a huge sunroof, auto LED headlights, auto wipers and a full-size spare.

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What does it look like?

The new design direction clearly needed a bit more time to cook, so the updated Santa Fe has a new nose, a revamped interior (especially in the Highlander) and plenty of under the skin tweaks to further improve things.

The Santa Fe was already a formidable machine but with the brand new Kia Sorento entering the game (and a few more rivals coming after them both), its sibling clearly felt it had a point to prove.

The tail-lights are now joined by a full-width reflector strip and the Highlander has a new set of 20-inch wheels. The tail-lights are now joined by a full-width reflector strip and the Highlander has a new set of 20-inch wheels.

As ever, the Santa Fe is a bolder design, perhaps as a counterpoint to the Germanic vibe of the new Sorento. A new grille, T-shaped LED running lights and a tightening of the overall look presents an even more imposing face.

The tail-lights are now joined by a full-width reflector strip and the Highlander has a new set of 20-inch wheels, an inch bigger than before. The Highlander's extra bling is subtle and classy and I reckon it looks great.

The Santa Fe's interior is quite different depending on the model you choose. The basic model has a conventional looking dash while the Highlanders score a similar dash and console design to the Palisade.

The Santa Fe's interior is quite different depending on the model you choose. The Santa Fe's interior is quite different depending on the model you choose.

The Santa Fe has quite a few buttons to play with, so it's a bit Porsche-y in that respect. The digital dash replaces the analogue dials of the lower models and while it's impressive, it's a bit chintzy to my eyes.

Inoffensive, but a bit chrome-and-silver-surfer, but it does do some clever things like enlarging the speed reading as the virtual needle swings past.

How does it drive?

The diesel Highlander may be a little slower than the petrol V6 but your trade-off is all-wheel drive grip. I'm a big fan of the diesel even if it's missing some modern features like stop-start fuel saving or even the mildest of hybrid electrical assistance (if that's important, 2022 might be the year to buy one of these). 

The diesel Highlander may be a little slower than the petrol V6 but your trade-off is all-wheel drive grip. The diesel Highlander may be a little slower than the petrol V6 but your trade-off is all-wheel drive grip.

This newer car is slightly softer than the one it replaces, which isn't a bad thing. While I quite liked the way it drove, it may perhaps have been at the expense of ultimate ride quality, being particularly firm in the rear.

The way it rides now means more folks will appreciate its talents. The Santa Fe's suspension tune is what is termed 'global', meaning the local team had input but it's the same as everyone else's now.

It's surely one of the best if not the best dual-clutch in any new mainstream car today. It's surely one of the best if not the best dual-clutch in any new mainstream car today.

The eight-speed dual-clutch transmission is brand new and my word, is it good. Most of the time it feels just a like a 'normal' automatic and is surely one of the best if not the best dual-clutch in any new mainstream car today.

It's incredibly smooth and quick and doesn't suffer from rolling back on slopes or shuddering changes when confused. It's works well with the diesel engine, keeping it on the boil while also keeping fuel use down.

How spacious is it?

The fourth generation Santa Fe grew enough to make it feel like a big SUV. They've all got seven seats now, although the third row still isn't quite what you'd call spacious.

Very much an 'it'll do in a pinch' proposition, with the emphasis on pinch for those over about 150cm (or five feet) tall. 

  • The fourth generation Santa Fe grew enough to make it feel like a big SUV. The fourth generation Santa Fe grew enough to make it feel like a big SUV.
  • The third row still isn't quite what you'd call spacious. The third row still isn't quite what you'd call spacious.
  • The boot swallows a minimum of 130 litres. The boot swallows a minimum of 130 litres.
  • Put the second row down and you'll get more boot space. Put the second row down and you'll get more boot space.
  • With the third row safely stowed, you get 571 litres. With the third row safely stowed, you get 571 litres.

The boot swallows a minimum of 130 litres with all seats in play and with the third row safely stowed, you get 571 litres, 24 more than last year's car. 

The Santa Fe's six cupholders are paired up in each row and in the Highlander you get an extra sling space under the centre console in addition to the door bins, which also hold bottles.

How easy is it to use every day?

It follows that a big car is easy to get in and out of and generally live with, apart from when you have to park it in a tight spot. Then it gets hard.

Except the Highlander has a really neat trick. You can get everyone out of the car, including the driver, close it all up and then use the key as a remote to nose or reverse the car into the tight spot. When you return, you can then get it back out via the same method, the remote also firing up the car for you.

I made a video of it the other day, posted it on Twitter, and people went nuts, so it's obviously something folks think is useful. I had to park in a super-tight underground car park in the Sydney CBD and it saved me a lot of faffing around.

Also devilishly clever is the wireless charging slot for your (compatible) phone. You pop it in vertically and a little spring-loaded door keeps it in place during even the most ambitious cornering.

I wanted to see if it would stay in place during a full rollover but the pen-pushers in OH&S nixed that idea. Spoil sports.

There are two further USB chargers (one of which you'll need to feed Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to the touchscreen) with two more chargers in the middle row.

Aside from that, the Santa Fe has tons of space, a powered tailgate (that can be a little too responsive to the presence of the key in your pocket as you wander past) and wide-opening rear doors making loading and unloading kids really easy. Almost Honda CR-V easy.

How safe is it?

There are a lot of upgrades on the safety list, which is nice. You get six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (10-65km/h for pedestrians and cyclists, 75km/h for cars), turn assist (tries to stop you crashing into oncoming traffic in a right turn situation), rear cross traffic alert, rear AEB, lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring.

The digital dash means Hyundai's 'Blind Spot Monitor' throws up a view down the side of the car corresponding to the indicator direction, kind of like Honda's 'LaneWatch' but on both sides and without blinding you at night. It's very handy.

You also get two ISOFIX points and three top tether mounts in the middle row.

This version of the Santa has not been tested so the maximum five star ANCAP rating carries over from 2018. This version of the Santa has not been tested so the maximum five star ANCAP rating carries over from 2018.

It is worth knowing that the Santa Fe's curtain airbags do not properly reach all the way to the third row, meaning those in the third row are at a slightly higher risk in a side impact 

This version of the Santa has not been tested so the maximum five star ANCAP rating carries over from 2018.

What’s the tech like?

Hyundais tend to be well equipped these days and the Highlander is properly loaded. The head-up display is terrific, the media system is awesome and easy to use (and has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) with excellent sound from the speakers.

While the digital dash is a bit daggy looking, it's super easy to read and works extra well at night, especially with that handy camera view down the side of the car when you hit the indicator for a lane change or turn.

The media system has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The media system has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The remote control feature has a few steps in it, but once you learn them, it's perfectly easy. The car is also keeping a close eye on what's around and will immediately stop if it thinks there's an obstacle or a child.

It even steered itself straight down our driveway after I deliberately parked it badly to see how it managed. 

How much does it cost to own?

While diesel may not be your favourite kind of fuel, you won't have to buy nearly as much of it as you would petrol in the V6.

The Santa Fe delivered 7.8L/100km in a mix of suburban and highway running against a claimed 6.1L/100km. That's a lot of car being pushed through the air with not that much fuel.

Hyundai's five year/unlimited kilometre warranty costs no more than $459 per service for the first five years. Hyundai's five year/unlimited kilometre warranty costs no more than $459 per service for the first five years.

Hyundai's pace-setting, and now very common, five year/unlimited kilometre warranty costs no more than $459 per service for the first five years and you have to return to the dealer every 12 months or 15,000km.


The Wrap

The new Santa Fe feels like a massive change from the car it replaces, and it was only three years old. With a thorough overhaul I didn't even know it needed, it remains a leading proposition in its class and acts as a fine response to its Kia sibling as well as staying well ahead of the ageing, old school, Kluger.

Likes

Great new interior
Loaded with tech
Great to drive

Dislikes

Highlander on the pricey side
Servicing a bit stiff
No hybrid (yet)

Scores

Peter:

4.1

The Kids:

4.2

$58,925

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

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