Korea is among the most advanced automobile-producing countries in the world today. Did you know that the automotive industry in South Korea is the 5th largest in the world when measured by automobile unit production and automobile export volume?
Established in 1967, Hyundai Motor Co. has grown into the Hyundai Motor Group, with more than two dozen auto-related subsidiaries and affiliates. Hyundai Motors − which employs 900,000 worldwide, has seven manufacturing bases outside of South Korea including Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, India, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. They sold a staggering 4.4 million vehicles globally in 2012.
Their latest effort, the Hyundai Santa Fe XL, signals the South Korean auto industry’s coming of age stronger and clearer than ever.
The Santa Fe XL competes squarely in a marketplace now filled with other midsized crossover vehicles. These crossovers blur the line between traditional body-on-frame 7 passenger truck-based SUVs, such as the Toyota Sequoia and Ford Expedition, and the ubiquitous and trusty minivans. Offering the style and security of all-wheel-drive from an SUV, but also the people-carrying ability of a minivan, they are a common sight on the roads for the school run.
These midsize crossovers, like minivans, play a largely thankless role in the life of today’s modern family.
With the ability to keep everyone and everything in them safe and comfortable in all sorts of weather conditions day in and out, they’re the true heros of said modern family. But yet their owners often immediately forget about them as soon as their work is done.
As a car driving enthusiast though, I found myself surprisingly growing to love and enjoy the big Hyundai, despite not having any hyperactive kids to call my own.
Keep reading to find out why I found it to be a fashionably stylish and yet practical vehicle, with enough techno treats to keep both drivers and passengers entertained.
Let’s start with the design first. The Santa Fe is now in its a 3rd iteration since the model name was introduced in 2001. The latest version features a more rugged, butch version of Hyundai’s Fluidic design language that we’ve seen so beautifully executed on the Sonata, Tuscan, and Elantra. This tweaked design language on the Santa Fe is called “Storm Edge”, and it looks fantastic.
Did you know that Hyundai’s Chief Designer is now Thomas Bürkle? Yup, this is the same chap who designed the BMW 3-series sedan/wagon, and the 6-series!
I truly think this is one of the best looking faces you can find on a mid-sized SUV today, regardless of price range.
The Santa Fe XL separates itself from its smaller 5 passenger sibling, the Sport, with a larger 5 bar trapezoidal chrome grill versus the 3 bar on the Sport. The XL also has a more practical traditional side window line in front of the D-pillar, for the benefit of the 3rd row passengers, versus the stylish upsweep of the Sport model.
Shared with the Sport, the XL features the aggressive angular headlamps with unique square-shaped projectors – HID Xenons in the case of my Limited trim level tester. I really liked the LED-based “eyebrow” parking lamps too.
The XL’s rear is a little less successful in escaping a comparison with a minivan. While the designers have done a good job visually in pinching the roofline down, but there’s only so much you can do with a long vehicle and yet still have decent headroom for your 3rd row passengers. This is still ultimately a large people carrier after all. The accessory roof rack crossbars ought to butch it up for those concerned.
Regardless, with its larger dimensions combined with its smart and distinctive body lines, the Santa Fe XL has significant road presence that helps to set its apart from its rivals.
I think it looks a damn more stylish than the outgoing 7 passenger Hyundai Veracruz, which never really sold well in North America. Moreover, the Veracruz included older Hyundai design elements that just didn’t fit with the rest of Hyundai’s lineup anymore.
The Santa Fe XL’s chief rivals, all with 3rd row seating of course, include the Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, and Mazda CX-9.
None of its competitors can claim the following accolades though. For 2013, the Hyundai Santa Fe (albeit the Sport model) won the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s Best New SUV/CUV award in the $35,000 to $60,000 category. The Santa Fe also won the coveted award for Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year.
Inside the cabin
While the Santa Fe’s price is lower than many of its competitors, this doesn’t mean that the engineers haven’t found ways of creating an interior with a long lasting and quality feel to it. The cabin is luxury-car quiet with its double-sealed doors and more.
When designing this 3rd generation Santa Fe, engineers introduced an additional 69 lbs of noise, vibration, harshness (NVH in industry-talk) dampening improvements. This includes things like thicker floor insulation, improved bushings, an acoustic windshield, and much more. Even the wheel wells have multi-layer linings to insulate from tire and road noise, just like you would find in vehicles belonging to many luxury marques.
The Santa Fe’s dash is mixed with pleasantly textured plastic mixed with soft touch surfaces. While it’s not quite up to Mercedes-Benz or Lexus standards, it is more than adequate for the price range. I particularly liked the dark wood grain plood (plastic wood) even though it was faux. There is a surprising amount of depth and sheen to it to pull off the illusion successfully.
Other thoughtful features include a small open bin in front of the gear shifter, and easy to access auxiliary audio and USB ports. I was particularly thankful for side-by-side dual 12 volt outlets that allowed me to plug in my trusty FineVue CR500 HD dashcam, and another accessory, without resorting to a multi-plug expander.
Since the Santa Fe XL will undoubtedly be piloted by many moms, I solicited the input from a couple of colleagues of mine as well. Meet Laura, a busy mom of two, a Fitting Expert at retail footwear store Kintec, and a marathon runner/run leader. Laura has owned several cars and minivans over the years, and was a prime candidate to share her input on the Santa Fe XL.
She loved the large HVAC controls that allowed her to change the fan speed and push other buttons while wearing gloves. The heated steering wheel was also a welcome (and unexpected) feature.
One of the Santa Fe XL’s big surprises is seat quality. With a low step-in height, there’s no need for any sidesteps or running boards to get into the great feeling leather covered perches.
There is plenty of thigh and back support, and the electrical adjustable driver-side lumbar made finding a comfortable driving position easy. The side bolsters do a good enough job for SUV-duty, but aren’t so flat as to allow you to slide around in turns.
In Limited trim, our XL was also fitted with 3 level heated and cooled front seats. The latter a welcome feature in the quest to avoid sticky backs on leather during the summer months.
Even the 2nd row seats are equipped 2 level seat heaters to keep passengers comfortable. Laura jokingly quipped that the seats were just in reach from the front row to offer her kids either a treat or a punishment.
3rd row passengers get their own temperature and fan controls for better ventilation. When occupied by average sized adults, the 3rd row is mostly suited for shorter trips of under 60 minutes anyway. Children will be just fine and dandy!
For the 2013 model year, the Limited trim XL was only available in 6 passenger configuration (with a pair of 2nd row 4-way adjustable captain chairs that only seat one each). Shoppers needed to downgrade from the Limited spec to a lower trim line (forgoing leather seats) to get the 7 passenger seating.
For 2014, thankfully the Limited trim XL will be available with a traditional 3 passenger split folding 2nd row bench, bringing total carrying capacity to 7 passengers. A boon if you want all the toys and luxury features of the Limited and yet want to carry 7 people.
Also new for the 2014 model year is the addition of an available blindspot warning system. Despite the large wing mirrors, this would be a welcome active safety addition for such a large vehicle and I thought that it was an odd miss for a vehicle that has a wide variety of safety features.
Regardless of where you’re sitting in the Santa Fe XL, you’ll be able to enjoy the massive tinted panoramic moonroof which stretches almost all of the way to the rear hatch. Even 3rd row passengers can see out of it – a huge bonus as that’s usually the most claustrophobic seating position.
The forward half tilts upwards for venting, or you can slide it open for a true open air feel.
If the temperature gets too hot, a fabric power sun shade slides silently out from aft to cover the entire length of glass.
Behind the wheel, drivers will find controls in a cabin stuffed with technology. From dual zone climate controls, a CleanAir Ionizer that automatically cleans the air, to Bluetooth audio streaming and Satellite Navigation with SiriusXM traffic, this is one vehicle that is packed with useful features that will help mom (or dad) on the road.
Thankfully, most of this tech is easy to use and not distracting. Many redundant hard button controls are available without looking cluttered, and the rest are controlled from the large 8” touchscreen. I found it very amusing that there was even an option to turn on a “welcome chime” song, much like you would find in a Samsung or LG smartphone. You won’t find this sort of fun in a “serious” German vehicle!
But the cabin is not without flaws. There are a few curious ergonomic faux pas though. The all-new Driver Selectable Steering Mode (more on that later) button is on the steering wheel where the heated steering wheel button should be. The volume controls and phone controls are on the left side of the steering wheel versus the right.
Lefties, you can rejoice. The rest of us not so much. Perhaps the interior designer was a lefty?
Also the overhead switches aren’t lit, making them almost impossible to see at night. This includes the power tailgate control, which is oddly located next to the panoramic moonroof controls where you would least expect it. For the first 2 days that I had the Santa Fe, I thought that the power tailgate was only able to be operated via the remote or the latch under the handle.
I also chuckled at the “Engrish” wording as the interior lighting controls are marked “Door” and “Room” rather than “Door” and “Cabin”.
And finally, the position of the virtual clock on the touchscreen is located on different spots on different screens (e.g. phone vs radio vs navigation). This makes you needlessly have to hunt when looking for the time. Even after a few days I found it annoying. At least Hyundai includes a physical “clock” button so you can make the whole screen a giant clock!
So how does it drive?
Exactly a day after picking up the Santa Fe XL, old man winter extended his wintery grip with snowfall warnings of 5-10 centimeters in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
Thankfully, the kind folks at Hyundai Canada had seen it fit to equip my press car with brand new Hankook Winter i*cept evo tires. This is a a studless high-performance winter tire developed for performance vehicles.
Having spent some time on snow and ice with these tires now, I can happily vouch for their effectiveness. Since they’re higher speed-rated winter tires, there is less of a squishy feel or delayed steering response than with lower speed rated winter tires. Combined with Hyundai’s advanced all-wheel-drive system with Active Cornering Control, the Santa Fe was unstoppable in the inclemental weather.
Designed by Magna, the Santa Fe’s all-wheel-drive system is called Dynamax. Magna says, and I agree, that the system reacts nearly instantaneously to wheel slip or torque requirements. Even on dirt and gravel, slip is limited to practically nothing. Dynamax’s torque transfer assists in smoothly and accurately pointing into the vehicle into corners with confidence.
This is a sophisticated system here. Gathering information from the stability control system, it reads steering angle, wheel speed and accelerator position, factors in yaw (rotation) to determine whether it should apply traction control, brake control, or a combination. Magna says its system has less drag, an ability to decouple, and high thermal capacity for long life.
I particularly liked the 4WD “Lock” feature which electronically locks the centre differential. Rather than waiting for slippage to occur before transferring power forward and aft, this useful feature allows you to send power to both axles at low vehicle speeds to get going again. The system eventually shuts off to normal behavior as the vehicle speed increases.
On the road, the 3.3L V-6 moves the 4,068 lb. wagon without running short of breath. With Variable Valve timing and Direct injection technologies, this is an advanced engine producing 290hp and 252 ft-lbs of torque. At 290 hp, this is the same output as the BMW X5’s 4.4L V8 from 10 years ago. In other words, it’s no slouch!
The six-speed automatic shifts imperceptibly and kicks down quickly and smoothly when you put your foot in the throttle pedal. There is also a manual mode, should you want to shift yourself for engine braking or towing. While it worked well enough, I didn’t like the manualmatic feature due to its lack of tactile sensation when the gear shifter was in the manual gate. There was almost no feel to indicate that a new gear was selected, just a slight click. It felt 100% like the electronic switch that it was. While this probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the Santa Fe’s would-be owners, as a car driving enthusiast, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of feedback.
The Santa Fe XL’s ride was well controlled with no wallowing over a number of different surfaces. Body roll never got out of hand either. I was so impressed with the ride quality that I would almost venture calling it “European” with its well dampened motions.
An underrated portion of the Santa Fe’s nimble chassis is due to its use of multiple grades of high strength steels. Extremely high strength steel is used in critical side panels to reduce impact intrusion, and across and along body structural rails to move impact forces across or through the body. The strongest steel is reserved for front head-on collision strength and to create a roll cage structure around occupants.
A couple of special highlights. Firstly the Santa Fe XL’s turning circle is impressively small at only 36.68 ft. The Sport is even smaller – class-leading in fact – at 35.76 feet. This enhanced maneuverability, combined with the rearview camera and rear parking sensors, made parking a snap despite the 110.2-inch wheelbase and overall length of 193.1 inches. I sometimes wished for front sensors as well when in tighter parking spots.
Secondly, the Santa Fe also is equipped with Hyundai’s all-new Driver Selectable Steering Mode (DSSM) with three operating modes – Comfort, Normal, Sport. The Comfort setting increases the power steering assistance by 10% over Normal, and Sport decreases it by 10%. But wait, there is more! For a more natural and progressive feel, DSSM also adjusts on-centre and steering build-up feel.
While I typically don’t like electric power steering systems, they are here to stay due to higher efficiency. Hyundai has at least tried to make the best of it. Personally, I left it in Sport mode all the time.
Wrapping it up
A decade ago driving a mid-size to large SUV was usually a very unpleasant experience for a typical car lover. They were always based on trucks chassis with terrible ride and handling, slow and numb steering, and weak brakes with mushy pedal feel.
These days, SUVs and crossovers have come such a long way in the intervening period. Overall I found the Santa Fe XL to be an affordably pleasant ride and very livable. If you’re shopping for a 3-row SUV or crossover, I highly recommend adding this to your shopping list regardless of whether you have kids, want more space for road trips, or just for moving “stuff”.
As the famed late movie critics Siskel and Ebert would say, “We give it Two Thumbs Up”!