While when the current Hyundai Santa Fe launched back in 2018 it might have left many including myself impressed with the level of refinement it displayed when it came to both its interior and the way that it drives, it was always left lacking in one particular department – that is, what’s under the bonnet.
With a petrol engine only available in the base variant, and it being a wheezy naturally-aspirated four-pot at that, it left potential buyers with only one real choice – a slightly clattery 2.2-litre diesel engine that may have improved on power, but likely left those after a well-equipped seven-seater with an athletic petrol donk under the bonnet running across the road to Mazda to pick up a CX-9.
For 2020, however, Hyundai has wisened up by revamping the Australian Santa Fe range to account for just that oversight. Gone is the four-banger of the base model, and in comes the new option of a hefty V6 petrol engine available across the whole range instead to deliver enough horsepower for the whole family, and to give the punchy CX-9 a run for its money.
This new drivetrain option brought in at the tail-end of last year isn’t the only addition to the 2020 range, however, as a mid-year update has also seen the introduction of a new variant, the one-up-from-base Active X model which adds a few niceties that the base Active model misses out on such as black or beige leather upholstery with a melange knit headlining, dual-zone climate control, a cooled glovebox, front park assist, automatic wipers, keyless entry, power-folding mirrors with integrated puddle lights, and some additional exterior brightwork over the already well-equipped Active model which packs the complete Hyundai SmartSense active safety suite as standard.
On test here, however, is the Elite model which is the second-highest in the range and adds power-adjustable front seats, a set of flappy paddles on the back of the steering wheel, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with integrated satellite navigation and smartphone mirroring, a premium Infinity audio system, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, Safe Exit Assist (a system to prevent the rear doors being opened when a car is driving past), and an incredibly convenient smart tailgate that merely requires you to stand next to it before it will automatically open for you.
While the Elite may miss out on some of the niceties of the top-spec Highlander – such as a panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, a digital instrument cluster and head-up display, LED headlights, and some flashier 19-inch alloys – I reckon it’s a smart buy given the $6560 saving it presents, with LED headlights feeling to be the only disappointing omission.
Given it still features plenty of plush materials throughout its cabin from top to bottom, it’s safe to say that the interior is a perfectly pleasant place to spend time. In both the first and second rows it’s nice and easy to get comfortable with plenty of space and seating that’s comfortable and supportive, although it must be said that the third-row isn’t the most spacious in the class so it’s best reserved for occasional use, although it is nice that third row passengers are treated to their own climate controls.
If anything, the big bezel around the infotainment screen and basic black-and-white screen for the trip computer do let it down just a touch and make it feel a bit dated in that regard compared with some of the more heavily updated Hyundai models it’ll sit alongside in the showroom, but overall it a cabin that presents well and is perfectly functional.
It’s this new drivetrain that really matters here, however, as everything else about the Santa Fe was already pretty proven. Thankfully though, having been lifted from the outgoing Kia Sorento, its twin under the skin, this new engine is similarly proven-enough that it ought to be a good fit.
Naturally aspirated and displacing 3.5-litres, the V6 is a nice and free-revving unit that has enough power on tap to still feel fairly athletic in something this big even if progress isn’t exactly the most rapid you’ll come across.
Producing 206kW and 336Nm, it may be a bit of an old-school thing in some regards given its multi-point fuel injection system and lack of forced induction, but once you start to explore the upper-reaches of the rev range it really does pull itself along confidently and make a pretty decent noise while doing so, while low-down it manages to feel smooth and relaxed when simply putting around town.
Paired to the same in-house-developed eight-speed automatic as you’ll find in the diesel variant, the transmission does a good job of keeping it in the right gear for the most part, and feels nice and smooth with fairly prompt shifts. It might not be on quite the same level as something like the terrific ZF 8HP, but it’s a good fit for what it’s in.
If there’s one real downside to the Santa Fe V6, though, it’s the lack of all-wheel drive. While the superseded 2.4-litre petrol did feature the company’s HTRAC system, Hyundai claims that packaging issues for right-hand drive models prevent this V6 from featuring it like in left-hand drive markets, leaving the diesel as the only way to get all-paw traction.
The trouble here is that the front wheels alone can struggle to put the grunt the big bent-six produces to the ground, meaning that off the line it’s easy to chirp the tyres without trying, and through low speed corners you’ll quickly detect some torque steer if you’re too aggressive with the loud pedal.
Through longer sweeping bends and on the open road, however, the Santa Fe handles itself quite well, with the steering feeling well-weighted and the locally-tuned suspension doing a great job of ironing out the bumps on Australia’s subpar road surfaces like in just about all Hyundai models.
All things considered then, the Santa Fe V6 is really best-served as a long-distance cruiser for four-to-five, with its smooth ride, spacious and comfortable interior in the first two rows, and its engine that feels relaxed while cruising but punchy when driven hard.
Sure, it’s still not perfect even for that given it’s a thirsty thing, using 10.8L/100km during my time with it – although that is only a touch more than Hyundai’s 10.6L/100km combined cycle claim – but the $3030 saving it presents compared to the equivalent diesel model makes this thing pretty good value at $52,070 given the amount of kit it features, and its lifetime capped price service plan is around $100 cheaper on average for each visit to the dealership.
Although a new-look Santa Fe with an optional hybrid drivetrain and more up-to-date interior is on track for a mid-2021 launch, I think this thing is still a good buy even as it is for those after a family-hauler that packs some power. And who knows – as the launch of the facelifted model nears next year, you may even be able to haggle for one at an even better deal of a price than it’s already at.
2020 Hyundai Santa Fe Elite V6 List Price: $52,070 | As Tested: $52,765
Pros: Big V6 that feels both athletic when worked hard and relaxed on the cruise, smooth and comfortable locally-tuned ride, plush interior materials, handy convenience features
Cons: Tight third row, dated technology, V6 is thirstier but cheaper to buy and to service
In a nutshell: While it may not be the best seven-seater for actually seating seven in comfortably, the Santa Fe undoubtedly makes for a great long-distance cruiser for four or five, and the new V6 engine option gives it the athleticism this already dynamically competent SUV had been crying out for.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.