Could Hyundai's hybrid seven-seater be a car that ticks all the boxes? It sure looks like it to us.

Although Australians’ appetite for electric vehicles – and particularly electric SUVs – is growing, hybrids still present a good stepping stone for those who want to spend less on fuel but aren’t yet comfortable going all-in on a plug-in vehicle.

That’s where vehicles such as the 2023 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid come in. Sharing a platform with the Kia Sorento Hybrid and a key rival for the Toyota Kluger Hybrid, it presents a way for growing families with a need for a seven-seater a way to foray into owning an electrified vehicle without ever needing to figure out where to charge it.

This new hybrid drivetrain is only being offered on the top two Santa Fe trim levels – the third-run Elite, priced from $63,000 before on-road costs, and the top-spec Highlander tested here at a cost of $69,550, marking a $3000 premium over diesel variants and $6500 over the V6 petrol. Granted, the V6 is only offered with front-wheel drive in Australia which explains the big price discrepancy as the Santa Fe Hybrid comes with all-wheel drive as standard.

Last time we were behind the wheel of the Santa Fe, it was the top-spec diesel model just after this facelifted look arrived in 2021, and little has changed with the Santa Fe between then and now. The new front clip gives it a decidedly futuristic look that’s holding up well, and the one change the Santa Fe Hybrid receives – a set of unique and more aerodynamic 19-inch alloy wheels – adds to it well. Were it not for the badge on the tailgate, you’d be forgiven for thinking this were the same as any other model.

The same can be said on the inside where all is identical to the Santa Fe Highlander we last tested. If you like buttons rather than touchscreen controls, this is a good car for you as there’s a mass of them on the centre console, which while looking a little overbearing at first does make life easier when you’re looking to toggle through settings.

You’ll have to look pretty hard inside to find signs of the Santa Fe Hybrid being an eco-focused model as well. Beyond the deletion of the Comfort drive mode (Eco becomes the new default setting) and the quintessential Charge/Eco/Power gauge in place of a tachometer on its digital instrument cluster, you’d be hard-pressed to spot any difference. That includes there being no ‘EV mode’ like you’d see in Toyota’s hybrids, not that you’ll get far at all before the petrol engine kicks back in given the tiny size of the battery pack.

One addition that can be noticed on this top-spec Highlander model is the availability of a six-seat layout with second-row captain’s chairs, although our tester was fitted with the standard seven-seat layout. Which seating layout is for you will depend on how you plan to use the Santa Fe and the size of your family, but if you’re regularly carrying one or two in the back and only occasionally require room for a third, it’ll be more comfortable for all with the new six-seat layout.

As ever, the Santa Fe Highlander continues to feel like a premium item on the inside with extensive use of leather and few signs of cheaping out anywhere, while the seating across all three rows feels decidedly comfortable – the days of Hyundai building run of the mill cars is very much over. Two interior colour options are available in the Highlander Hybrid with black leather standard across the range while the striking camel brown will set you back $295 extra. For the Elite Hybrid, black remains standard with cognac brown leather available for the same added cost.

It must be said that some of the technology is starting to feel a little dated in the Santa Fe, however, as the wide but short 10.25-inch infotainment screen feels a bit small in a car this big, as ridiculous as that sounds to say, while the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster lacks flexibility as there’s no way to adjust the layout or view navigation details on it – there’s only room for trip computer or vehicle status details in the middle. However, there is at least a head-up display to project navigation instructions onto the windscreen.

There’s no lack of features to be found in the Santa Fe Highlander, though, with heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated outboard second-row seats, dual-zone climate control with independent third-row fan speed adjustment, retractable sunshades in the rear windows, a panoramic sunroof, a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, wireless phone charging, and remote engine start, along with the handy party trick of being able to move the car forwards and backwards from the key fob.

It’s also packed with every bit of safety tech Hyundai has on offer including adaptive cruise control with Level 2 semi-autonomous steering assistance; blind-spot warning with a blind-spot camera and safe exit assist; rear cross-traffic alert; autonomous emergency braking with vehicle, pedestrian, and cyclist detection; automatic LED headlights with high beam assist; and a 360-degree surround view camera.

READ MORE: The Hyundai Palisade is a stylish, eight-seater minivan alternative

Like it’s twin under the skin in the Kia Sorento range, the 2023 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid uses a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine combined with a 44.2kW electric motor that’s powered by a 1.49kWh lithium-ion battery pack. All added up, power is rated at 169kW at 5500rpm, while torque sits at 350Nm but across a broad plateau from 1000-4500rpm. Power is sent to all four wheels through a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission.

What’s most striking is how smooth this system is, with the transition between petrol and electric power being seamless, while the way the petrol engine and electric motor deliver their power compliments each other well, with each working to fill the gap left by the other (ie. the electric motor adds the low-end torque, while the petrol engine provides the top-end power). For driving flat out, the torquier diesel engine is the better bet – plus it and the petrol can tow 2500kg braked versus 1650kg for the hybrid – but as a daily driver this hybrid is a real winner.

It’s also easy to come close to meeting its fuel economy claims as it returned an impressive 6.8L/100km over 594km of testing – not far off its 6.0L/100km rating on the combined cycle. Don’t be misled by the diesel Santa Fe’s promising fuel economy either, as while it only uses one decimal point more on paper, we only managed 9.2L/100km over 485km last time we had the oiler on test. Compare it to that, and the hybrid’s fuel savings add up in a big way. Combine that impressive economy with a 67-litre fuel tank and you’ll also be able to cover nearly 1000km on a single tank – no wonder “The Distance” by Cake was the song chosen for the Santa Fe Hybrid’s Aussie advertising campaign.

In all other regards, the Santa Fe Hybrid drives much the same as any other variant, which is to say very impressively indeed. Despite its size and weight – this Highlander variant tips the scales at 1983kg – it feels fairly confident through the corners with impressive body control and steering feel.

These smaller 19-inch aero alloys also afford the Santa Fe Hybrid an even more comfortable ride than you’d already get in the equivalent petrol or diesel model that rides on 20-inch wheels. Its suspension is taut enough to afford it that impressive body control while also having the right amount of rebound to help it feel composed over bumps. It’s a very impressive thing indeed.

What’s also impressive is the price point the Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid sits at. This $69,550 Highlander variant comes in cheaper than both its equivalent in the Kia Sorento range, with a slight advantage over the $69,750 GT-Line HEV AWD (although a cheaper FWD hybrid is also on offer from Kia), but also a great margin less than the $79,560 Toyota Kluger Grande Hybrid.

The Kia might have one ownership advantage with a seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty, but the Hyundai matches Toyota’s five-year coverage while also being cheaper to service than the Sorento at $459 for each of the first five services compared with an average of $557 for the Sorento’s first five. Mind you, the Kluger beats both with $265 servicing for the first five visits and a longer 12-month/15,000km interval while the Korean siblings require servicing every 10,000km.

Regardless, the Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid is a car that will clearly make a lot of sense for a lot of buyers. Its price point, impressive fuel economy, lengthy list of features, and refined driving characteristics mean it ticks a lot of the boxes on what I imagine will be the shopping lists of many potential buyers.

Unless you’re buying a Santa Fe as a tow car, there’s no real reason now why the hybrid shouldn’t be the one to go for now. As it has done since this generation Santa Fe first landed five years ago, it continues to evolve and impress in a big way.

2023 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Hybrid List Price: $69,550
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Tech & Features - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 7.5/10
    Value for Money - 7.5/10

Pros: Impressive fuel economy for an SUV this size and weight, impressive ride and driving dynamics, packed with features, ideal for long-distance touring
Cons: Considerably less torque and towing capacity than the diesel, could do with more customisable displays, 10,000km service interval

In a nutshell: The 2023 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Hybrid is a vehicle that ticks just about all the boxes for the modern family – seating for up to seven, impressive fuel economy, and endless list of features, and an air of quality both inside and on the road. Factor in its cheaper pricing than its key rivals and you’ve got yourself a winner.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Motor Company Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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