Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander

Australia's Best Cars 2019: Best AWD SUV $55,000-$70,000.

Winner: Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander - 842 points.
2nd place: Kia Sorento GT-Line - 834 points.
3rd place: Volvo XC40 T4 Inscription - 804 points.

Hyundai’s Santa Fe leapfrogged its mechanically related cousin, the Kia Sorento, to take out the 2019 Australia’s Best Cars category for AWD SUVs from $55,000 to $70,000. 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 found in the cabin. In the 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 than the previous model back there, with room for kids and plenty of storage, but adults might find it a little too compact.

Safety wise, 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 assist to mitigate against dooring, 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 out on 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 a decent stretch of 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.

The other two podium finishers also made last year’s top three, highlighting how strong they both are. The Kia Sorento is in the final year of its lifecycle, so it’s starting to look a little dated inside, but its exterior styling is as fresh as it was when it launched in mid-2015 and it’s still a fantastic offering. Despite the light turbo lag, the Sorento is a joy to drive and offers exceptional value for money.

The third-placed Volvo XC40 appeals to different buyers from the two Korean cars but it’s surprisingly spacious for a small SUV. It’s one of the best in its class for driving dynamics and overall performance from its sweet turbo-petrol engine. The XC40’s upmarket cabin has gorgeous seats and appealing Swedish design touches that are the icing on the cake.

While the two runners-up thoroughly deserve their podium spots, in the end the Santa Fe ticked the most boxes, coming out on top thanks to its cost of ownership, excellent ergonomics and interior design, a healthy standard features list, and winning on-road performance.

Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander indicative driveaway: $65,620.

Review by Tim Nicholson, RACV.

See the other winners from Australia's Best Cars 2019.