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2016 Hyundai Santa Fe Expert Review

By Kristin Varela
Cars.com National
January 15, 2016

Editor's note: This review was written in June 2015 about the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2016, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.

Many of us are on a fruitless, unhealthy pursuit of perfection. As mother to three young daughters (ages 14, 12 and 10), I spend a lot of time advocating for progress rather than perfection — except when it comes to cars.

I've spent 11 years on a quest for the quintessential family car, and while that perfect blend of family-friendly features still eludes me, the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe comes darn close.

Not to be confused with the smaller, five-seat Santa Fe Sport, the Santa Fe can have six or seven seats in three rows. This year, the Santa Fe has a couple of new features and updates, including my favorite: an available hands-free (and foot-free) smart liftgate that opens the cargo door when you stand near the rear bumper with the key fob on you. This feature is standard on the Limited trim I drove, but a pricey option on others. Also new this year are optional blind spot monitors with rear cross-path detection, as well as some steering and suspension modifications. Compare this year's model with last year's here.

The Santa Fe comes in front- and all-wheel-drive versions of a seven-seat GLS trim and a six-seat Limited. I drove a Limited all-wheel drive; you can see all four versions here.

If you're in the market for a three-row SUV for your people- and stuff-hauling needs, you should take the time to research the Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander, as well. Check them out side by side here.

Exterior & Styling
During my week in the Hyundai Santa Fe, dressed in a Circuit Silver paint job, I had trouble finding the car in the parking lot on numerous occasions. Clad in the bland, anonymous paint shade that seems to disguise nearly every SUV in my neck of the woods, the Santa Fe just doesn't stand out. To Hyundai's credit, though, the cars I was mistaking for it were much more upmarket, like the Acura MDX.

While my husband appreciated the low-profile anonymity of driving a feature-laden car without brand pretense, if it were mine, I'd probably deck it out to suit my personality more (and help it stand out in the grocery store parking lot among all the other sporty, curvy "utes").

How It Drives
Driving the Santa Fe is quite a pleasure — not in a BMW i8 sort of way, but in a "totally functional, nothing irks you and it's even kind of fun when you punch it" sort of way. A button on the steering wheel allows you to switch between Sport, Normal and Comfort steering modes, which varies the power assist. In previous generations, I found the differences between the modes to be more pronounced than they were in the 2015 version, but maybe I was just more distracted this time with tales of "who likes whom" by my daughters while driving (wow — a lot can change in two years!).

The Santa Fe is available with one engine, a 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6. When equipped with all-wheel drive, it gets an EPA-estimated 18/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined (identical to the 2015 Highlander with a V-6 and all-wheel drive). The front-drive Santa Fe gets just 1 mpg more in highway and combined driving. The six-cylinder Chevrolet Traverse with all-wheel drive gets a slightly lower 16/23/19 mpg rating.

While the Santa Fe and Traverse offer only six-cylinder engines, those concerned about fuel economy can opt for a four-cylinder in the front-wheel-drive Highlander and see their mileage bump up to 20/25/22 mpg. A Highlander Hybrid is also an option for the budget-less, improving fuel economy even further to 27/28/28 mpg.

Interior
The interior of the Santa Fe is incredibly well thought out and can be thoroughly decked out in almost all the features you'd want for your family hauler. In every version, the front occupants' rear ends are pampered with standard heated seats, and seat ventilation is optional on all trims for a total of six temperature settings. My test car also had a heated steering wheel, but thanks to a nice blast of warm spring air, I didn't need it.

My only suggestion to Hyundai on how to make the Santa Fe a better fit for drivers of all sizes would be to make the telescoping steering wheel extend out just a bit farther or tilt a bit lower. I'm 5 feet 3 inches tall, and when my feet were in the right position for the pedals, my arms had to stretch just a bit too far to reach the top of the steering wheel with the proper elbow bend. The steering wheel is angled slightly, so reaching the bottom is no problem, but the top and sides were just awkward enough to cause a bit of arm fatigue when I was in the car for a long period.

I was grateful for the blind spot monitors that came standard on my test car (they're optional on the GLS), as there's a pronounced blind spot over the driver's left shoulder. Or at least there was for my small frame, as the top of the driver's seatback obscured my view. I also felt the side mirrors were a bit large. It's great for looking behind you, but slightly in the way of your front-side view, particularly when turning a corner. A taller driver, though, would probably see right over the top of them.

The second row of my test car had two captain's chairs, which are standard on the Limited trim (a bench seat is standard on the GLS). Those chairs can also have optional heated seats, controlled via a button on the door, as well as manual sunshades. Each captain's chair reclines a bit for comfort, as well as ease of installation of different types of child-safety seats. They also slide back and forth to allocate second- or third-row legroom where needed. Bottleholders and storage bins in the doors, plus standard seatback pockets, round out storage space for second-row passengers.

The third row impresses with its own standard air-temperature control, eliminating the need for passengers back there to bug the driver for more air when needed. However, the seat itself is a bit flat and firm, making it more comfortable for quick trips than for the cross-country endeavors of ambitious road-tripping families.

If child seats aren't installed in the second row, the captain's chairs can tilt and slide forward, leaving plenty of space to walk through to the third row. While the aisle between the two captain's chairs is narrower than what you'd find in a minivan, it's enough space for children to squeeze between for quick, easy access to the third row (handy if child-safety seats in the second row mean you can't tilt those seats forward — or if, like my kids, yours just prefer the walk-through maneuver).

Hyundai, like Kia, has mastered the art of the massive, if optional, panoramic moonroof. This is nothing if not impressive in a large vehicle like the Santa Fe. It spans all the way from the front seats to the third row without any obstructions in between. While the sun is way too harsh in my high-altitude Rocky Mountain climate to keep it open on a sunny day, opening it up for a little extra dose of vitamin D on a slightly overcast day is a pleasure. It's also a blast for the kids for a full-moon-gazing night drive and froyo run, complete with fuzzy pajamas.

Ergonomics & Electronics
Hyundai's multimedia touch-screen is simple enough to work through without having to break open the owner's manual. My favorite feature is the speed limit signs that magically display on the nav screen. How often do you find yourself driving around without having seen a speed limit sign in ages, wondering whether you're driving over the limit or not? Not a problem in the Santa Fe; speed limits are entered as map data points in the navigation system so you don't have to watch so fervently for elusive signs.

The climate controls are below the multimedia display and adjust intuitively via a knob for fan speed, and up and down buttons for the … you guessed it … temperature adjustments. If that doesn't seem out of the ordinary, you haven't been in many new vehicles recently.

Cargo & Storage
The Santa Fe has 13.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. Release levers on either side of the cargo bay fold each half of the third row without muss or fuss, expanding the cargo volume to 40.9 cubic feet. Folding the second row as well creates a full 80 cubic feet of space — enough for me to haul tile, grout and IKEA cabinets for two bathrooms for our nearly completed basement-finishing project. This comes close to the Highlander's 83.7 cubic feet of maximum cargo-hauling capability. However, if you plan on doing some serious DIY home improvements, the Traverse is a better bet, with its massive 116.3 cubic feet of maximum cargo space.

If you opt for the power liftgate, loading all these supplies into the Santa Fe is as simple as standing next to the rear bumper with your hands full for a few seconds with the key on you. It will open without you needing to do anything else. Brilliant!

Safety
The 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top marks of good (on a scale of poor, marginal, acceptable and good) in side, roof-strength, moderate-overlap front and head restraint/seat tests. Unfortunately, a marginal rating in the small-overlap front test prevents the Santa Fe from receiving a Top Safety Pick rating. The Santa Fe's results match two other models in the institute's midsize SUV class; two are rated good, one is acceptable and one is poor in the small overlap.

Most cars in this class have six standard airbags, but the Santa Fe adds a seventh for the driver's knees. While the Santa Fe doesn't have forward collision warning or avoidance systems, rear cross-path detection is an option with the blind spot monitor (new for this year). Park assist sensors are also optional, and a backup camera is standard.

For families installing child-safety seats, the six-seat Santa Fe Limited's second-row captain's chairs make installation easy. Although the lower Latch anchors are not visible, sandwiched within the seat bight, your ability to adjust the seatback angle and slide the seats forward and back add to the flexibility and ease of installation. Kids in booster seats will appreciate the seat belt buckles, which are on stable-stalk bases that make buckling in easier for those with limited dexterity. For a full Car Seat Check of the seven-seat 2014 Santa Fe, click here.

See all the Santa Fe's standard safety features listed here.

Value in Its Class
Hyundai can no longer be considered a budget brand; what it is now is a value brand. You can get a lot of features packed into the Santa Fe that make it feel quite upscale and luxurious, but without paying a luxury-car price. Blend that with the peace of mind that Hyundai's impressive warranty offers and the Santa Fe really starts to look like a clear class winner. It will, however, be quite interesting to see what happens as the redesigned 2016 Kia Sorento hits the market with its upscale fit and finish.

2016 Hyundai Santa Fe SUV Comparison Reviews

*MSRP and Invoice prices displayed do not include applicable gas taxes or destination charges.