Car Advice

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander off-road tech test

We’ve been testing the 2015 Santa Fe Highlander for a while now, but how well does its technology work off-road? We head into the bush to find out.

SOFT-ROADERS LIKE the Hyundai Santa Fe are not designed as true off-roaders, but nevertheless can still get you off the beaten track.

Instead, the Santa Fe is designed for light-duty off-roading – roads made slippery by mud or snow, a bit of hardish sand, moderate hills and shallow ruts and of course dirt-road driving.

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We’ve done a full road test of this car, but now let’s take a look at what tricks the Santa Fe has to offer as part of our long-term test, and how well they work in practice.
 
Like most soft-roaders, the Santa Fe has a on-demand 4X4 system. This means it primarily drives the front wheels, and the rears kick in as and when required.  You can feel this front-drive bias in spirited on-road driving, and it’s there because to save a bit of fuel.  One of the car’s computers take inputs from a variety of sensors – primarily wheel speed – and decides how much drive (torque) should be sent to the rear wheels, from nothing to quite a lot.  Manufacturers make to like all sorts of claims for these on-demand systems, and give them impressive names but in my opinion – forget it.  For the best performance in slippery conditions the likes of Subaru and BMW have the right idea, just drive all the wheels, all the time, end of story.
 
The other problem with these systems is the clutch that engages to drive the rear wheels tends to be on the wimpy side of weedy and either doesn’t send enough torque, or does and then overheats before giving up entirely, leaving you with a front-drive car only which is rather ordinary in offroad conditions.
 
And so it is with the Santa Fe.  Take a look at this:
 
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The vehicle has been driven off the main road onto a track, across a washout and in the process diagonal wheels are in the air.  It got out, but only after far more fuss and drama than should have been the case had the 4X4 system properly distributed torque to the wheels that had traction.   There wasn’t enough drive going to the rears, and the traction control took a long time to do its job of braking the spinning wheels (front left and rear right) which sends drive to the other two so the car can move.   Another test showed the same problem – stopped on an incline, attempted to drive forwards but both front wheels spun, slewing the car sideways.  Wouldn’t have happened if the rears were awake and doing their bit.

 
Another downside is that like almost all softroaders the Santa Fe lacks a recovery point at the front which makes pulling it forwards out of trouble problematic.  For a rear pull you could fit a towbar, which our test car lacked (but never put a strap over a towball, it’ll become a missile).

 
That said, the Santa Fe remains one of the better offroad-capable cars in this segment for several reasons.   First, it not only has a full-sized spare – let’s take a moment to apprecitate this – but that spare is underslung so you don’t need to unload everything to get to it.  
 
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The Santa Fe also has a 4WD lock button, which in theory overrides the computers to send more drive to the rear wheels before you need it, but in practice appeared to make very little difference over the automatic system.  But it’s good it’s there anyway.
 

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Top-left to bottom – Hill Brake Control, lighting level for instruments, “4WD Lock” (kind of), lane departure warning, eco mode (dosen’t do much other than salve your consience, ESC off.

 
What is impressive is the low-speed power and control.  This was always pretty decent in the old model considering its lack of low range, but now with an even stronger engine and six not five ratios the Santa Fe is capable of metering out the torque very precisely at low speed, which is something that is often forgotten when it comes to assessing offroad capability.  The car is comfortable in second gear at less than 20km/h over washouts or up hills, and it also allows you to start off in second gear which is handy for slippery conditions.
 
Even more good news.  The stability control can be disabled, leaving the traction control active.   Now traction control and stability control are very often confused, and have been by Hyundai.   Traction control means that when one wheel spins the computer brakes just that wheel, and therefore the other wheels gets drive and off you go.  This is a Good Thing and you always want it on, particuarly in softroaders like the Santa Fe.  
 
Stability Control on the other hand is that wondrous magic which detects whether the car is going to slide or slip, and then does something about it – brakes an individual wheel, cuts the throttle and so on.  This is what you want on road, but at low speed offroad it can and does get in the way of maintaining momentum, so you want it off.
 
The first press of the Santa Fe’s ESC button switches stability control off and leaves traction on, which is what you want for offroading.  Hold the button longer and traction control is disabled (bad) but the throttle resriction part of stability control comes back in.  I cannot think of a use for this mode so suggest it be ignored.

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Short press and you get this. That’s what you want for any offroad work. Except it should say “stability control disabled”

 

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A long press of the ESC button and you get this. Don’t bother.

 
The final trick is Hill Brake Control – hit that button and the car will cruise down inclines at no more than 10km/h.  Useful for slippery descents, and compliments to Hyundai, it does work and is nicely smooth.  You cannot however vary the speed with the cruise controls like other systems.
 
OK, summary – the Santa Fe is nowhere near the capability of vehicles like the Challenge, D-Max, Prado or Grand Vitara.  It’s above average for its class, and has some useful aids.  To set it up for driving offroad hit the 4WD lock switch, and press the stability control switch which will tell you it is disabling traction control, but it lies, it’s disabling stability control.  Use Hill Brake Control for descents, and off you go.  
 
The Santa Fe will handle any slippery conditions like snow and shallow mud.  It will do sand too once you drop the tyre pressures low enough.  Rough terrain will be handled up until it runs out of clearance, which means any dirt road and moderate 4WD tracks well beyond what any 2WD roadcar could manage – take a look at the photos to get an idea.   Put it this way, I’d be quite happy touring a long way off the beaten track in one which is more than I can say for most of its peers.
 

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Easy work, just requires a bit more ground clearance that a normal car.

 

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Slippery descent. This is where the downhill brake control (DBC) is useful.
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Slippery uphill with a washout. This is about the limit of the Santa Fe, it’ll do all right with traction but clearance is a challenge.

 

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You won’t get a modern roadcar up here, but the Santy managed it without any drama.

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Skirting a fallen log

 
 
 
 


7 Comments

  1. easybiz
    August 31, 2015 at 10:48 pm — Reply

    Not a bad review but a couple of incorrect things. I recently purchased a highlander, very happy so far. Like many people I bought my car predominantly for city driving and occasional bush track use I didn’t want the clumsiness of a 4wd in the city but I knew that this car would certainly see dirt, mud and bumps. Thus far it has spent probably 10% of its time in the bush. A couple of points: on my car there are recovery points front and rear. The car uses the screw in eyelet system and the holes are behind a couple of small plastic circular panels. This far my car hasn’t really got stuck anywhere so far. A colleague owns a jeep wrangler and I have managed to get up steep, shale covered slippery hills where he has failed. Admittedly after much sliding around and thinking about the best way I did eventually get up. Undoubtedly the biggest let down so far is ground clearance. It really isn’t good enough really get seriously off road. Needless to say road tires don’t help that much either. The reviewer indicates and issue where power doesn’t drive correctly in some situations and this holds true, however all 4’s do spin and the car will pull itself through (at least so far).

    My friend owns a new RAV4 (4 cylinder) all wheel drive and its pretty clear that the Santa Fe is a better car for this class of car (seeing fire trails). Coming to anything steep for prolonged periods the torque in the Santa Fe shows itself to be a clear winner and pulls effortlessly, where the RAV4 gets tired and overheats. It also doesn’t tend to bounce around as much and gets the power to the ground better. Not sure that that is a fair comparison given the price difference of the two cars but the 4wd system in the santa fe clearly works better than the awd in the RAV4.

    IMHO if you are looking for the occasional use and don’t really need the ground clearance than this might be the car for you. The quality is excellent (stepping from a BMW I really am impressed how far Hyundai has come) and it is more capable than one might expect from a soft roader. It drives beautifully and is quiet. It seems to do everything well so far.

    Heading to Mount Corree next week. Usually you mainly see real 4×4’s sitting at the top and I have no idea how good/bad the tracks there are. It will be fun to find out 🙂

    • September 1, 2015 at 8:25 am — Reply

      Hi Easybiz – those screw-in eyes are tie-down points not recovery points. You definitely don’t want to put a load on them, especially at anything other than a direct straight pull. The previous model (which I ran as a long-termer) had a central eye at the front.

      The SF is not too bad offroad, certainly better than the NX200T I just tested (review soon) but not as good as the Forester or Outlander. Not had recent experience with RAV4 but what you say does not surprise me at all. The SF will also, eventually, overheat its centre coupling too. Send some pix in of your trek and I’ll add them to piece!

      • easybizit
        September 3, 2015 at 10:16 am — Reply

        Yep, you are right, I just learned that there is a difference between a tow hook and I recovery point! I’m such a newb, lol.

        Yep, we’ve moved the trip back a week to accommodate a 3rd friend coming. I’ll send you some pics 🙂

      • easybizit
        September 20, 2015 at 7:56 pm — Reply

        Hi Robert

        I did a range of trails here in Canberra over the weekend, so far so good. We are very close to the Brindebella Ranges, so we went to several places, Mt Corree, Gentle Annie, and parts of the powerline trails. So far the biggest let down seems to be ground clearance. That said I haven’t had any issues so far. I attached a camera to the front of the car, got some really great footage. I am editing now, I hope to share it soon. I even have footage of the SF towing a Jeep out of a bog (my friend’s eye were bigger than his cars abilities) 🙂

        So far I cant decide whats more enjoyable, going to these places or seeing the shock of other 4×4 drivers faces when they see a SF in these areas!

        Seriously though so far really no serious issues beyond ground clearance. The car doesn’t squeak or show any signs of issues. Given that I’m not a serious off-roader so this car thus far surpasses my expectations.

        • September 21, 2015 at 7:25 am — Reply

          Good to hear, please let us know more. I’ll also post up some pix of my 2007-8 long term test of the previous model. Including one where I am recovering a Nissan Patrol in sand….that was hilarious! (driver didn’t see it that way, but hey)

  2. Smilin' ChrisTopher Smith
    September 4, 2015 at 3:22 am — Reply

    I have an ’03 santa fe w/ tc no 4×4 v6. Can I drive on the beach fairly compressed sand on long island?

    • September 4, 2015 at 6:50 am — Reply

      2WD can work on beaches that are very hard. You may need to drop pressures to 15psi and disable stability control (press the button once). I am not familiar with that beach though, can you post photos? Any other 2WDs go there?

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!