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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.