Car Reviews

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander Review

Robert Pepper’s 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander review with pricing, specs, ride and handling, safety, verdict and rating.

Read our long-term review of this car

Editor's Rating

How we rated the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander
The Santa Fe nameplate has been around a long time, but while the name is old the car is not. Hyundai continue to make a good thing better, and this latest iteration should be on anyone's shortlist for practical 7-seater SUVs because it does a lot right and nothing wrong.  We particularly appreciate the full-size spare tyre and better than average rough-terrain performance.

On the outside

Nothing wrong with the Santa Fe, which plays it safe on the looks front. Take the badge off and most people would be hard pressed to tell what it is.   IMG_5116

Room & Practicality

The bar is high in this segment and the Santa Fe clears it with ease. I spent the first couple of days just being impressed, listing nice little design touches that make life easier or safer. For example, there’s two 12v sockets in the front and a USB/aux input. The 12v sockets have a strong latch cover, the USB/aux input has a sliding cover and all three are located next to a little storage area… and there’s a hidden, pale blue light to illuminate the whole thing.  

Who doesn’t need a gadget compartment!

There’s another 12v in the second row, and another in the cargo bay. There’s lights behind the sunvisors, and more around the top of the doors. Front and rear doors have two storage compartments. The glovebox is a decent size, and the rear aircon can be independently controlled relative to the front. The cargo system comes with a blind that retracts, and there’s two positions to place it in. It is these sort of little touches that makes the Santa Fe so good.

Third row split 50/50, folds flat. Seatbelt tucks away. Two-position cargo blind. Child restraint point in back of seat near top, rear airco, drinks holder. Everything is well thought out.

  The rear tailgate is electric, which is one of those luxury items you don’t realise you need until you use it.  I’m sure back in the day people said central locking was a waste of time, and which lazy good-for-nothings needed electric mirrors or automatic transmissions.  Fact is, we (the family) found the tailgate useful. It is also auto-opening – all you need to do is stand close to the rear of the car and it opens, after a short warning. Some other systems require you to wave a foot under the car. The tailgate can also be manually triggered from inside the vehicle.   The list of niggles is not long, and mostly in the “could do better” category as opposed to a fail. The centre console, while deep, is only a single compartment although there is a tray.  There is no dedicated clock, so if the time isn’t displaying then you need to press a button to show it – if I had to pick one annoyance with the Santa Fe, that’d be it. The fuel release isn’t automatic when the car is unlocked, should be these days, but of more importance the electric tailgate button is in the roof.  People not familiar with the car will struggle to find it, and that is one switch random people would need to press.   The tailgate is one-piece not two, and that’s a personal preference but based on many years of using test vehicles and talking to those that have owned different styles, I do detect a preference for the split tailgate as in the bigger Discovery and 200 Series. However, the single gate design does make a handy umbrella, and easy access to the rear of the vehicle.   The Santa Fe has a keyless security system. There’s a push-button start, and to lock the car you just press a button on a doorhandle. To unlock, press the button again. You can also use the remote to lock/unlock from a distance.    Summary – busy families are going to love this car because it will make their life easier in so many little but important ways.

On the inside

The Santa Fe is comfortably spacious and practical. The driver’s seat on this top-end Highlander model is 8-way electrically adjustable, and the steering wheel is reach and tilt adjustable so everyone should be able to find their perfect position. Visibility is good in all directions.   RMP_4935   The 60/40 split second row is a good place to be.  The rear seats on the Highlander can be heated or cooled, the seats themselves can be moved forwards or backwards and the seat back tilt angle can be changed.  All three seats are usable by adults, but naturally you’d prefer the two outer seats.

Adjustable second row (40/60 split) is a strong point.

The third-row is intelligent. It’s a 50/50 split, very important as often you just need the one rear seat, and easy (and obvious) to operate.  The seats fold down entirely flat. Legroom for adults is good considering the size of the car, and that’s because you can poke your toes under the second row.  If the occupants of the seats ahead are kind enough to move their seats forward then there’s even more legroom, but that will do nothing about the headroom which adults will tolerate only for short distances, although kids would be fine.   There’s usuable storage space behind the third row when the seats are in position, and there’s also a compartment which stores the wheel changing kit. This is an important point, because it means that you don’t need to unload everything to change to a wheel. There’s also quite a bit of unused space in there which would be great to store towing gear, first aid kits or whatever else you want to keep in the car but don’t need all the time.     RMP_4925 RMP_4926 There are four cargo tie-downs in the Santa Fe but they look pretty feeble so I wouldn’t be using a ratchet strap on them any time soon. The second row does fold down, but not entirely flat like the Discovery or Pathfinder, which are larger and more expensive vehicles.  Still, you could take pretty big objects in there. The roof load is a reasonable 100kg, and there’s roofrails but no crossbars.   Our Highlander had a giant sunroof which partially opens. This makes the car very light and spacious so is less of a frippery than you may imagine.   RMP_4940 IMG_5136 A nice touch are additional sunscreens on the rear passenger windows, useful for keeping the sun off small children, extra privacy or keeping the car cool. IMG_5127IMG_5126                         Even the rear seat pockets are strong and spacious. Note also the extra rear air-con vent. The muddy mat is our own, not a standard part! IMG_5128

Performance, Ride & Handling

The Santa Fe accelerates surprisingly briskly and pleasingly smoothly, then on the way back down the brakes are feelsome and reassuring.  The automatic has no sports mode but doesn’t need one as it’s clever enough to be in the right gear at the right time anyway. There’s a manual shift should you want it which is going to be almost never.   Then we come to the corners, where the Santa Fe manages to be both boring and impressive.  Impressive because the car can be driven far more rapidly than its looks or market segment would suggest, able to enter corners and hold lines with surprising balance and control.  The reason is clever electronics – you can feel the car’s computer making tiny adjustments here and there to keep the car on a perfect line, flattering the driver.  The front-drive bias of the drivetrain comes to the fore here as well, you can feel the car pulling through the front wheels.   It is all rather boring because it’s so easy and unrewarding, but the Santa Fe is never designed as a sportscar, just to be a very competent, effortless onroad drive which is certainly a goal Hyundai has achieved.  A common bugbear with impatient drivers of automatic turbodiesels is slow initial acceleration, but this car is quick off the line.  If you’re late for the school run it won’t be this car’s fault.   Ride is good, on the floaty side for some people but very few will complain.  It’s good over rough roads too, poised, controllable and capable.   There are three modes of steering – Comfort, Normal and Sport – as usual, this only changes the feel-weight of the steering wheel so it’s a personal preference.    Offroad performance has been covered in detail in this blog post.   The Santa Fe will help you parallel-park itself, and on test we found this feature to be easy to use and work well.  It has a handy Auto-Hold feature; press the button, drive and when you come to a stop the car will hold itself on the brake, uphill or downhill.  To move off just accelerate.  This is definitely handy in stop/start traffic.   The park brake is electronic and operated by an easy finger-touch.  As usual with such things you can simply drive off and it deactivates, no need to manually deactivate it. IMG_5536 Towing is 2000kg braked, but as with any vehicle and especially this class of softroader you’d be very wise to invest in heavier-duty suspension if you wanted to regularly tow up to around that figure.  Hyundai had a Tow Pack for their previous model, but it’s not available this time around.


Excellent. Nothing seems flimsy, everything worked, trims looks reasonably hard wearing.  After a rather muddy, snowy, rainy and dirty weekend the kids and I spent an hour on the car which brought it back to a pretty reasonable condition considered we’d lived out of it for two days.

Pricing & Equipment

All Santa Fes are now 7-seaters, and they start from $38,490 MSRP for the Active manual 2.4L petrol, ranging to $53,240 for our test car, the range-topping Highlander 2.2 diesel automatic.   Value on this model isn’t bad, but the Elite at $10k cheaper for not much less equipment is probably a sweeter deal.   Resale is improving on Hyundais as Australia realises just how good these cars are.   

Two door storage compartments, and heat/cool switch for the second-row seats. Decent styling too.


There are three child restraint points in the rear of the seats, where they should be, and ISOFIX points all round.  Safety is of course 5 star with a 35.63 rating of 37, pretty good going and that was a 2014 test.  However, there’s no AEB even on the top-spec Highlander.   There’s hidden little touches – if you start the engine with the wheels turned the dash will flash up “Align Steering” before you move off.  If you attempt to drive off with the tailgate open the car will apply the parkbrake and warn you – I tried this during the internals photoshoot which is how I discovered the feature.   The Santa Fe sports a full-sized spare which is truly excellent news, unlike most of its peers. That alone should put the car high up on shopping lists as you try working with a runflat or space-saver midway into a weekend out of town.   This Highlander model has a lane departure warning system which, like most of them, is rather average and prone to false positives.  It’s best left disabled.

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander

PRICE : $53,240  (+ORC); WARRANTY : 5 years/unlimited kilometres; SAFETY : 5 star ancap; ENGINE : 2.2 turbo-diesel four-cylinder; POWER : 145kW @ 3800 rpm; TORQUE : 421Nm @ 1800-2500rpm; TRANSMISSION : 6-speed automatic; DRIVE : On-demand all wheel drive (primary front drive), 4WD lock system; BODY : 4.6m (L); 1.8m (W), excl mirrors; 1.6m (H); TURNING CIRCLE : 10.9M; WEIGHT : 1968 kg; TOWING : 750kg unbraked / 2000kg braked / 100kg towball; FUEL TANK : 64 litres; SEATS : 7; SPARE : Full-sized spare; THIRST : 7.3/100km (combined); FUEL : Diesel


Other SUVs – this is a highly competitive market and you’ll find the likes of Discovery Sport and BMWs to be a bit more premium (and expensive).  At the other end of the scale there’s cheaper options which frankly aren’t as good, but if you’re on a budget they’re liveable.  The Santa Fe is best thought of as a middle to top end car that is good value for money for busy families.   Peoplemovers – much more capacity, less rough-terrain capability.  I’ll leave aside the image question, your call.   4WDs – the Santa Fe is not a real rough-terrain vehicle ready for 4WD touring, so if that’s what you want look at options such as anything with low range gearing, or the likes of Land Rover and Jeeps.  

Taking the family from A to B via F (for forest).
Roads like this easy 4WD track are within the Santa Fe’s capability.

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7 years ago

Highlander is a very good wagon in it class. It has everything you want to keep you safe on the road. The 2.2 turbo engine is great and the auto gear box is perfect and will leave other wagons at the lights if you forget what it can do when you put your foot down.
The only problem is you can’t fit a nudge bar to fit spoties to the wagon because of the active cruise control,but the good points outdo this problem.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper