2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited & 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited. Click image to enlarge
Review by Jacob Black, photos by Jonathan Yarkony and Jacob Black
Toyota has launched an all-new Highlander for 2014. One that they say is superior to the outgoing model in every way, and one they say is more relevant to consumers. So far, the sales floor is proving them right. As of April the Highlander has sold 45.3 percent more than this time last year in Canada. Highlander sold 7,648 units in total in 2013, and is at 3,145 so far in 2014.
Meanwhile, Hyundai has seen similar growth with the Santa Fe XL. Its first full month of sales was May last year, and it went on to sell 3,210 units in 2013; as of April Hyundai has shifted 1,669 XLs.
So both SUVs are on target to dramatically improve on 2013 sales; and that’s important because the Santa Fe XL was a new model introduced in early 2013 and the Highlander is an all-new model that has been on sale since February.
Essentially, they’re the newest kids on the block.
You will hear and read plenty of auto writers these days saying that “there are no bad cars anymore”, and they’re not far off on that. So when all cars have a high baseline of “goodness”, it can be the smaller, simpler and surprising things that set one above the other. That is ultimately how this extremely close test was decided – by a few small, but very clever things that set one rig apart.
So what were they? And who won? Come on now – it’s no fun if I tell you right away, is it?
As divisive as Toyota’s new styling language is, their aim is clear: to be less boring. The Highlander achieves that goal with a larger front grille, contoured headlights and strong character lines in the front. It’s a big car, and it looks big, but there is still a little bit of slabbiness to the overall design execution.
Toyota tries to break up the front a little with an aluminum strip that cuts across the top of the grille and joins the headlights together – I get where they were going, but it looks more awkward than anything else.
Hyundai’s grille is equally large, but a little more of an interesting shape. And even though the chrome strips look like something Gillette would make the grille suits the overall fascia well. The simplistic bumper and lower fascia of the Highlander is outclassed by the more detailed lines of the Santa Fe XL where even the fog lights are housed with flair and attention to detail.
The blocky profile of the Highlander accentuates its size while the Santa Fe XL appears smaller than it is, and at the back, though the Highlander has more interesting and detailed headlights, the overall impression of the Santa Fe XL is better.
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited & 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited interiors. Click image to enlarge
On the inside, Hyundai’s saddle leather trim gives it a more aesthetically pleasing interior.
Furthering the advantage, Santa Fe XL has intricate stitching and contouring in all three rows, while the Highlander seats are plain and cab-like. The dashboard of the Santa Fe XL is more interesting too, with the square and simplistic look of the Highlander no match.
In the styling stakes, Hyundai takes the win.
Driving Experience and Capability
Both Toyota and Hyundai approach motivation for these rigs the same way – with a big ol’ V6 mated to a six-speed automatic.
Toyota’s is the larger at 3.5L but it also the less powerful, with 270 hp at 6,200 rpm and 248 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. Hyundai’s 3.3L mill produces 290 hp at 6,400 rpm and 252 lb-ft at 5,200 rpm.
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited & 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited dashboards. Click image to enlarge
Hyundai’s high power is thanks to direct injection, but that also creates a rougher engine with more vibration and noise than Toyota’s port-injected model. If you can live with a little extra roughness though the Hyundai rewards with more kick-in-the-pants – perhaps aided by the fact that at 1,968 kg the Santa Fe is hauling 77 kg less than the 2,045 kg Highlander.
The EPA gives both cars the exact same fuel economy rating of 13.1/9.8/11.8 L/100 km city/highway/combined – so nothing to split them there.
The gearboxes are similarly unobtrusive and both get a completely pointless manual shifting mode but I felt like the Toyota box was a little faster to complete its changes.