June 4, 2014
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited & 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited panoramic sun roofs. Click image to enlarge
The quicker steering rack of the Highlander makes initial turn-in more responsive, but it become ponderous when it’s time to change direction. The steering wheel has more weight and confidence in the Toyota too, so while the Santa Fe XL is a little more nimble, the experience is less engaging.
Double-wishbone rear suspension adorns the Toyota, with a more common multi-link design taking care of the back end in the Hyundai – that perhaps is why we found the Hyundai crashy when fully loaded during our long-term test. It is also why the Toyota seems to hold its track more truly than the Hyundai – particularly over uneven surfaces. Both have the same towing capacity at 2,268 kg.
Despite being taller and wider, the Highlander is 50 mm shorter than the Santa Fe but is only 10 mm shorter in wheelbase. The result is smaller overhangs and although the Highlander has a larger turning circle, it is easier to maneuver in close quarters and park.
In terms of power delivery and hustling onto an on-ramp we give this one to the Santa Fe XL, but in terms of the overall driving experience that most buyers look for it’s the Toyota that edges ahead here.
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited steering wheel, gauges, centre stack. Click image to enlarge
Infotainment and Ergonomics
At this price and in this segment the layout of the radio and infotainment screens as well as the driving position can make an enormous difference to the buyer. Here, Toyota is let down by the distance between the driver’s seat and the radio controls – it takes a long reach to hit the touchscreen or to tune the radio with the knobs. It might seem like a small thing but it can have a significant impact on a potential buyer’s first impression of a car.
But that really is where the Toyota’s flaws in the infotainment department end. It has automatic climate control – as does the Hyundai – but the Highlander has climate controls in the centre console for the middle row passengers. In the Santa Fe XL there are air-conditioning controls for the third row, but the middle row makes do with whatever the parental units want. The main climate control centre makes more sense in the Toyota too, and is easier to use with a permanently visible display.
The 12-speaker JBL sound system of the Highlander sounds better than the 10-speaker system of the Santa Fe, and also benefits from a more elegant, unfussy layout.
The navigation is better sorted in the Toyota too; it updates more quickly, is faster and more accurate than that of the Hyundai – which occasionally gave unusual directions. And while some might think that the “Apps” button is gimmicky, it proves that Toyota is already prepared for the coming onslaught of automotive software applications. It also gives access to “Driver Easy Speak”, the very clever system that allows the driver to communicate with the third row without shouting – it can be turned on or off too, which is handy.
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited steering wheel, gauges, centre stack. Click image to enlarge
Both cars have small TFT screens sandwiched between the gauge binnacles in the instrument cluster, but those in the Toyota are easier to read and clearer. They’re unobstructed by the protruding eyebrows that are a nuisance in the Santa Fe.
When it comes to connecting with your car, Toyota has done a better job here.
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited cargo area power outlet. Click image to enlarge
That “premium feel” is hard to put a finger on sometimes. The interior of the Toyota is more soft-touch than the Hyundai, and looking at the steering wheel there is extra detailing and thicker leather than the steering wheel of the Santa Fe. But the XL has that sumptuous saddle leather as well as heated and cooled seats for mom and dad.
And while Toyota has outdone the Santa Fe XL with soft-touch material it is the Hyundai, perhaps counterintuitively, which is the better put together of these two. There are small touches – like the cover over the small privacy bin in the cargo area – where Hyundai has taken the extra step to seal and seat fittings better than Toyota has.
The feature list is almost a tie. Both have cruise control, panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth, Sirius – all the de rigueur goodies. The Santa Fe XL pulls marginally ahead with a 115V power outlet in the cargo area.
Pricewise, both start and finish within $1,000 of each other but the Toyota comes out marginally higher at $46,890 as-tested. We’ll award this one to the $45,394 Santa Fe XL.