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.
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.
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited seating & cargo area. Click image to enlarge
Comfort and Practicality
And now we get to the category that really separates these two cars. Comfort and practicality.
The Santa Fe XL starts off strong with more comfortable, enveloping seats and a second row that reclines further. There is also more legroom in both rows and the Hyundai’s 4,148 L of interior volume trumps the 3,973 L available in the Highlander – but that’s where the Santa Fe’s advantages end.
Toyota has put an enormous amount of effort into making this Highlander extremely livable, with particular attention to minor details that could be the difference between a customer who likes their new car, and one who loves it. Cabin storage in the Highlander is second to none, with a deep, long centre bin with rolling lids that allow it to be used as an armrest, even when open. It’s big enough for a women’s large tote bag or a laptop bag. I even stuffed my backpack into it. The cupholders are large but adjustable, so they can hold a small coffee cup, or two bottles of (closed and sealed!) wine. The Santa Fe’s are not as accommodating. But the piece de resistance in the Toyota is the utility tray.
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited cupholders, utility tray, centre console. Click image to enlarge
Tucked under the dash, the utility tray has a plug with a raised bar that is perfectly placed to hold a smart phone in place. In addition, the plug covers a cable channel so you can connect your device to the USB or Auxiliary port and then store it safely – no more cables flying about everywhere. It has a lip so you can safely place your glasses case, wallet and any extra bits and bobs. Truly, it is the cleverest cabin storage device we’ve encountered.
The flat seats in the second and third row give up comfort to the Hyundai, but make installing child seats a breeze, and there is even a pop-up cupholder/tray that sits between the second row captain’s chairs. Both those chairs have adjustable armrests where the armrests in the Santa Fe XL are either down or up.
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited cargo area, 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited seating & cargo area. Click image to enlarge
Access to the third row is dead even, but the third row itself contains just two seats in the Hyundai – there are three in the Toyota giving it a total passenger count of seven to the XL’s six. The rear seat is a 60/40 split-fold in the Toyota and a 50-50 in the Santa Fe. Pegging back some ground, the Hyundai second row folds flatter, making it more convenient for carrying long fragile items. A Billy bookcase from Ikea for example, would flex and bend more in the Highlander. The extra height and width of the Highlander gives it a tiny edge in interior cargo volume with a total maximum of 2,339 L to the 2,265 of the Santa Fe.
2014 Toyota Highlander Limited. Click image to enlarge
Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinnner
This battle really was incredibly close. We adored the saddle leather and styling of the Santa Fe XL, and Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony preferred its handling and more buttoned-down ride. I also liked the Hyundai’s household power supply in the cargo area and well-fitted interior fixtures.
But like I said in the beginning, it takes the smallest differences to separate cars these days, and Toyota has applied their attention to detail with devastating effect in the Highlander.
With little between them in terms of power delivery, driving experience and value, it was the nitty gritty practical touches where Toyota stood tall.
For being an example of user-focused automotive design that is properly well executed – we’re awarding this victory to the 2014 Toyota Highlander.
Pricing: 2014 2014 Santa Fe XL Limited
Base Price (base trim): $31,099
Base Price (tested trim): $43,499
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,795
Price as Tested: $45,394
Pricing: 2014 Toyota Highlander Limited
Base Price (base trim): $31,680
Base Price (tested trim): $45,100
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $1,690
Price as Tested: $46,890