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TOUGH­EST TEST YET: THE CREAM OF THE SEVEN-SEATER SUV CROP

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN

Con­trary to per­cep­tion, seven-seat SUVs aren’t driven by pen­ni­less par­ents with over­sized fam­i­lies. The av­er­age sev­enseater buyer has only two or three chil­dren and mainly grav­i­tates to the most ex­pen­sive model in the range.

Hyundai says many peo­ple don’t blink at spend­ing $60,000 to $70,000 on a new SUV. It pre­dicts the top-of-the-range Highlander will be the most pop­u­lar choice for its new Santa Fe, ac­count­ing for roughly 35 per cent of sales.

So we’ve cho­sen to toss the Highlander into one of the tough­est com­par­i­son tests in re­cent mem­ory. Tak­ing on the new Santa Fe is our reign­ing 2017 Car of the Year, Skoda’s Ko­diaq, and the up­dated ver­sion of our 2015 Car of the Year, the Kia Sorento. All are diesel, all-wheel drive and circa $65,000 on the road.

HYUNDAI SANTA FE

The new Santa Fe has grown slightly, lib­er­at­ing more space for sec­ond-row pas­sen­gers and mak­ing ac­cess to the third row eas­ier. It’s still not as big as the Toy­ota Kluger or Mazda CX-9.

The model up­date has fo­cused mainly on crea­ture com­forts and safety tech­nol­ogy. The Santa Fe now has tech­nol­ogy to steer you back into your lane if you wan­der and it will ap­ply the brakes on one side to pull you back into line if you try to steer into an al­ready oc­cu­pied lane.

The cabin has a more modern look, es­pe­cially in the Highlander, which gets a dig­i­tal dash and head-up dis­play in lieu of old­school di­als and nee­dles in front of the driver. The cen­tre screen is big­ger, sat­nav is stan­dard and crea­ture com­forts ex­tend to a heated steer­ing wheel and elec­tri­cally ad­justable leather seats with heat­ing in the first and sec­ond rows. The third row gets its own air­con fan con­trols and the sec­ond row folds and slides for­ward at the press of a but­ton.

Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid Auto are stan­dard, there’s a wire­less in­duc­tive charger for com­pat­i­ble smart­phones and you can turn on the en­gine and air­con/heat­ing re­motely via an app on your phone — it will also tell you where you parked your car.

There’s also an abun­dance of USB ports and 12V out­lets for the kids’ por­ta­ble de­vices.

The diesel car­ries over from the pre­vi­ous model but an eight-speed auto and ad­di­tional sound dead­en­ing mean it feels qui­eter and more re­spon­sive.

The Santa Fe comes with a new all-wheel drive set-up that al­lows you to ad­just the bias from front to back at the press of a but­ton. In sport mode, more drive is sent to the rear, in econ­omy mode it’s front drive to save fuel.

On the road the Santa Fe feels con­fi­dent and com­posed through cor­ners, while still cush­ion­ing oc­cu­pants from bumps and cor­ru­ga­tions. The bal­ance be­tween com­fort and cor­ner­ing abil­ity is the best in the class.

KIA SORENTO

The Sorento and Santa Fe are twins un­der the skin, although their model cy­cles are dif­fer­ent. Kia up­dated the Sorento at the end of last year, fit­ting an eight-speed trans­mis­sion and more driver-as­sist tech in­clud­ing lane keep as­sist, blind-spot alert and smart cruise con­trol that keeps a safe dis­tance to the car in front.

It doesn’t get some of the more ad­vanced safety gear of its sib­ling, most notably cy­clist de­tec­tion and the abil­ity to slam on the brakes when re­vers­ing if it senses an ob­sta­cle be­hind the car.

The cabin is well put to­gether and it mim­ics the Santa Fe’s heated seats and air­con vents with fan speed con­trol in the rear­most pews. As with the Hyundai, the airbags don’t ex­tend all the way to the back of the car.

The cabin of the Sorento is more con­ser­va­tive than the Santa Fe, which may ap­peal to some but it is be­gin­ning to look a lit­tle dated. Dark leather is off­set by moody red light­ing and plain but ef­fec­tive read­outs. Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid Auto are stan­dard.

The Kia trumps the Hyundai and Skoda with a seven-year un­lim­ited kilo­me­tre war­ranty to the oth­ers’ five.

Ac­cess to the rear­most seats is tighter than the Santa Fe and doesn’t have the con­ve­nience of a one-touch slide and fold mech­a­nism but, once in place, pas­sen­gers will find sim­i­lar head­room and knee­room.

The Sorento doesn’t feel as sporty as the other two through the cor­ners but pro­vides ex­cel­lent com­fort com­bined with safe and pre­dictable han­dling. Noise sup­pres­sion isn’t quite as good as the other two, though, and the steer­ing isn’t as sharp.

SKODA KO­DIAQ

The cheaper petrol-pow­ered Ko­diaq was our Car of the Year last year but this is the range­top­ping diesel Sport­line with all the bells and whis­tles. The Sport­line pack adds big­ger wheels, sports seats and more vis­ual bling in­side, in­clud­ing pad­dle-shifters on the steer­ing wheel.

Our test car also had the tech and lux­ury packs, adding ac­tive safety fea­tures as well as such crea­ture com­forts as heated rear seats, 10-speaker au­dio and three-zone air­con.

A panoramic sunroof, stan­dard on the Santa Fe and Sorento ver­sions we tested, adds $1900.

The Ko­diaq’s cabin oozes qual­ity and class, with stitched Al­can­tara and leather seats, a sporty flat-bot­tom steer­ing wheel, car­bon-fi­bre in­serts in the doors and on the dash and a ra­zor­sharp cen­tre touch­screen. Then there are the clever Skoda touches in­clud­ing um­brel­las in the front doors, de­tach­able torch in the rear and waste bin in the driver’s door.

Among omis­sions are in­di­vid­ual air vents in the third row. The car has only one USB port and three 12V out­lets. The Santa Fe has seven.

The Ko­diaq is a lit­tle down on power and torque com­pared with the Korean pair but you don’t no­tice be­hind the wheel be­cause it is con­sid­er­ably lighter. That trans­lates to a handy fuel econ­omy ad­van­tage — more than 20 per cent bet­ter on the of­fi­cial test cy­cle — and an ad­van­tage on the road. It feels more nim­ble than the other two through cor­ners, although it can be a bit jit­tery at times over cor­ru­ga­tions.

Com­pact di­men­sions also mean there’s no­tice­ably less space for third-row pas­sen­gers. You can slide the sec­ond row for­ward for more space but it is still a young kids-only zone and ac­cess to the third row is a bit fid­dly.

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