Santa Fe wins ... by a whisker
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We've said if before and no doubt we'll say it many times more: Kiwis are obsessed with crossover wagons.
It's the biggest single new-car genre and one that seems to appeal to many different buyer types - especially when there are so many different models, of different sizes and prices, to choose from.
The Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe are two crossovers that illustrate the popularity of this type of vehicle perfectly: both from trusted brands, unashamedly populist, but recently launched in new models that place much more emphasis on quality and driver appeal.
They are also the two most popular crossovers in New Zealand for the first half of this year: Santa Fe is the third-best-selling passenger vehicle in the country, closely followed by the RAV4. It's the perfect time to see how the two compare. We know what you're thinking: if you're strict about your segments then the closest match for the RAV4 would be the Hyundai ix35.
But here's the thing: the ix35 is now four years old and it's well off the sales pace set by the latest models in its class.
More to the point, the flagship RAV4 Limited has ideas that seem above its station, as it sells for a heady $62,790. That kind of money gives potential buyers other - larger - options.
One of those is the new Hyundai Santa Fe, which crosses over with the RAV4 Limited at the lower end of its model range.
The Santa Fe CRDi (turbo diesel) costs $63,990 in standard trim, which makes it an ideal match.
We've gone for diesels, partly because it's a fuel well-accepted among crossover buyers and partly because it's a new experience for Toyota New Zealand to have a RAV4 that's a serious compression-ignition contender. The RAV4 now comes with a six-speed automatic gearbox, just like the Santa Fe; the previous Toyota diesel was only available as a manual.
Both the Toyota and Hyundai diesel engines are 2.2-litre units and both are carried over from the previous models; that's okay, because both are rather good.
The RAV4's 110kW/340Nm is shaded by the Santa Fe's deeply impressive 145kW/431Nm.
Sure, the Santa Fe is heavier, but its power-to-weight ratio of 79kW a tonne is still superior to the RAV's 67kW/tonne.
Both powerplants are sprightly, with an impressive amount of torque low down in the rev range.
Where the Hyundai has a big advantage is in refinement: it still sounds like a diesel, but it doesn't have anything like the clatter and vibration of the Toyota.
The RAV4 powertrain picks up the pace when it comes to the transmission.
Both gearboxes are smooth, but the Santa Fe's can be sluggish unless you're very deliberate with the throttle.
The RAV4 shifter is crisp in comparison and can even be a bit racey in sport mode, blipping the throttle on downshifts.
The Toyota also has the sharper steering and handling, although it comes at opportunity cost.
The RAV4 has always had a taut chassis and firm ride; this one is no different. The Santa Fe has the FlexSteer system, which allows the driver to choose between three different levels of assistance for the wheel, but none offer the confident feel of the RAV4's tiller.
The Santa Fe does not have the body control of the RAV4 in tight corners, although the chassis is safe and predictable.
It does have a superior ride, which will probably be more relevant to potential buyers. We evaluated the Hyundai in top Elite form, which has larger wheels and lower-profile tyres than the entry diesel; so if anything, the handling/ride blend will be even more comfort-oriented in the less expensive car.
You might think that the smaller RAV4 would be severely disadvantaged on space. In fact, size-wise there's not a whole lot in it.
The Hyundai is 120mm longer overall but cabin space is much closer: there's a mere 40mm difference in wheelbase measurements.
The RAV4 is actually taller than the Santa Fe by 15mm.
The Hyundai's extra length pays dividends in cargo space, though: it offers 585 litres compared with the Toyota still-generous 506 litres.
Move up the range and you can have a third row of seats in the Santa Fe, although the model we're talking about here is strictly a five-seater.
Each have their pleasingly practical features.
For example, the RAV4 has a hanging cargo net which is simply brilliant for stopping small items rolling around, while the Santa Fe's rear seat is split 40/20/40 for a greater variety of passenger/load-carrying configurations.
The RAV4 Limited goes some way towards justifying its premium price with a staggering list of standard features: gas-discharge lights, heated seats, blind-spot monitor, satellite navigation and power-operated tailgate to name but a few. The RAV4 has dual-zone climate air conditioning compared with the Santa Fe's manual system, and a reversing camera instead of simple sensors.
We'd take the Hyundai's cloth trim over the Toyota's faux-leather PVC upholstery, though.
The RAV4's cabin is much less fussy looking than the Santa Fe's and is laden with storage areas, but has some infuriating idiosyncrasies - like minor controls buried under a trim element so that you can't see them from the driver's seat.
The Hyundai's dashboard might look a bit gauche, but it's in another league for the quality of materials and pleasing textures.
The bottom line
The RAV4 Limited is the better toy box: laden with equipment and sharp to drive. But the Santa Fe is our winner here: it has more of a premium look and feel, with superior refinement and ride comfort.
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