New Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander vs Kia Sorento

Even large SUVs have to move with the times, and electrification to improve efficiency is the way forward. So, which of these seven-seat hybrids is best?...

Hyundai Santa Fe vs Kia Sorento vs Toyota Highlander fronts

The contenders

NEW Hyundai Santa Fe 1.6 T-GDi Hybrid 4WD Ultimate

List price £45,830
Target Price £42,321

New Santa Fe has lots in common with the Sorento, so it should be good, plus it benefits from a usefully lower price

Kia Sorento 1.6 T-GDI Hybrid 4

List price £47,420
Target Price £45,705

Our 2021 Large SUV of the Year offers great value in entry-level 2 trim. But is this range-topping 4 model still a sensible buy?

NEW Toyota Highlander 2.5 Hybrid AWD-i Excel

List price £50,610
Target Price £50,610

While they’re all hybrids, the new Highlander promises to be the most frugal of our contenders, albeit at a higher asking price

Hang on… doesn't Toyota already have a big, circa-£50k SUV with seven seats? Well, yes, the Toyota Land Cruiser does meet those criteria, but its specialisms are ruggedness and off-roading. It doesn’t (how shall we put this politely?) offer much in the way of on-road sophistication.

Hyundai Santa Fe 2021 rear

The new Toyota Highlander is designed to be more genteel. It’s actually slightly larger than the Land Cruiser, so it should be an even better people carrier, and it’s a hybrid, so it promises to be frugal.

But there are other cars that follow the same basic blueprint, and one of them is our Large SUV of the Year, the Kia Sorento. It, too, is a hybrid, and even the range-topping version undercuts the Highlander by more than £3000.

Kia Sorento 2021 rear

Cheaper still is the new Hyundai Santa Fe, even in aptly named Ultimate trim; it’s the pinnacle of the line-up, so you get lots of kit. And when you consider that, under the skin, it’s largely the same as the Sorento (its Korean compatriot), it clearly isn’t here just to make up the numbers.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

These SUVs are what marketing folk have christened ‘self-charging’ hybrids. This means they have small batteries that are charged by the engine as well as by recovering energy that would otherwise be lost during braking, with power being sent to an electric motor with the aim of improving fuel economy and performance, or even to drive without using petrol.

Toyota Highlander 2021 rear

In most situations, it’s the Highlander’s electronic brain that seems to use its two power sources the most intelligently. Pull away gently and, assuming there’s some charge in the battery, it will resist firing up the petrol engine. That makes crawling along in stop-start traffic a smooth and generally peaceful experience. The Korean cars are more reluctant to use electric power alone, and when their petrol engines cut in and out, it isn’t quite as seamless.

Each of our contenders has an ‘EV’ mode that you can use to force the car to run solely on battery power. However, this is possible only when certain conditions are met; even if the road is flat and you’re super-gentle with the accelerator pedal, the best you can hope for is a few hundred yards before the engine kicks in. That’s because their small batteries can only store relatively small amounts of electricity compared with those of a plug-in hybrid or, indeed, a fully electric car.

Hyundai Santa Fe 2021 front

Push your right foot to the floor and it’s the Highlander that responds the most promptly, surging forwards with no noticeable pause. In the others, there’s a delay before anything close to maximum acceleration arrives. Indeed, the Highlander can hit 60mph from a standstill in 7.7sec, whereas the Santa Fe and Sorento take 8.3sec and 8.6sec respectively.

When you’re already on the move and accelerating, though, there’s barely anything to separate our contenders in terms of how quickly they continue to build speed. The main difference is that the Highlander sounds as though it’s stuck in first gear when you put your foot down hard; the engine revs away frantically and monotonously. Not that the Santa Fe and Sorento are exactly whisper-quiet – their petrol engines sound a bit coarse – but at least you don’t feel as though you’re trapped in a food blender.

Kia Sorento 2021 front

Still, when you’ve reached the speed you want to be doing, the Highlander’s engine does settles down, and it’s actually the quietest car here at a steady 30 or 70mph. The others recorded very similar decibel readings to one another, although the Santa Fe produced the most wind noise above 50mph

Given their close relationship, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Santa Fe and Sorento are similar to drive in other respects, too. Both handle tidily by large SUV standards, with steering that’s precise enough, albeit not exactly feelsome.

Toyota Highlander 2021 front

The Highlander is something of a blancmange by comparison. It feels heavier (it’s no illusion), sways around far more through corners and has a lot less grip than its rivals. That partly explains why it takes much longer to pull up in an emergency stop. It’s a shame, because it actually has the most pleasant and naturally weighted steering of the trio.

The Highlander’s spongy suspension does help it soak up the sort of minor road imperfections that the firmer-riding Santa Fe and Sorento pick up on. However, the Korean cars deliver a much more controlled, less bouncy ride at higher speeds, and they aren’t as prone to crashing noisily over potholes.

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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