I knew what I wanted to drive over Christmas long, long before the season drew close. Before the first snow flake glimmered in the air I had my choice made. Would I like an exotic all-wheel-drive sports car? Yes, but no one would give me one. So perhaps some tough and rugged status symbol to assert my parking-lot dominance in while shopping?

No.

Oh, and in Canada, Christmas only exists to distract you from the snow-blown, frozen hell that is winter.

My needs were very simple. It’s Christmas. That means ferrying my family and my in-laws around. I’m on designated-driver duty each season – probably because when I’m drunk I say things I mean to my in-laws – so I need seats for at least six people. I have a small daughter, so I need room for the wrong-and-broken amount of presents she is ruined with each year. And there’s a chance I’ll need to do a run out into cottage country up North. Oh, and in Canada, Christmas only exists to distract you from the snow-blown, frozen hell that is winter.

So I need a six-seater with lots of room, heated seats and steering wheel, and enough all-wheel-drive capability and ground clearance to get me where I need to go. I need, therefore, a 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe XL. And I got one.

From loading it up with presents to take to my father-in-law’s house, to carting my notoriously fussy sister-in-law around, I planned to put the XL through its paces in a pretty big way.

Hyundai may be transcending its “budget” brand image, but the Santa Fe XL is priced from $34,749 in base AWD form. There’s a FWD model for $29,999 but that is the very definition of a “marketing special”.

This trim was the middle trim, $39,949 Luxury six-passenger. There are seven-passenger variants of both Luxury and Limited trims which are $200 cheaper than their six-passenger counterparts. Top-tier Limited also gets an eight-inch infotainment screen with navigation, plus the option of Saddle Leather, which we loved when we tested it in 2014.

For this Christmas I was saddled (get it?) with only the black leather and the 4.2-inch infotainment screen. Boo hoo hoo. I’m being facetious here. The Santa Fe XL feels really luxurious inside, the black leather is a decent quality, the steering wheel feels well-sized and the overall cabin styling is welcoming and homely. I didn’t even mind the lacquered fake wood in the dash – a material I usually rage about. 

The base screen is small and unsophisticated compared to the offerings available in Jeep products and even in Toyota products these days so it’s a shame in many ways that the Hyundai eight-inch unit isn’t made available earlier in the range. Regardless, it’s functional and easy to use so makes life easy.

There are a host of other features that are perhaps surprising in a car of this size and at this price range. There’s a 115V power outlet, heated steering wheel, heated seats in the front and middle rows, automatic climate control with separate controls for the third row, a massive panoramic sunroof, rear sun shades and two-position memory power seats.

For the driver, there is blind-spot assist, parking assistance, a rear-view camera, hill-descent control, hill hold and a lockable AWD on-demand system with active cornering control plus cruise control – it’s not adaptive though. The steering comes with three preset assistance levels, comfort, normal and sport – only sport offers the sort of firmness I need but the steering still feels slightly vague.

The driver also has the benefit of a 290 hp/252 lb-ft 3.3L V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It is strong enough to tow up to 2,268 kg and gave ample acceleration for this lead-footed driver’s satisfaction even with a 1,968 kg curb weight to haul around.

The suspension is well enough damped for Toronto’s winter-ravaged roads and the XL corners flat under normal driving conditions. Our trip out to my in-laws involved an XL filled to the brim with precariously balanced piles of presents, some of which were breakable. My wife’s instructions were clear and direct. “Don’t drive like an idiot, don’t let any of this fall, be careful!”

She might also have implied that my evening’s beer rations would be tied to my performance in this task. So I complied. Mostly. It’s a credit to Hyundai that the piles of presents were undisturbed on arrival – earning me an extra stubbie of Steam Whistle and access to the stash of sour keys. Hooray!

All this was possible thanks to the mostly flat load floor created with all the seats folded down. The middle-row captain’s chairs are a $200 upgrade from the three-seat option but are worth it for access to the back. They also slide backward and forward in their channel, which allowed us to keep a contiguous load for from the tailgate to the back of the driver’s seat. With all seats in place the XL’s cargo space is a tiny 383 L. Fold the third row down and you’ve got a whopping 1,159 L to play with, fold them all down and there is 2,265L in there. I put a hockey stick behind a kid’s toboggan and didn’t approach the full length. So yeah, there is good space.

With the seats in use the space is good too. My in-laws found the third row perfectly comfortable, with ample head room for the two 5’7” adults sitting back there and solid leg room too. Both were able to climb in easily enough to keep the food containers in their hands while they did so, in fact even my stubby-legged, rotund and uncoordinated body climbed up and in with little drama. The third row is genuinely usable for adults. Wild, right?

Parking this quite large rig is surprisingly simple too, thanks in part to the world’s biggest side mirrors. I imagine they do horrible things to the Santa Fe XL’s drag coefficient but then again I averaged just 11.1 L/100 km in the car over the course of a fortnight. The EPA says it’s good for 13.8/10.7/12.4 L/100 km city/highway/combined so I came out on top. Must have been all that gentle driving.

I complained about the cheap-seeming main screen but the instrument cluster gauges and TFT screen are well laid out, easy to read and offer a good blend of information. I particularly appreciate the ability to see average and current fuel consumption simultaneously – you’d be surprised how many makes don’t let you do that.

There is ample cabin storage for all three rows – another considerate touch that helps improve the utility of the very last one and there is even an extra small storage compartment on the top of the dashboard. The seats are equally supportive in all sections. And operating the flip mechanisms is easy from all angles. Long straps help you collapse and store the rearmost seats, which split 50/50 should you want to carry something long (say, some golf clubs) and a fourth passenger.

Styling wise, the 18-inch alloys, silver paint, rear spoiler and LED-accented headlights combine for an elegant aesthetic that hides the size of the XL and also puts it on par visually with its competitors.

This Luxury six-seat trim is also a good value offering at just under $40K MSRP. You’d need to pony up another $3,300 to get the top trim. That trim, named Limited, adds: HID headlights, LED taillights, “Supervision” gauge cluster with 4.2-inch TFT LCD display, Ventilated front seats, eight-inch touchscreen navigation system, 550-watt Infinity Logic 7 premium audio system with 10 speakers and external amplifier, 19-inch alloy wheels with P235/55R19 all-season tires as well as ‘Deluxe’ metal door scuff plates – all of which I could live without. It’s only the available saddle-brown leather I missed.

For the sheer utility of it, the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe XL is quite possibly the ultimate Christmas chariot. A white Christmas never materialized so I never did need the 185 mm of ground clearance, but whether you’re shuttling drunken relatives between parties or toting a large haul of presents the Santa Fe excels (get it?).

Warranty:
5 years/100,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Traverse
Dodge Journey/Durango
Ford Explorer/Flex
GMC Acadia
Honda Pilot
Kia Sorento
Mazda CX-9
Nissan Pathfinder
Toyota Highlander

2015 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Luxury Six-Passenger
2015 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Luxury Six-Passenger
Base Price $39,949
Optional Equipment None
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $41,844
Optional Equipment
Scoring breakdowns 7.2
8 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
7 Interior
8 Comfort
7 Fuel Economy