It was only a few short years ago that everyone and their dog was focused on unleashing ever-expanding three-row car-based SUVs. And while the current trend towards compact and subcompact SUVs has taken some of the attention away, there are still new extra-large rivals waiting to hit the stage.

It was only a few short years ago that everyone and their dog was focused on unleashing ever-expanding three-row car-based SUVs.

The oft-rumoured and oft-delayed player from Volkswagen should break cover soon, and Jeep has confirmed a reborn Wagoneer – hopefully with some form of wood paneling – is in the pipe too. Honda is hoping its heavily revised Pilot will capture even more customers with design cues upsized from its CR-V. Those will join the all-new 2016 Kia Sorento, and recent Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer, both of whom are becoming common sights in parking lots around the country.

Hyundai’s decision to abandon the forgettable Veracruz and replace it with two lengths of Santa Fe – regular-sized Sport with four-cylinder power and three-row XL with V6 only – seemed pretty ingenious. Customers flocked to them both given their good looks and great value.

For 2015, the company has tweaked the latter with some welcome – although hard-to-spot – updates.

Only a few seasons into its current form, and parts of the XL, like the upright front grille, LED running lights and big fog lights are aging nicely. Others, like the slightly bulbous taillights with LED innards, and confluence of lines around the large D-pillar less so. And compared with some of the excellent wheel designs found elsewhere in the Hyundai family, I can’t find much love for the split five-spoke alloys on my tester.

The front seats are eight-way power adjustable, with a great amount of travel, and ones that fit a diverse number of body sizes well. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is nicely sized with secondary controls for audio, cruise and info screens, and offers both tilt and telescoping customization.

As a passenger, the environment is nicely executed. The Limited model includes handsome stitched heated and cooled leather seats, and soft materials on the dash and doors. The small pieces of wood trim are innocuous, and the checkmark-shaped centre vents frame the large eight-inch touchscreen display. The top trim also brings a built-in navigation system and upgraded 10-speaker 550-watt audio system with a plethora of USB and 12-volt charging ports.

The six-seat version offers more comfortable captain’s chairs in the second row, which were heated in my tester. It’s also substantially easier to access the third row, which remains more for smaller kids thanks to their short cushions and tighter foot well. Anyone feeling claustrophobic will also appreciate the enormous full-length glass moon roof, which brings wonderful sunlight into the dark interior.

Despite not being the largest in its class on the outside, the XL holds its own when it comes to hauling. With the third row in place, the Santa Fe holds 383 L of cargo, 1,159 with them down, and a total 2,265 with both rows fully flat.

Accessing that vast space – especially with hands full and keys in a pocket – is made easier with an auto-opening rear hatch. Unlike similar systems spreading through Ford products, the Hyundai doesn’t require doing the hokey-pokey, waving feet aimlessly. It only has to detect the fob near the rear of the car and after a few seconds, will trigger the opening automatically.

Hyundai’s familiar engine and powertrain are found under the skin, although unlike Kia’s one-size-fits-all Sorento, the big Santa Fe XL has only one configuration. The 3.3L V6 has 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque, routed through a six-speed automatic transmission. Front wheel drive is standard on price-leading base models, but the majority are all-wheel drive.

According to the new Canadian five-cycle testing, the Santa Fe XL is rated at 11.8 L/100 km in the city, 8.0 L/100 km on the highway and 10.1 L/100 km combined. During its week in my hands, both the cold grasp of winter and the fuel and tires conspired to land it at 11.1 L/100 km in mixed driving.

Hyundai’s active cornering control has been tweaked to offer a more spirited drive, ensuring that the nose is kept more in line when pushing and increasing driver confidence. With 1,840 kilograms of mass to pitch around, the Santa Fe XL is no corner carver, but does carry itself well. The ride, even with the 19-inch wheels standard on my Limited-spec tester, is nicely judged. Few big surprises, even on the horribly cratered roads I usually travel.

Handling is similarly good for something its size, well ahead of the lumbering GM twins. Very predictable, with nice response from the steering. It’s a shame that there is no feedback whatsoever through the steering wheel itself, although you can adjust its effort with a button press.

In fact, the XL does just about everything pretty well. Braking is done generally without drama, and it doesn’t suffer from an undue amount of wind noise. Only some road noise is apparent, although that can partly be blamed on the aggressive winter tires on the tester and the previously mentioned horrendous tarmac.

When it comes to available equipment even the base XL at $29,999 is amazingly jammed, with power amenities, a six-speaker audio system, cruise control, fog lamps, seven airbags and quite a lot more are all standard. Except that all-wheel drive, of course. Next is the Premium trim at $34,749, which is the least-expensive way to get four driven wheels, along with niceties like automatic headlights, rear door blinds, dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, keyless entry and ignition, and the smart liftgate.

Both the Luxury at $39,749 and range-topping Limited at $43,099 can be had in seven- or six-passenger form, the latter adding $200 to the MSRP. Yes, removing a seat requires spending extra bucks. Carmaker math at its best… But that’s small change in the grand scheme. Luxury is where the moonroof, blind-spot monitoring, rear-view camera all make an appearance. And the Limited can be had with saddle-brown leather for no extra cost.

Some rivals offer more style, or more luxury, but few offer it for such a relatively good price. The in-house rival, the Kia Sorento, is a properly well-sorted machine, but with all the available toys comes in over five grand more than the larger Santa Fe XL. The Platinum-spec Pathfinder starts at $47,000, and is saddled with a less powerful engine and funky CVT. The Toyota Highlander Limited starts at $46,200. The Explorer Limited, while not being the top-rung machine comes close at $44,049, but you need to add almost $4,000 worth of options to bring it up to similar spec.

So while the Santa Fe XL Limited might not be the best of the luxurious three-row crossovers, it’s pretty darned good. And for the price, it’s made even better.

Warranty:
5 years/100,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/unlimited distance 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 Limited
2015 Hyundai Santa Fe XL Limited
Base Price $43,299
Optional Equipment None
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $45,094
Optional Equipment
Scoring breakdowns 6.6
7 Comfort
6 Fuel Economy
6 Performance
7 Interior
7 Exterior Styling