The Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda Pilot are two popular picks that represent the shape of today’s family wagons. Both models work well for four or more, allowing enough flexibility for restocking the pantry, fitting infant seats, cargo-carrying, or even expeditions to a weekend campsite.
The Hyundai Santa Fe has been treated to a modest update for 2017 with a new look inside and out, but it remains essentially the same underneath for 2017 as it was when it arrived in 2013.
For the Pilot, everything has changed for 2016. The latest Pilot discards its super-upright, boxy look in favor of something a lot more urbane. Some are going to say the result is more ubiquitous, too, but it’s all really in the eye of the beholder and Honda has addressed fine details in a such a way that the Pilot continues to grow on you. The Pilot’s cabin in particular is a splendid interpretation of the well-finished look from current Accord sedans; it’s subdued yet classy, and it fits the mission perfectly.
So how do they match up? The Pilot handily outpaces the three-row Hyundai. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Meanwhile, the current Hyundai Santa Fe has held strong in the lineup since 2013, as a roomier three-row vehicle taking up the vehicle size that used to be badged Veracruz; the former two-row size of the Santa Fe is now called Santa Fe Sport. Although this design is a few years old, it’s been refreshed somewhat this year; the exterior tends to fade into the mix of other crossovers, although its interior is a distinctively swoopy, more design-daring counterpoint to the Pilot’s straightforward look.
2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Both of these are powered by strong, normally aspirated (non-turbo) V-6 engines that are good fits for this type of vehicle. Neither of these vehicles feels shockingly quick, but they’re both confident and strong. The Santa Fe feels smooth and effortless with its 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6, providing you’re carrying a light load; but it becomes it becomes a little more labored (and the shifts a little harsher) as you load it up or head up a steep highway grade. Oddly, the opposite is true of the latest Honda Pilot and its 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. At least with its optional 9-speed automatic—the way we’ve spent most of our Pilot seat time so far—the Pilot can feel a little uncertain (almost jarring) in its low-speed shifts but then settles into confidence and smoothness with the entire family aboard. In handling, the Pilot’s a lot better than it looks like it might be, and its steering is quite direct and well-weighted for such a large vehicle. On the other hand, the Santa Fe isn’t in its element making quick transitions.
Fuel economy is close between these two models, but dig deeper and there are some key difference between these two models. The Pilot earns 19 mpg city, 27 highway, 21 combined with front-wheel drive, unless you opt for the Touring and Elite trim levels that swap out a 6-speed automatic for the 9-speed. Those extra cogs help boost fuel economy to 20/27/23 with front-wheel drive.
All-wheel drive, predictably, reduces those figures—but only by 1 mpg combined.
The Santa Fe is a simpler story: front-wheel drive models come in at 18/25/21, and all-wheel drive lowers the combined figure to 20 mpg.
Interior space and safety
Let’s get real; three-row family vehicles like these are chosen more often because of their layout and interior comfort than because of what exactly is under the hood. In front, these models display some of the same focus on space efficiency and comfort, with good seats and plenty of cupholders and bins right where you need them. The Pilot’s front-row seating is ultimately a bit more upright—so that might be something that drivers will either like a bit more or less, depending on preferences and stature. The differences start to stack up in the second row, where the Pilot has either a bench or a pair of captain’s chairs (on upper trims). They’re adult-sized and super-comfortable, and a single-touch button folds and slides them forward for access to the third row. The Santa Fe offers the same choice of second rows, with great second row comfort as well—although it seems to be more at the expense of third-row and cargo space. The Santa Fe has a roofline that seems to arc downward just a bit more...or is it that the rearmost row is a little higher? In any case, there seems to be just a bit less headroom (and legroom) for those third-row riders.
2016 Honda Pilot
Santa Fe cargo space is one the small side, at 13.5 cubic feet behind the third-row seat or more than 40 cubic feet with that third row folded; the Pilot compares at 18.5 and 55.9 cubic feet, respectively.
Safety is very important to shoppers in this class; considering just that, there’s a clear winner for this match-up, and it’s the Honda Pilot. The Pilot is one of the top-rated vehicles in its class for the safety-conscious; it’s earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award, as well as five stars overall in the federal NCAP tests.
In IIHS testing, the 2017 Santa Fe scored mostly "Good" ratings for side-impact and moderate-overlap front crashes, but the last year's version scored a worrisome "Marginal" rating in the agency's small-overlap crash test. The 2017 model hasn't been rated in the small overlap crash test.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is a solid contender for the family; but in all fairness, this one isn’t all that close close. The Pilot’s powertrain is impressive and it handles better than the Santa Fe; it also has more third-row space, cargo space, and overall flexibility; and it has better safety ratings. On the other hand, the Pilot’s more expensive, and it’s a little more difficult to get some of the more desirable features. If value’s your only consideration, the Santa Fe delivers a strong punch.
But the Honda Pilot is the Best Car To Buy—especially for your family.