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.
For the Pilot, everything’s changed this year. The 2016 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.
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.
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 nine-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 and the Santa Fe both earn 23 mpg combined (20 mpg city, 27 highway) in their base front-wheel-drive forms. But the Pilot does better in some of its top-trim all-wheel-drive versions, thanks to its new lighter body structure plus cylinder deactivation technology and engine stop-start, which smartly shuts off the engine when you’re sitting at a stoplight and restarts it when you lift off the brake pedal. The latter two features aren’t offered on the Santa Fe, for which mileage sinks as low as 17/22 mpg in fully loaded Ultimate form.
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.
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 2016 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. The 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe lacks federal crash-test results, and it misses the top IIHS tier as it achieves only a “marginal” rating from the IIHS in the important small overlap frontal impact test; it’s also missing forward collision warning features, standard or optional. The Pilot, by comparison, offers a Honda Sensing Package that includes the “superior”-rated Collision Mitigation Braking System.
Hyundai has been a step ahead of Honda for a long time in value for money, and the same holds true this year, with the Santa Fe and the Pilot—even if Honda is coming to its senses about value, not only by packing in more standard features but by making certain desirable features more widely available across the lineup. On the Pilot, standard features now include touch-screen audio with audio streaming and Bluetooth, cruise control, air conditioning, and power accessories; but you’ll need to move up to higher trims to get satellite radio, leather upholstery, and heated/ventilated front seats. The Santa Fe, on the other hand comes with more; and you can add heated seats, heated mirrors, heated second-row seats, a heated steering wheel, a power passenger’s seat, navigation, and premium audio to the base GLS for a modest amount. And even base models with all-wheel drive get a windshield-wiper de-icer. The top end for a fully optioned Santa Fe Limited is nearly $42k, while you can run a Pilot Elite (with navigation) model up to nearly $47,500.
The Hyundai Santa Fe is a solid contender for the family; but in all fairness, this one isn’t even 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 2016 Honda Pilot is the Best Car To Buy—especially for the family.