First Drive

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe First Drive Review | A safely stylish crossover

Bolder SUV-like exterior design and two engine choices

  • Image Credit: Hyundai

To help it stand out in today's crowded, highly competitive midsize crossover market, Hyundai has given the new 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe has a bolder SUV-like exterior design. The Santa Fe's changes are evolutionary rather than seismic, but in a market that includes rivals like the Ford Edge, Jeep Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Equinox, and Honda CR-V, every detail matters.

Buyers still have a choice of two four-cylinder engines - just like the outgoing Santa Fe Sport – one of them turbocharged, with each paired to an updated 8-speed automatic transmission. The Santa Fe also offers all-wheel drive across its five trim levels, while delivering a modest bump in overall cargo space and rear legroom.

A few notes before we dive further in: The new Santa Fe doesn't include the "Sport" in its name. Anyone in immediate need of a Santa Fe with a third-row seat will have to settle for the Santa Fe XL, a one-year-only offering based on the previous generation model. We highly recommend test driving the new model, if you can do without a third row. Some form of hybridization is also planned, though Hyundai would not comment on technical aspects or a projected on-sale date.

Ahead of taking the wheel on the wide-open roads surrounding the charming ski-cation town of Park City, Utah, Hyundai told us that they strove to make it less of a high-riding minivan, both in terms of its style and stance on the road. To do this, Hyundai shortened the front overhang, added a more upright front grille with a chainmail pattern, and pushed the headlights lower in the front fascia. Those slim lighting units that flank the grille are the LED daytime running lights and turn signals. (Yes, it's okay if you initially thought they were super skinny headlights, too.)

The 2.6-inch longer wheelbase makes the Santa Fe look more planted, while adding about an extra inch of rear legroom compared to the previous model. The more horizontal side profile and large glass area – especially the small side windows, ahead and behind the A- and C-pillars – help improve visibility. And unlike some SUVs and crossovers that opt for tapered tail-ends that look sporty, but create claustrophobic-levels of cargo space, the squarish rear of the Santa Fe translates to 35.9 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seats. That's up from 35.4 cu-ft. offered in the previous model.

Styling is subjective, but to our eyes, the Santa Fe has a lot more presence than it previously did. It's refreshing to see aesthetic flourishes being put to good use, too. Larger side windows equal better visibility for everyone aboard, and the squarish tail means cargo room isn't sacrificed because some designer wanted to emphasize sport at the expense of actual utility.

Inside, the Santa Fe's dash impressed, with its horizontal layout and nicely sculpted surfaces providing an open-air feeling. In many new cars and SUVs, a bulky dashboard can look like it stretches for a mile ahead, obscuring any sense of where the front of the vehicle ends. In the range-topping Ultimate trim level, the overall quality of the leather seating surfaces and plastic trim stood out, too. One strange oversight is a large swatch of budget-minded black plastic located right on the door panels. Given how much time and attention Hyundai paid to getting the rest of the cabin right – after all, Hyundai noted that the pattern of their door-mounted speakers as being based on "the orthographic projections of mountains" – it looks cheap and seems an odd oversight.

Five trim levels are offered: SE, SEL, SEL Plus, Limited, and Ultimate, but only the Limited and Ultimate are offered with an optional turbocharged engine. The standard motor is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Optional on the Limited and Ultimate is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which delivers 235 hp and 260 lb-ft. of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard, and each motor comes paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Adding Hyundai's HTRAC all-wheel drive system will cost you an extra $1,700 across the Santa Fe model range, regardless of trim.

On the road, our Santa Fe Ultimate, fitted with the turbo engine and all-wheel drive, provided a whisper-quiet ride, with only a hint of wind noise coming from the side mirrors. The handling is nimble and doesn't feel artificially light or, for that matter, bizarrely heavy when you click the drive mode selector to "Sport." This transfers more power to the rear wheels, while quickening gearshifts and tightening the steering feel. It's handy for passing a lumbering pickup on a two-lane road in the middle of Utah, and the active torque control helped zip us along dirt and gravel roads without any wheel slippage. For the most part, we expect most Santa Fe drivers will be happy with the "Normal" and "Smart" drive modes – while keeping all four wheels firmly on paved surfaces.

Something any SUV shopper will appreciate is the Santa Fe's long list of standard safety features. Every model comes fitted with Hyundai Smart Sense, a suite of eight safety features that include forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitors, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, high beam assist, smart cruise control, driver attention monitors and, new for this model year, Safe Exit Assist.

This feature can be considered as blind spot monitoring for the rear doors. Working in conjunction with the child safety lock system, Safe Exit Assist will not allow unlocked rear doors to be opened if sensors detect an oncoming vehicle approaching from behind. Even with the child locks deactivated, a warning will flash on the dashboard, alerting the driver of oncoming traffic from the rear.

Also available is a new rear occupant alert system. This not only flashes a warning, to remind the driver to check the rear seating area when exiting the vehicle, it uses ultrasonic sensors to detect any movement on the rear seat for 24 hours. If any motion is detected, the system will honk the horn and flash the lights, and then send a message to the driver's smartphone via Hyundai's Blue Link connected car service.

Pricing for the 2019 Santa Fe starts at $26,480, for the SE trim level with front-wheel drive and the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Standard features include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, 17-inch wheels, 7-inch touch screen for the infotainment system, and an idle stop-start system to help save fuel. Speaking of fuel economy, the Santa Fe posts only mid-pack economy figures, with an EPA-estimated 22 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway for the SE trim in front-wheel drive format.

Our Ultimate model was even thirstier, with a ho-hum economy average of 19 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. Granted, this model had the peppier turbo engine and all-wheel drive, and came absolutely loaded with features, including heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, wireless phone charging, rain-sensing wipers, a panoramic sunroof, 12-speaker Infinity audio system, 8-inch touch screen, and a hands-free tailgate that automatically opens once it detects the key-fob is within three feet of it, for a period of about three seconds. The speed of the tailgate can also be adjusted, for those moments when you require a speedier cargo-loading regime.

Added up, our Ultimate carried a sticker price of $39,905. That's a substantial jump upward from the base model, though the amount of comfort and safety is impressive. You don't have to add every option onto this SUV, of course. Many buyers will stick with the lower and mid-range trim levels. With that in mind, we spent about 40 minutes with a Santa Fe equipped with the 2.4-liter engine and front-wheel drive.

The difference in power between the two engines doesn't look like that much on paper, but on the road it's immediately evident. The 2.4-liter felt strained when climbing hills, and required a pedal-to-the-floor driving style if any serious passing was required. The high altitude of our test drive definitely took a toll on the engine's power output (not to mention our lung capacity). Test drive both powertrains to see if the 2.4-liter's sluggishness is worth the price savings.

The ride is very comfortable, however, and the cabin was remarkably quiet, except for one small rattle from the leading edge of the panoramic sunroof, which surfaced only while driving along rutted dirt and gravel roads. Some competitors, particularly anything with a Mazda badge on the nose, offer more entertaining handling when the (paved) roads get twisty.

Yet the Santa Fe really can't be faulted for being realistic about what it is – it isn't trying to posture as a sporty crossover. More importantly, the Santa Fe combines a more memorable-looking exterior package with all the tech, safety, and comfort features SUV buyers have come to expect in this hotly-contested slice of the market. But does this launch the Santa Fe to the top of the heap, or simply nudge it firmly into the middle of the pack?

The loss of the third row might lead some SUV shoppers to look elsewhere, though Hyundai has confirmed it has a new three-row SUV in the works, sized above the Santa Fe. More important is the lack of power produced by the naturally-aspirated engine. This is the motor many budget-conscious shoppers are going to choose and, based on our time with it (admittedly at altitudes of more than 7,000 feet above sea level), it felt over-worked and out of breath. The turbo motor is better, though you need to climb to the uppermost rungs of the Santa Fe trim ladder to put it under the hood. And let's not forget, neither engine is exceptionally fuel efficient. That seems like a swing-and-a-miss for Hyundai's engineering team, if we're being brutally honest.

A major plus point for the Santa Fe is the extensive list of standard safety items. Hyundai officials seemed very confident these would give their SUV some glittering safety scores in crash test ratings done by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, as well as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Those official results were still pending at the time of our test drive. A top safety rating in both set of testing criteria could – and probably should – instantly elevate the turbo Santa Fe in buyer's minds.

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