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2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Test Drive Review

If you’re shopping for a five-passenger crossover SUV, you must put the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe on your list.

8.7 /10
Overall Score

Just two years after a complete redesign, the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe gets a substantial update with new styling, controls, displays, engines, technology, and safety systems. Plus, it gets a thorough structural upgrade and a new Calligraphy luxury-themed trim level. However, despite the long list of changes and improvements, the 2021 Santa Fe remains the tremendous bargain it’s always been.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

Usually, new vehicles seem more expensive than they should be. You look at the price on the window sticker, you look at what you get for that price, and you see what’s going to cost extra. Then, after you pick your jaw up off of the floor, you shake your head in disbelief.

With the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe, once you’ve had a chance to look at it, sit in it, feel the materials, use the controls, and drive it, the price tag also won’t make any sense. But in the Santa Fe’s case, you’ll wonder why this five-passenger midsize SUV doesn’t cost more.

This year, the Santa Fe lineup is available with a choice between two new gasoline engines and a new gas-electric hybrid powertrain. Trim levels for gas models include SE, SEL, Limited, and Calligraphy. Hybrids come in Blue, SEL Premium, and Limited trim.

Pricing ranges from $26,850 to $39,950 MSRP. Gas models get standard front-wheel drive (FWD). All-wheel drive (AWD) costs $1,700 for the gas models but is standard for hybrids. Hyundai imports the hybrid models from South Korea and makes the others in the company’s factory near Montgomery, Alabama. A Santa Fe plug-in hybrid is coming as well and should arrive for the 2022 model year.

Aside from new wheel designs, the most significant exterior change is the 2021 Santa Fe’s redesigned front end. It’s got new running lights, a completely reworked grille, and a new bumper. The wheel, grille, and headlight combinations are different for each trim level, helping to give each one a unique character.

Inside, new colors, patterns, and textures move the Santa Fe upmarket. Hyundai also adds a new bridge-style center console with storage underneath, and the surface is home to the new electronic transmission controls, drivetrain settings, climate switchgear, and stereo controls. An available 12.3-inch digital instrumentation panel lends the SUV a high-tech air of sophistication.

Our turbocharged Santa Fe Calligraphy came with Stormy Sea paint, AWD, 19-inch wheels, and Black premium leather. With its carpeted floor mats and the $1,185 destination charge, the SUV was an outright steal at $43,590.

But, how did it look and feel? The Calligraphy’s interior exudes quality. Fit, finish, and the solid yet refined action of the controls simply cement the impression that you didn’t pay enough. The full panoramic glass sunroof simply adds to the sense that someone in the pricing department screwed up, big time.

The exterior, however, remains an acquired taste. Hyundai applied some of its current “parametric dynamics” design cues to the refreshed Santa Fe so that it fits in better with other vehicles in the lineup. Still, there remains some discordant asymmetry to the stamped body parts and greenhouse that require a complete redesign to resolve.

Performance

8/ 10

Three new powertrains are available for the 2021 Santa Fe. SE and SEL trims get a 191-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment.

Santa Fe Hybrids are based on a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder, a starter/generator, an electric drive motor, and a six-speed automatic transmission. Total system output measures 226 hp. The electric drive motor also supplies a robust 195 pound-feet of torque from the moment you step on the accelerator up to 1,600 rpm. Peak torque from the gas engine also measures 195 lb-ft, and it arrives at 4,000 rpm.

The higher-level Limited and Calligraphy trims have the same turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that you’ll find in the Hyundai Sonata N Line sedan. It’s a terrific engine, generating 281 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque, and it uses an eight-speed wet-plate dual-clutch transmission that fires off crisp, rapid shifts.

Hyundai also offers Normal, Sport, and Smart driving modes. The transmission displayed some reluctance to downshift in Smart mode, but since this is the fuel-saving mode, that behavior was not entirely unexpected.

Between the Santa Fe Calligraphy’s 2.5-liter turbo, added structural rigidity, improved braking system, and an extra layer of refinement, this SUV drives significantly better for 2021. It is remarkably quick, feels more solid and robust, and exhibits impressive body control, a pleasant ride, laudable isolation, and athletic handling.

Better yet, the EPA says the turbocharged engine is just as fuel-efficient as the standard one. With AWD, both powertrains have a fuel-economy rating of 24 mpg in combined driving. The normally-aspirated engine is slightly more efficient in city driving, while the turbo is thriftier on the highway. We averaged 22.4 mpg on our testing loop, running mainly in the Smart driving mode.

Form and Function

8/ 10

If you don’t need a third-row seat (in four years, I can count on one hand the number of times my family has used the third row in our SUV) but you do want the added passenger room a midsize SUV offers, the Hyundai Santa Fe delivers.

All trims include dual-zone automatic climate control with Clean Air ionization, and versions with cloth seats use stain-resistant fabric to keep them looking good over time. Leather is available for the SEL and standard in the Santa Fe Limited. The luxurious new Calligraphy trim takes the interior to the next level, though, with a suede-like headliner and quilted, stitched, and supple premium Nappa leather. For just north of 40 grand, the Santa Fe Calligraphy makes you feel like middle-class royalty.

Plus, this SUV is comfy. Starting with SEL trim, you get a standard eight-way power driver’s seat and an available eight-way power front passenger’s seat. Drivers enjoy a separate thigh support adjuster with Limited and Calligraphy trim.

Heated front seats are standard for the SEL trim and higher, while Limited and Calligraphy boast heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a heated steering wheel. And you can turn them on remotely using a smartphone app before you head out on your drive.

Comfort lasts for hours at a time. It’s easy to find a proper driving position, and with Calligraphy trim, Hyundai softly pads the locations where you’re likely to come into contact with interior surfaces. There is no shortage of storage, and Hyundai uses a classy new release button to open the bin under the center armrest. Unfortunately, I found it too easy to accidentally activate this button when using the center console controls.

The rear seat is downright decadent when it comes to comfort and room for your legs and feet. The Calligraphy test vehicle had air-conditioning vents, quick-charge USB ports, a power outlet, and rear side-window sunshades. And even though a third-row seat is unavailable, the rear bench seat slides fore and aft on tracks to make more room for cargo when necessary.

Hyundai’s “smart” hands-free power liftgate is great when you intend to use it, and not so great when it opens simply because you’re standing at the rear of the SUV, such as when washing the back glass while refueling at a gas station.

When the liftgate opens, it reveals 36.4 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s less space than the redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson, a compact crossover positioned beneath the Santa Fe, but it’s usable and easily accommodates a long road trip for a family of four.

Fold the rear seat down, and the Santa Fe offers 72.1 cubic feet of space. That’s on par with the largest compact crossovers, but again, the new Tucson is more accommodating.

Tech Level

9/ 10

Given its stature at the top of the trim ladder, the Santa Fe Calligraphy is loaded with technology. Highlights include a new 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a crystal-clear surround-view camera system, and an 8.5-inch color head-up display (HUD) that supplies a wealth of data, including blind-spot warnings.

Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard with the basic 8-inch touchscreen infotainment, while the new 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system has wired versions of those smartphone-mirroring platforms. But the larger screen comes with upgraded voice-recognition technology and enhanced Blue Link connected services. You can get an excellent 12-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system with the larger screen, too, complete with Clari-Fi digital music restoration technology.

Blue Link is Hyundai’s connected services platform, and the subscription is free for three years. It provides Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple/Android, smartwatch compatibility, and a long list of additional capabilities. Selected features include automatic emergency assistance, a panic notification, a car-finding function, and the ability to set alerts for vehicle speed, curfew times, and crossing of geofenced boundaries.

Blue Link also includes remote engine start, and you can also adjust the climate control and activate the seat heating or ventilation to ensure the Santa Fe is toasty warm or blessedly cool before driving.

One Blue Link feature that is missing from the Santa Fe is a WiFi hotspot. Does this matter to you? It might, but if you’re already paying for a smartphone data plan that works no matter where you are, it probably won’t.

WiFi might be missing in action, but Hyundai does offer its Digital Key and Remote Smart Parking Assist tech on the 2021 Santa Fe.

Digital Key allows owners with an Android-based smartphone to use the device to unlock, drive, and relock the SUV. Owners can also assign temporary digital keys for when someone borrows the vehicle.

Remote Smart Parking Assist allows a Santa Fe owner to stand outside of the vehicle and use the keyfob as a remote to driverlessly pull the SUV into or out of a cramped parking area. Hyundai cites the use cases of a crowded garage that doubles as storage for a home or when an inconsiderate person parks too close to the Santa Fe.

You may find these two curiosities compelling, or you might shrug with no intention of ever using them and say: “Whatever.” Either way, based on the Santa Fe Calligraphy’s price tag, it doesn’t appear that you’re paying for something you’re not going to use.

Safety

9/ 10

The 2021 Santa Fe’s list of safety features is both impressive and unusual.

Without getting too deep into the weeds with individual trim levels, the Santa Fe offers now-common driving-assistance tech related to cruise control, collision warning and prevention, and keeping to your intended lane of travel. We’ll focus on the more unusual features, all of which are standard with Calligraphy trim.

Impressively, the forward-collision warning system includes pedestrian, cyclist, and “junction turning” assistance. That latter feature can identify when the Santa Fe’s driver might make an ill-advised turn, and take steps to prevent it.

Safe Exit Assist is helpful after parallel parking the Santa Fe. It uses the blind-spot monitoring sensors to identify vehicles or cyclists approaching from behind the SUV and warns occupants not to open a door when it is unsafe. The rear doors can even override passenger action using the child-safe door locks. After all, you know how well kids listen.

Speaking of your kids, the Santa Fe protects them from forgetful parents. A rear-occupant alert system is standard in the more affordable versions of the SUV, while an ultrasonic rear-occupant alert is available for mid-grade and higher trims. The ultrasonic version can detect movement within the Santa Fe for up to 24 hours. In addition to flashing the lights and sounding the horn if a child wakes from a nap and starts moving in her child safety seat, Mom and Dad will get an alert via a smartphone app that someone important might still be inside the SUV.

Blind-Spot View Monitor supplements the radar-based blind-spot monitoring system. It uses cameras to show the driver what’s on either side of the SUV when the turn signal is active to indicate a lane change or an upcoming turn, displaying a video view within the digital instrument cluster.

Highway Driving Assist combines adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability with the SUV’s lane-centering and lane-following technologies. It is smooth, refined, and accurate, and seemed almost ready to graduate to hands-free status. As it stands, you must keep your hands on the steering wheel, and we found the system can get a little confused about freeway off-ramps and on-ramps.

As far as crash-test ratings go, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) calls the Santa Fe a “Top Safety Pick,” but only when the SUV has the LED projector headlights found on Limited and Calligraphy trims. If you’re focused solely on collision protection, the Santa Fe is a great choice, earning the highest possible ratings for crashworthiness and front crash-prevention technology performance.

Cost-Effectiveness

10/ 10

Is the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe perfect? No. But it drips with both real and perceived value—especially in Calligraphy trim. And that’s what you’re likely to conclude before you take into account the Hyundai Assurance ownership-benefits package.

Hyundai Assurance is an umbrella term that includes the automaker’s industry-leading warranty and roadside-assistance coverages, plus Hyundai's transparent pricing and three-day worry-free exchange programs. It also includes the complimentary three-year subscription to Blue Link and the free three-year scheduled maintenance plan that comes with every new Hyundai.

When you take Hyundai Assurance and the 2021 Santa Fe’s price, quality, comfort, technology, and driving dynamics into collective account, you’ve got a winner in terms of cost-effectiveness. This is especially true when you compare a Hyundai to vehicles from other automakers that have the nerve to charge extra for metallic paint while providing comparatively skimpy warranty and connected-services plans, while Hyundai doesn’t.

It’s almost offensive when you think about it.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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