2019 Hyundai Santa Fe First Drive - Remarkably Unremarkable

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
2019 hyundai santa fe first drive remarkably unremarkable

Calling something “unremarkable” is usually a bad thing. No one likes being called unmemorable or bland. But when it comes to crossovers, which are primarily meant to haul lots of people and stuff, it’s a term that can easily be used in a complimentary manner. After all, few people are looking for crossovers that drive like tall sports cars, and no one wants something so bad that it’s remarkable.

Not to mention that only a few crossover buyers want or need significant off-road capability – and only a few crossovers really offer that, anyway (which hasn’t stopped brands, including Hyundai, from touting their crossovers’ “off road” ability. More on that later).

If you’re selling a crossover in 2018, all you really need to do is come up with something comfortable that isn’t terribly boring to drive. Something that has all the right safety and convenient features, has a price in line with the competition, and won’t require a stop at every gas pump.

Hyundai has most of that covered here.

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me to Park City, Utah and put me up in a hotel room that was uncomfortably close to my condo in size. The company also offered me sunglasses I didn’t take, fed me several great meals, and offered up good beer and wine. One meal included a whiskey tasting.­)

Naming conventions have changed – the Santa Fe now seats five. That was the domain of the old Santa Fe Sport. The long wheelbase, seven-seat model remains for one more model year, now called XL. It’s a carryover from the previous generation.

So the old five-seat Santa Fe Sport is now the Santa Fe, and the old seven-seat Santa Fe is now the Santa Fe XL, pending the arrival of an all-new, three-row, eight-passenger vehicle for 2020 that will have a new name. Still with me? Good.

Hyundai touts the new Santa Fe’s styling as “more SUV-like,” stating that the new duds are a reaction to consumer perception that the previous generation was too minivan-like. I’m not sure it really screams “SUV,” but it is a looker. It doesn’t necessarily look more rugged, but it does look more muscular and sportier, with some details that remind me of the brand’s subcompact Kona (such as the thin upper headlamps).

I also like the grille, which is being seen across the lineup, and the thinned-out taillamps also look sleek. I am torn on what Hyundai has done with the rear turn-signal lamps – they’ve been moved to the lower rear fascia. On the one hand, I applaud the company for doing something different; on the other, I worry that they may be hard to see.

Inside, I like the storage shelf ahead of the shifter, and as always, I appreciate large knobs for radio volume and tuning, as well as HVAC. I continue to dislike the trend of infotainment screens that look like tack-ons atop the center stack. At least control buttons are easy to find and read and laid out in a logical fashion, although some of the plastics were harder than I’d like in a vehicle pushing $40K in price. I dug the available upscale headliner fabric, and count me as a fan of the quirky design of the in-door speakers that graced our Ultimate-spec vehicle, as well.

I found the front seats plenty comfortable during our nearly 200-mile tour of the Park City area, and the rear seat offers up enough legroom that I was able to fit my long legs without too much trouble, even with the front seat pushed fairly far back. Cargo space behind the second-row seats falls short of the Edge or Kia Sorento, but at 35.9 cubic feet it’s still respectable.

Hyundai tossed us the keys of a fully loaded Ultimate trim with the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, eight-speed automatic, and all-wheel drive. The 2.0T (235 horsepower, 260 lb-ft) proved to be merely adequate when it comes to passing punch, although Utah’s elevation likely sapped some power. The transmission was mostly unheard from, but it did occasionally offer up an oddly harsh shift. The Santa Fe struggled a bit on a twisty road that climbed the side of a mountain, as a bit of lag from the throttle didn’t help (again, elevation was a factor).

Ride and handling proved a better picture, at least on-road. The Santa Fe struck the right balance between soft and stiff for a comfortable experience. Hyundai finally dialed up steering that felt connected to something, and the “Sport” drive mode livened things up. The only downside with the steering was the lane-keep assist – it tended to tug at the wheel unnaturally, and it worked against me when I intentionally tried hugging the shoulder to apex a corner. Thankfully, a flick of a switch easily turns it off.

Our drive did include some long stretches of gravel road, and there was some washboard action from the suspension – MacPherson strut with aluminum knuckle up front, multilink with aluminum carrier in the rear – especially under braking.

The Santa Fe also did its business quietly. Road, wind, and tire noise were kept to a minimum.

Drive modes include Comfort, Sport, Eco, and Smart – that last one analyzes how you drive and blends the other three together, picking the best one for the circumstances.

Our drive finished with an off-road hill climb that was a bit more challenging than one would expect to subject a Santa Fe to (but still way too easy for, say, a Jeep). The crossover did just fine, though almost no Santa Fe buyer will subject their crossover to a trail even half as tough as this mostly easy one.

There’s another engine on offer – a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, also paired with an eight-speed automatic. Like with the 2.0T, it’s available with front- or all-wheel drive.

My time in the 2.4 was brief, but it felt louder and thrashier than the smooth 2.0T. It also felt especially gutless in Utah’s elevation. Flooring it at one point seemed to do nothing. If urgency matters to your driving at all, opt for the 2.0T.

The 2019 Santa Fe starts at $25,500, and key standard features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, forward collision-avoidance assist, blind-spot collision-avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision-warning assist, lane-keep assist, driver-attention warning, pre-wiring for towing, smart cruise control, high-beam assist, LED accent lights and DRLs, chrome accent for the grille, and dual front and rear USB ports. One other key standard feature is “safe-exit assist” – which warns rear-seat passengers about approaching cars before they open the door, and can also prevent the passenger from opening the door.

The previous graph describes the SE trim. Pop up to SEL and you’re adding on things like a 7-inch TFT/LCD instrument cluster, selectable drive modes, remote keyless entry and push-button start, power driver seat, heated sideview mirrors, heated front seats, fog lamps, power windows, satellite radio, and Hyundai’s Blue Link connected car app. This trim will set you back $27,600 before D and D ($985 across the board).

Next trim up is SEL Plus. That adds rear-occupant warning (an alert that Blue Link sends to your phone if you leave a kid or pet behind. It works by sensing motion.), park distance warning, dual-zone climate control, 18-inch wheels, hands-free liftgate, roof rails, sliding second-row seats, leather wrapping for the steering wheel and shift knob, and premium audio system. This one stickers for $29,800.

Pop up to $32,600 for the Limited, and you’re getting panoramic sunroof, LED interior lights, LED headlights and taillights, LED fog lamps, turn-signal markers in the side mirrors, leather seats, and power passenger seat, among other goodies. Spend the extra $1,600 for the 2.0T and you add a trailering package and 19-inch wheels.

Willing to drop $35,450 on an Ultimate? You add a surround-view camera, 8-inch touchscreen with nav, head-up display, wireless device charging, heated steering wheel, seat memory for the driver’s seat, lumbar support and cushion extension for the driver’s seat, cooled front seats, heated rear seats, 115-volt power outlet, and rain-sensing wipers. Spring another $1,650 for the 2.0T and you’ll add the trailering package and 19-inch wheels. There are other accessories available, such as carpeted floor mats.

All-wheel drive is $1,700 across the board, and you can only get the turbo four on Limited and Ultimate models. Hyundai told us they’d guess that the SEL and SEL Plus will be the volume-selling trims.

Fuel economy is a sore subject – an all-wheel drive 2.0T checks in at 19 mpg city/24 mpg highway/21 combined. That’s not as good as the Ford Edge 2.0-liter turbo with AWD (20/27/23) or the Nissan Murano with V6 and all-wheel drive (21/28/24). With front-wheel drive, the 2.4-liter Santa Fe returns 22/29/25 and the 2.0T 20/25/22. The 2.4 with AWD is listed at 21/27/23.

Price-wise, the Santa Fe acquits itself well against the Murano, and can undercut the Edge, depending on options. It even lines up well against lower-trim Honda Pilots, although that crossover offers three-row seating.

Hyundai spent a lot of time in the press briefing trying to convince the assembled media that the Santa Fe is now more “SUV like” than “minivan like.” As stated before, that means Hyundai felt consumers labelled the previous-gen vehicle as too much like a minivan, with all the negative connotations that entails. Whatever – a sportier look and the ability to climb a rutted, rocky trail up a hill doesn’t change the fact that the Santa Fe is a crossover, just like its competition.

Which is fine. Hyundai’s marketers do have a job to do, of course, and consumer perception matters. But consumers can also be silly. Who cares if a crossover appears “rugged” or like a lifted sporty hot hatch? With some exceptions aside (the Ford Edge ST, Jeeps, et cetera), most crossover buyers want something that gets people and cargo from point A to point B without being boring to drive, having a chintzy interior, costing too much, or sucking down fuel – like I said above.

The Santa Fe does most of those things well. It could use more power (although as noted, things may be better closer to sea level), its fuel economy isn’t above average, and you have to spend over $30K to get the best engine of the two. So it’s not perfect.

That said, pricing is par for the class, the ride and handling aspects are perfectly fine for most of the driving most of us do, the styling is eye-pleasing inside and out, and the cabin is perfectly comfortable. Safety and convenience tech is right in line with class expectations, if not exceeding them.

Instead of trying to sell us on the idea of the Santa Fe being an old-school SUV, Hyundai should instead push it as one of the better five-seat crossovers out there, at least for the mainstream buyer who gives not a whit about sportiness or ruggedness. It’s not remarkable in many ways, good or bad, but that’s fine. It does the assigned task well, and for many, that’s what matters most.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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2 of 81 comments
  • Mmreeses Mmreeses on Aug 28, 2018

    to nitpick, the frontal double chin makes the Santa Fe look like it has coke bloat. Should've kept a more chiseled look. though in red the double chin looks more subtle than in gray

  • 300zx_guy 300zx_guy on Aug 28, 2018

    >> and count me as a fan of the quirky design of the in-door speakers that graced our Ultimate-spec vehicle just a bit of friendly constructive criticism (which also applies to many posts on many sites)... If you call out a particular piece of styling in the article, how about including a picture? Its not like this is a magazine and you can only fit a certain number of pictures. Otherwise, a pretty thorough review.

  • Kevin 35 grand if a 2 door but not a 4 door!
  • Kevin 35 grand USD for a 57 wagon that still needs lots of work such as spindles body work and what ever else maybe 25 but 35 no thanks I'll stick with what I have. Floor pans replaced and whatever else my 68 chevelle I paid $4800.00 USD 20 years ago and is all original.
  • FreedMike Needs a few more HP to really spice things up...
  • Oberkanone Absolute insanity on our public roads! A danger to society. Bravo Dodge!
  • Lou_BC Cool car but 35k USD?