2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid is economy and luxury in one
The Road Beat reviews the all-new 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid
Hyundai has been on a roll recently, and I'm far from the only person with that opinion. Hyundai after Hyundai that I've come across has left me impressed by their commitment to bring style and quality at affordable prices. Hyundai has struck gold with the new Santa Fe on paper, combining upscale style and a luxurious interior at a price for normal people. However, it seems they put so much effort into making it look nice that little was spent on making it interesting to drive. Though, for what matters to most prospective buyers, this is as good as it gets.
What is it?
A mid-size SUV/crossover offering from Hyundai, the South Korean automotive giant. Nestled in as a sort of in-between size wise, the all-new Santa Fe is larger than the Tucson, but smaller than their flagship, three-row Palisade. After spending time with the Tucson recently, I never found that so-called 'compact' SUV to be lacking in space. But, if you need that extra bit of room, that's where the Santa Fe comes in. This top-of-the-line Hybrid Limited model came in at a reasonable $41,290, offering more space and luxury than a RAV4 Hybrid Limited, yet at the same price; that's good value.
As already mentioned, the headlining feature of the new Santa Fe is the courageous styling in a sea of relative mundanity. Besides Mazda's understated elegance in their own SUVs, Hyundai's Santa Fe (and their Tucson) stand out among the bland offerings from America and other Japanese offerings. The grille and headlights might look fussy isolated on their own, but as a whole, they work to make a large vehicle look rather modest in size, tapering to an aggressive point.
The style entourage continues inside with a beautifully finished and sculpted cabin. It's put together with a high degree of detail, bringing quality switchgear and soft leather where used. The saddle brown color of the interior also screams luxury, mirroring something that you'd get out of a much pricier Mercedes. From the first time opening the door, I was mightily impressed. The simple fact of the matter is that this is one of the nicest interiors I've ever seen for forty grand. The shear quality and ambience of it leaves a RAV4 in the dust and even rivals the $50,000 Toyota Highlander Limited. Passengers were similarly enamored by the inviting and luxurious cabin. You will, too, as this gives the Santa Fe a serious edge over similarly priced competitors.
Comfort is great thanks to cushy seats and big space front and rear for all passengers. The ride quality is soft as to not disturb occupants, even if that comes at the expense of cornering (as explained later). It's quiet, too, keeping most of the noise from reaching inside. The center display is intuitive and I like the digital old-school vacuum tubes displayed on the radio screens. It is a little laggy at times, but it gets the job done, even finding the voice recognition to work surprisingly well when I asked the car for directions to a few places. The center stack of controls is a little overwhelming at first with the shear amount of them, but I got used to their placements through muscle memory quick enough.
This Santa Fe Hybrid is, of course, a hybrid vehicle. A turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine is paired to an electric motor to bolster performance and economy at the same time to the tune of 226 modest horsepower. As far as gas mileage is concerned, it works, with the Santa Fe Hybrid averaging a strong 32 MPG overall and achieving the same 32 MPG on the highway. What's surprising is that this example bettered the efficiency of the smaller Tucson Hybrid I had - same powertrain and all. For a vehicle of this size, to average over 30 MPG is a grand feat. It's not quick, with 0-60 MPH needing 7.5 seconds, but that is at least comparable in the segment.
The fuel economy is certainly there for a hybrid SUV, and the exterior and interiors are made to dazzle, but the Santa Fe is left wanting in the driving experience. I liked how the smaller Tucson drove for the most part, so I was expecting a similar showing. On the contrary, driving the Santa Fe left me disappointed, mostly in the fact of how boring it is to assume command of. Behind the wheel, sitting too high up as other Hyundais do, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was piloting a minivan, not that minivans are bad to drive these days - most are quite good!
Steering is on the vague side, though it's accurate enough for some confidence, but the whole vehicle has the creeping feel of a willow tree - swaying in the breeze. However, this is mostly exacerbated by those comfortable front seats that have zero lateral support and, again, you sit too high to really feel like you're in it. If you're routes are highways and city streets, you would never notice, and even then most drivers wouldn't even give two thoughts as to the concerns I expressed. On winding, tight country roads, the Santa Fe dislikes being hurried, preferring a relaxed pace instead.
The other, maybe most glaring issue of all, is the poor throttle response when pulling away from a stop. The Santa Fe usually goes into a full EV mode when stopped and/or leaving a dead stop, which is fine, but the problem at hand is that when you add throttle to leave, almost nothing happens - it feels like the parking brake is left on! So, to counter that and to get you moving along, the instinct is to add more throttle naturally. However, this is met with a huge jolt as the applied power exponentially increases, most often from the gas engine suddenly joining the party and lurching you along. It's sad because I didn't incur this in the Tucson Hybrid, but it can make for a jarring experience at times when leaving a stop, and sometimes feels nearly dangerous for the unassuming driver at how it jolts this way. I wasn't the only person to experience this, as a friend commented on and noticed the exact same thing. I've read other reviews that have commented how seamless the hybrid system operates, so maybe it was this specific tester itself.
Don't the drive the Santa Fe with enthusiasm and vigor and you'll be wowed by the interior's grandeur when onboard and cruising. It's hard to think of a nicer new vehicle of this size for the money when you consider just how great the interior actually is. If you're after an efficient and luxurious vehicle of this size, on paper there is nothing that comes close for your dollar. Unfortunately, the driving experience didn't dazzle like the obvious style does, but for most, that's perfectly okay. As long as that snatchy throttle pick-up could be sorted, this would be my choice of the field.
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Limited
As-tested price: $41,290
Pros: Style inside and out; Luxurious interior; Great value
Cons: Glitchy throttle from a stop
Verdict: Hard to beat for just barely over forty grand