First Drive – 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
High-Altitude Hyundai Hijinks
A little inside baseball on the world of automotive journalism: Manufacturers and their public relations departments typically take several months to plan a first drive event, with every last detail crafted to ensure us magazine, blog, and video hacks have a good time and experience the vehicle in the best of circumstances. The prescribed drive route is typically made to ensure we experience the new vehicle in only the best conditions—smooth, scenic roads with limited traffic or other obstacles. The program is always designed to ensure the vehicle can handle everything thrown its way.
That’s why we have to commend Hyundai for bringing us to Utah to drive the all-new 2019 Santa Fe. Our basecamp was in legendary Deer Valley, situated at 6,500 feet, and we spent half our time traversing dirt roads that achieved a maximum elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. This drive route was anything but pristine, with plenty of mud and potholes thanks to Utah’s typical late-summer afternoon rainstorms, and the thin alpine air typically saps engine power (and lung function) significantly. Hyundai’s decision to host the drive here was more like confident taunting: We dare you find things to dislike about the Santa Fe, even in these inhospitable conditions.
Built in Alabama, the new five-seat Santa Fe’s improvements over its predecessor are plainly apparent. It exhibits substantially more curb appeal than the old Santa Fe Sport, which it replaces (the 2018 Santa Fe seven-seater has been renamed Santa Fe XL for 2019). Hyundai designers acknowledged the Sport’s more laid back, swoopy stance, likening it to a minivan in the pre-drive meeting. As such, the new Santa Fe gets a much squarer profile, with a lowered beltline and higher hip point to reduce passenger claustrophobia. The outgoing Sport’s swoopy bodyside sculpting has been replaced by a chunky horizontal edge spanning the space between the wheel arches. And Hyundai’s take on polarizing split-element headlights is actually very handsome on the Santa Fe.
Inside, wider windows contribute to an airy feel, compounded by the low, contoured dashboard with an arched cowl in front of the passenger. A tablet-style infotainment display stands proud above the ergonomically designed center stack. Audio, navigation, and climate controls are relatively easy to scrutinize at a quick glance, and Hyundai has done well to keep physical volume and tuning knobs rather than rendering them in touchscreen form. Materials are excellent in both rows of seats; our top-spec models had leather upholstery with a sophisticated tweed-like headliner, lending the interior a stylish, midcentury vibe.
Front- and rear-seat room is first-rate, with plenty of stretch-out space for four passengers. The rear seat offers tons of toe room, improving comfort for taller passengers, and it slides fore and aft to prioritize cargo space or passenger room. The cargo bay is wide and tall, with covered binnacles under the cargo floor for smaller valuables. There’s also a reasonable amount of storage space inside, thanks to a pocket and bottle holder in each door, a large glove box and a convenient slot above it, and a good-sized armrest cubby. The console-mounted gear selector takes up some space, but there’s room in front of it for large smartphones, even ones with an external battery case.
The 2019 Santa Fe comes standard with a 2.4L I-4 with 185 hp and 178 lb-ft, available with front- or all-wheel drive and capable of returning 22 city/29 highway/25 combined mpg, according to the EPA. This engine is the only offering in the SE, SEL, and SEL Plus. The upper trims—Limited and Ultimate—come standard with the 2.4 but are available with a 2.0L turbocharged I-4 producing 235 hp and 260 lb-ft, rated at up to 20 city/25 highway/22 combined mpg. Both engines offer slightly less power than the Chevrolet Blazer’s base and available engines. The more expensive Nissan Murano and Ford Edge come with more standard power, but optioning a Santa Fe Limited 2.0T brings competitive engine output and more luxury for about the same price, true to Hyundai form. Unfortunately, there's still no word as to the rumored diesel engine we're slated to receive.
The extensive efforts Hyundai engineers undertook to stiffen the Santa Fe’s structure are apparent, especially on damaged roads. There’s very little body flex over broken pavement, due to a 15.4 percent improvement in torsional strength thanks to more widespread use of high-strength steels and advanced structural adhesives. That stiffer body also contributes to a much quieter drive experience, as do variable-density foam panels in areas like the transmission tunnel, fender aprons, and floor. This stiffer, quieter body also yields a smoother ride, since engineers are able to dial in the suspension for better balance without having to take untoward body flex into account.
All of the test vehicles on our drive route were fully loaded Santa Fe Ultimate models equipped with a 2.0L turbocharged I-4 and HTRAC all-wheel drive. This combination will demand $39,780 of its new owner including the $980 destination charge. For that price, you get just about every luxury feature in Hyundai’s arsenal: leather upholstery, navigation, a surround-view camera, heated and ventilated front seats, satellite radio, and more.
But impressively, even the base Hyundai Santa Fe SE comes with forward collision monitoring and collision prevention, well-programmed adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic warning and collision prevention, blind-spot collision prevention, and a sophisticated lane-keeping system that does a good job keeping the Santa Fe centered in its lane. It’s a comprehensive set of convenience and safety features, impressively bundled at its $26,480 starting price ($550 more than the outgoing Santa Fe Sport).
Driving the Santa Fe in the mountains above Park City, we noticed a few things. First, its ride is first-rate—large bumps get absorbed with a solid-feeling thwump, while coarser impacts are dispatched smoothly and quietly. Zipping around twisty roads, grip and body motions are controlled and predictable, and the Santa Fe’s suspension balance has been tuned toward safe, progressive understeer through its numb-ish steering. It’s a relaxed and confident crossover, with very few unpleasant habits.
On the freeway, our test model’s 2.0L turbocharged I-4 is well matched to a standard eight-speed automatic transmission. Put in comfort mode, the gearbox executes swift, smooth upshifts, optimizing the SUV’s efficiency. Disappointingly, the drive selector’s sport mode is only slightly more aggressive—we still had to wait a beat between mashing the accelerator and getting a downshift. The problem was exacerbated in enthusiastic driving, as the gearbox just can’t keep up with our caveman brains.
And that brings us to the largest caveat of this first drive. Remember the commendations we gave to Hyundai for risking debuting the Santa Fe at high altitude? Unfortunately, in this case the gamble may have backfired slightly. The thin air sapped a lot of the engine’s off-the-line power, leading to a greater perception of turbo lag when accelerating out of tight corners. Once the turbo is on boil, it compensates with excellent passing and merging power, and if the driver isn’t caning on the transmission, it does a good job of selecting the right gear for the situation. Over our nearly 200-mile drive, the on-board computer indicated an average of 22.3 mpg, impressive given the hilly terrain and journalist-spec driving.
We spent a few brief miles in a Santa Fe equipped with a base 2.4L I-4, and its off-the-line performance was good, though the engine felt a little breathless by 3,500 rpm or so. Again, all of this was likely due to the altitude, and we’ll need some more seat time in more varied elevations to find out.
Overall, the 2019 Santa Fe represents a comprehensive improvement on its predecessor, and it arrives just in time to battle updated versions of other larger five-seat SUVs. With classier and more upright styling than the swoopy Nissan Murano, Ford Edge, and forthcoming Chevrolet Blazer, the Santa Fe will woo traditional SUV buyers with a large, squared-off cargo space, comprehensive list of standard safety and convenience features, and a refined highway ride. Altitude-related reservations aside, the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe is poised to represent its company well as the crossover craze continues to grow.