First Drive: 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe

It’s tough to go wrong with the Santa Fe Hybrid.
It’s tough to go wrong with the Santa Fe Hybrid.

by Nick Tragianis | April 17, 2021


Sometimes, you don’t want the loudest exhaust, the quickest-shifting transmission, or the most trick adaptive suspension setup. Sometimes, you just want a perfectly normal vehicle that does what you need and keeps your family safe, comfortable, and stress-free – and that’s okay. In this case, it’s tough to do better than the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe.

To say that you’re spoiled for choice in the world of family haulers is an understatement, but the Santa Fe stands tall for its uncanny ability to do “normal” so well. It’s stylish, but not overly so. It’s roomy and big, but still easy to drive. And for 2021, it’s packing a trio of new powertrain options, including one that’s sure to appeal to your frugal side.

After only two years on the market, Hyundai chose to freshen up the latest Santa Fe’s styling for 2021 with a decidedly Palisade-inspired front grille flanked by reworked LED lighting, some new wheels, and a restyled rear end. It’s a tidy and handsome look that lends the Santa Fe some presence, but not so much that it’s overstyled and, for better or worse, sticks out in a parking lot.

Inside, the 2021 Santa Fe sees even fewer – but fairly impactful – changes. The general layout carries over, which only proves that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Everything is where it needs to be, no-nonsense physical switchgear handles the most important climate and infotainment functions, and overall fit-and-finish is excellent. The tweaks are more minor in nature in here; the new centre stack is once again cribbed from the Palisade – including the button-operated shifter – the partially quilted leather seats are something you’d find in more expensive vehicles, and the 12.3-inch all-digital instrument cluster looks slick.

It truly is a great place to be, compounded by the fact that the Santa Fe’s interior is just so practical. It comes up a bit short on rear-seat headroom, but the front seats are plenty spacious and there’s generous legroom all around, as well as no shortage of clever and usable storage pockets. There’s 1,032 litres of cargo space with the seats up, and that grows to 2,041 when you fold down the Santa Fe’s rear seats – more than enough to swallow gym bags, hockey gear, or a stroller. Best of all, the hybrid’s battery pack doesn’t cut into available cargo space – not only is the Santa Fe hybrid as roomy as the gas models, but it’s also far more spacious than the Toyota Venza, arguably its key rival.

Along with the nip and tuck, the 2021 Santa Fe receives a trio of updated powertrains. Replacing the old 2.4-litre four-cylinder in the base Santa Fe is a 2.5L unit, developing 191 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque. It’s hooked up to an eight-speed automatic that sends power just to the front wheels by default, but all-wheel-drive is optional. If that isn’t enough kick, a 2.5L turbo-four is available in the fully loaded Ultimate Calligraphy trim, putting out 277 hp and 311 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s hooked up to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic and AWD is standard there. Frankly, it’s a welcome move – the 2.0L turbo-four it replaces felt a bit underpowered, considering the Santa Fe’s weight.

If you value fuel economy over passing power, the new hybrid powertrain tested here is a solid bet. It takes Hyundai’s ubiquitous 1.6-litre turbo-four and mates it to a 1.4 kWh electrified powertrain, for a net system output of 226 hp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. A conventional six-speed automatic and AWD are standard. It’s not the most powerful Santa Fe, but certainly the most fuel-efficient: officially, it sips 7.9 L/100 kilometres in the city, 7.1 on the highway, and 7.4 combined. In our short time with the Santa Fe hybrid, we averaged 7.8 – respectable, but Toyota’s RAV4 and Venza hybrids are stingier.

What really strikes us about the Santa Fe hybrid is just now normal it feels on the road. The transition between gas and electric is seamless, and given it uses a conventional automatic – unlike Toyota, whose hybrid SUVs are CVT-only – there’s no drone under hard acceleration. Despite its size, the Santa Fe is easy to maneuver around town thanks to its light steering and excellent visibility, and the chassis does a commendable job of isolating bumps and rough pavement. Wind and road noise around town are well-managed, but there’s a bit more wind noise than we’d like on the highway.

Value has always been one of Hyundai’s strengths. and for the most part, the Santa Fe delivers. The base Essential trim starts at $31,399, and you get a comprehensive laundry list of standard features like LED headlights and automatic high-beams, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a heated steering wheel, and the requisite active safety features you’d expect, like forward collision alert, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.

Stepping up to the $36,399 Essential AWD adds dual-zone automatic climate control, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, and smart key access. Another $2,100 adds the Trend package, which nets you a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, LED tail lights, and power-adjustable front seats. More importantly, for $2,900, you can also spec the hybrid powertrain on this mid-range model. This, we’d have to say, is the sweet spot of the lineup.

This particular tester is the Luxury Hybrid trim, priced at $43,799. Stepping up to this one gets you the all-digital instrument cluster and a power liftgate you can open by swinging your foot under the bumper, but we have a nit to pick – despite this trim being on the higher end of the lineup, you don’t get GPS navigation or the larger 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen available on the U.S.-spec Santa Fe hybrids. For that, you have to step up to the $47,499 Ultimate Calligraphy trim – you get many more goodies, including a heads-up display and Hyundai’s excellent Blind View Monitor, but you also lose the hybrid powertrain.

For the moments where you want a competent, relaxed, and no-nonsense driving experience for yourself and your family, it’s tough to go wrong with the Santa Fe. The upgrades for 2021 – particularly the hybrid powertrain – take a good thing and make it even better. The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe, including the hybrid, is in dealerships now. A plug-in hybrid will follow later this year.

See Also:

First Drive: 2021 Kia Sorento

2020 Hyundai Palisade Ultimate

2021 Honda Pilot Black Edition

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About Nick Tragianis

Managing Editor

Nick has more than a decade of experience shooting and writing about cars, and as a journalism grad, he's a staunch believer of the Oxford Comma despite what the Canadian Press says. He’s a passionate photographer and loves exploring the open road in anything he gets his hands on.

Current Toys: '90 MX-5 Miata, '00 M5, '16 GTI Autobahn