Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe First Drive: Evolution, Not Revolution

Refining the brand's original crossover

Refining the brand's original crossover

Hyundai introduced the original Santa Fe nearly 20 years ago, and over time the crossover became one of its best sellers. Now in its fourth generation, the 2019 Santa Fe is quieter, safer, and more refined.

The new Hyundai returns more aggressively styled than ever. In front, the 2019 Santa Fe features high-mounted LED daytime running lights and low-mounted headlight clusters. Out back, the taillights have been made thinner, and the reverse lights have been moved lower down. No, this isn’t Russian doll design—the 2019 Santa Fe is not just a Kona that’s been scaled up to a bigger segment. It has unique design cues including stacked headlights, a grille with a pattern that mimics chain mail armor, and a chrome strip that the runs the width of the entire front fascia. Its upright greenhouse gives it more presence and glass area for better visibility.

Powertrains carry over with slight improvements: The base 2.4-liter I-4 has 185 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque, and on the Limited and Ultimate grades, you can opt for a 2.0-liter turbo-four with 235 hp and 260 lb-ft. Both engines use an eight-speed automatic and now come with electronically actuated continuously variable valve timing systems for improved efficiency and performance. EPA fuel economy ratings for the base engine are 22/29 mpg (10.7/8.1 L/100km) city/highway for front-drive models and 21/27 mpg (11.2/8.7 L/100km) with all-wheel drive. The 2.0-liter turbo-four is less efficient at 20/25 mpg (11.8/9.4 L/100km) for front-drive models and 19/24 mpg (12.4/9.8 L/100km) with all-wheel drive.

We drove the 2019 Santa Fe in Park City, Utah, a town that’s over 7,000 feet above sea level, and took routes that got us above 8,000 feet. The optional 2.0-liter turbo-four had plenty of power on tap, but there’s no reason to rev it out since it provides lots of low- and midrange torque. There is turbo lag, and the throttle response is leisurely in Comfort and Smart modes; Sport mode is more immediate. The base 2.4-liter I-4 struggled at altitude; you feel it working hard going up a hill, and the touchy throttle tip-in in Sport mode accentuated its lack of power. Hyundai’s eight-speed automatic shifts quickly and is generally smooth save for a couple rough shifts we experienced going up a hill.

Hyundai improved the 2019 Santa Fe’s chassis with the rear shock absorbers now mounted vertically instead of at an angle. Most of the suspension changes were made to improve ride comfort and stability. The 2019 Santa Fe rides comfortably even on washboard roads and gravel but models with the 2.0-liter turbo-four and 19-inch wheels are stiffer than models with smaller wheels; opting for smaller wheels also means sticking with the base 2.4-liter. Stability is excellent even at high speeds, and the steering now has better feel and feedback, giving the driver more confidence. Handling is secure and body motions are well controlled with just enough roll to give you a hint of the vehicle’s high center of gravity. On dirt and gravel roads, you can easily get the rear to step out and have fun thanks to the torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system.

Interior space is excellent in the 2019 Santa Fe. There’s plenty of room for five, the rear seats recline and slide, and cargo space is generous at 35.9 cubic feet with all three rows in place and 70.7-71.3 cubic feet with the second row folded down. The upcoming diesel-powered variant will be available with a small third row but that cuts down cargo space to 11.6 cubic feet with all seats up. Material quality is a big step up with quality plastics even on the lower-grade model we drove. The higher trims do have more soft-touch surfaces, though. Sound insulation is superb; even at highway speeds or on unpaved roads, the interior is quiet with minimal road and wind noise entering the cabin. Hyundai’s recent infotainment systems have been easy to use, and the only difference with the 2019 Santa Fe is that it’s quicker to respond to inputs. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims. The highlight of the multimedia experience is the 12-speaker Infinity surround sound system, which has excellent sound quality and clarity even at high volumes, and minimal distortion.

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe has evolved into a refined crossover with a well-appointed interior and comfortable ride. Add a long list of standard active safety tech on all trims that includes automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control, and you get a crossover that punches above its weight. Being a family car is the Santa Fe’s forte, and with all the improvements on the 2019, you get one that’s packed with tech and offers a pleasant driving experience.