2019 Hyundai Santa Fe first drive review: Trading 'Sport' for family friendly tech

Meet the new Hyundai Santa Fe. For 2019, the SUV formerly known as the "Santa Fe Sport" drops the "Sport" from its name. Meanwhile, last year's midsized "Santa Fe" will become the "2019 Santa Fe XL." It's a small change that's sure to be confusing to shoppers.

However, after spending time with the 2019 Santa Fe, dropping the "Sport" sort of makes sense. From the more upright design to the more comfort-oriented ride, the Santa Fe feels less "sporty" and more grown up. Plus, it's now loaded up with smart safety and convenience features aimed at new families.

Standard Smart Sense safety suite

Name changes aside, the biggest news for the 2019 model is that Hyundai has made its Smart Sense safety suite standard equipment for the Santa Fe. From the base SE to the fully-loaded Ultimate, every trim level includes the full complement of advanced driver aid features.

There's adaptive cruise control that maintains a safe following distance behind a leading car, even in stop-and-go traffic. Forward and rear cross-traffic collision alerts are also standard with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking in both directions. Lane-keeping steering assist keeps the car centered in its lane at highway speeds and integrates with the standard blind-spot monitoring to prevent changing into a lane that's occupied by another car.

The blind-spot sensors also power a new side exit assist feature. This feature continues to monitor for approaching vehicles even after the car is shut down to prevent accidentally opening a door into traffic while parallel parked. We've seen a similar feature on certain Audi vehicles, but Hyundai has designed its system to work alongside the electronic child safety locks making it particularly useful for parents.

Automatic high beam headlamps and a driver alertness monitoring system round out this solid suite of standard tech.

One of the only optional safety features is a new rear seat occupant detection system. In addition to a basic warning to take a peek back there when exiting the vehicle, this system also uses ultrasonic motion sensors to continue to monitor the rear seat for up to 24 hours after the car is parked. If there's a sleeping pet (or child) back there that the driver's forgotten about, the system will eventually detect its movement and alert the owner by flashing the car's lights and honking the horn. Notifications will also be sent via Bluelink phone and smartwatch app notifications, email or text message.

New name, new look

The new Santa Fe is rocking a new look that leads with a face inspired by the Kona small SUV. The aesthetic -- with its stacked headlamps and large hexagonal grill -- works even better thanks to the more spacious proportions of the Santa Fe's larger front end and a new horizontal chrome bar that unifies the elements.

Behind the new face is an all-new body. Where the old Santa Fe Sport had a very windswept look, the 2019 Santa Fe stands more upright with squared-off shoulders. Hyundai's designers sought to emphasize the SUV-ness of the compact model with details like a strong, flattened fender arch around each wheel that emphasizes its verticality and truckiness.

The result is a profile that's bland, but that's fine considering as it gives the strong and sort of busy front end some breathing room. Overall, I give the Santa Fe's new look a big thumbs up.

The Santa Fe's dimensions haven't changed much with the redesign -- it's only about half an inch taller (67.1 inches) and 2.8 inches longer (187.8 inches), 2.6 inches of which is additional wheelbase. Despite being larger, cargo space is basically unchanged, hanging in the middle of its class at about 71.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat.

Beneath the new look is a new lighter, stiffer chassis that improves safety. It also allowed Hyundai's engineers to go softer with the Santa Fe's suspension bushings in the pursuit of a smoother and more comfortable ride. The SUV rides comfortably -- if a little devoid of feedback. New aluminum components help save suspension weight, reducing harshness and improving comfort. Meanwhile, additional sound absorbing materials have been added to help quiet the cabin.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

Hyundai has done a tremendous job creating a handsome cabin experience with low budget materials.

Hyundai

Bluelink cabin tech

Speaking of the cabin, Hyundai's designers have proven to be masters of creating pleasant cabin experiences from inexpensive materials. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but this is a really nice cabin for the price. Spend some time poking and prodding the dashboard and you'll find plenty of hard plastics and thin leather, but the cockpit looks surprisingly good especially in the two-tone tan and black scheme of our tester. Nice details like contrasting stitching and matching fabric on the roof and pillars go the extra mile to really zhoosh up the Santa Fe's look, setting it apart from other low-budget cabins.

At the center of the cabin is the newest version of Hyundai's Bluelink tech. This remains one of our favorite cabin technology suites -- it's not flashy, but Bluelink is fast and very easy to use. For 2019, the system gains a new "Custom" hardware button and a customizable "My Menu" feature that allow faster access to your favorite functions. There's also a new "Voice Memo" feature I quite like that allows quick recording of audio notes for retrieval later.

We've still got all of the features that we like to see, including standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay along with solid voice commands. Stepping up from the standard 7-inch model to the larger 8-incher also brings good navigation software with HD Radio traffic information.

2019 Hyundai Santa Ultimate 2.0T HTRAC

Bluelink is back in the 2019 Santa Fe with all of the onboard and connected tech that we love.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The Santa Fe SEL or better includes three years of Bluelink Connected Services which enables convenience features like remote locking, monitoring, remote start and safety features like stolen car retrieval and emergency services. Bluelink boasts compatibility with phone and smartwatch apps and also integrates with Google Home and Amazon Alexa to allow drivers to control their smart homes from the car and vice versa.

Turbocharged performance

The 2019 Santa Fe is available with two engine options: The standard motor is a 2.4-liter gasoline four-cylinder that makes 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. Drivers who want more pep in their step can upgrade to a 2.0-liter four-banger with a twin-scroll turbocharger that makes 235 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

We tested the turbo and found its performance to be pleasantly peppy. The torque peak happens all the way down at about 1,400 rpm, which makes the compact SUV feel very responsive off the line and around town.

The standard eight-speed automatic transmission is also new for 2019 and feels like a decent match for the turbocharged engine. On the steep hills around Park City, Utah, the gearbox did a really good job choosing the right ratio for a climb, but the emphasis on efficiency showed with a reticence hang on to lower gears when cornering. Selecting the Sport drive mode and the Sport transmission program sort of helps, but not much. However, those looking for smooth and quiet performance shouldn't be disappointed.

2019 Hyundai Santa Ultimate 2.0T HTRAC

The turbocharged engine feels like a good performance fit. Its efficiency, however, is nothing to brag about.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Front-wheel drive is standard, but Hyundai's HTRAC all-wheel drive system is available as a $1,700 option. The system defaults to front-wheel drive, but can send up to 50-percent of available torque to the rear wheels as needed. It's aided by a torque-vectoring system that uses the brakes to shift power laterally.

You'd think with less weight and a powertrain that emphasizes smooth efficient driving that the Santa Fe would have better fuel economy, but the 2019 model is disappointingly mediocre. At best, the front-drive 2.4L model does just 22 city, 29 highway and 25 combined mpg. Our AWD Ultimate 2.0T drops down to 19 city, 24 highway and just 21 combined mpg. That's a middle-of-the-pack performance in this class which includes the 22 mpg Jeep Cherokee, 22 mpg Subaru Outback and 23 mpg Volkswagen Tiguan, but that's still nothing to brag about.

Pricing and competition

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe starts at $26,480 (including a $980 destination charge) for the SE model. The base price increase of $550 over the outgoing Santa Fe Sport seems justified considering the amount of standard safety tech added this year.

At the top of the line is the loaded Ultimate trim, priced at $36,430 with the 2.4-liter engine. Adding the turbocharged engine and HTRAC all-wheel drive to our tester raises the as-tested bottom line to $39,780.

2019 Hyundai Santa Ultimate 2.0T HTRAC

It's not without flaws, but the 2019 Santa Fe is a strong competitor at solid value.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The new Santa Fe stacks up nicely against its competition which admittedly includes a few aging models like the Nissan Murano and Ford's Edge. Volkswagen's newly redesigned Tiguan is probably the best cross-shop against the Hyundai, while Mazda's CX-5 and Honda's CR-V offer compelling (and more compact) alternatives for those looking for better driving dynamics at this price point.

However, the Hyundai stands apart in a few ways: Its best tech is standard across the lineup, so you can save money by stepping down to the midtier SEL and SEL Plus models and still have a satisfying experience. This makes it easy to keep the Santa Fe's price competitive around the $30,000 range. And, of course, its 10-year/100,000 mile warranty is still one of the best in the biz.

Middling fuel economy keeps it from being the best in its class, but the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe has got it where it counts and presents compelling value, particularly for those interested in driver aid technologies. Families looking to save a few bucks on their next ride without shortchanging on safety should definitely take a closer look.


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