Until recently, it wasn’t clear what the Santa Fe signified in Hyundai’s lineup. Before the larger Palisade entered the picture for 2020, the Santa Fe XL was Hyundai’s three-row SUV while Santa Fe referred to a two-row midsize SUV. One year before that, the three-row model was just known as the Santa Fe, and a five-seat model was called Santa Fe Sport. From that confusing past, the updated 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe emerges with a clearer identity, a completely new powertrain, and a reimagined interior.
If you think this new one looks just like the old one, understand that there’s way more here than meets the eye. Performance from the Santa Fe’s upgrade engine underwhelmed us in the past, but the 2021 model changes all that. With a new 2.5-liter turbocharged I-4, the five-passenger 2021 Santa Fe jumps toward the front of the midsize SUV class in acceleration. It’s a great change, but a huge asterisk accompanies that improvement.
From the base model to a new hybrid option, the 2021 Santa Fe offers plenty of newness under the hood. The base engine is now a 191-hp 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I-4, but the big news—aside from the newly available AWD hybrid—is that the 235-hp 2.0T engine has been replaced by a 277-hp 2.5-liter turbo-four. The more intriguing detail is how Hyundai pairs that 2.5T engine to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
In MotorTrend testing, this 2.5T/dual-clutch combination yielded a swift 6.2-second sprint to 60 mph, an enormous 1.6 seconds quicker than the best time we recorded for a 2019 Santa Fe 2.0T. That improvement might convince some Santa Fe customers to spend a few extra bucks on this extra-cost powertrain.
For comparison, that 6.2-second time for our 2021 Santa Fe all-wheel-drive test SUV is far quicker than the 7.6 seconds we clocked by a front-drive 2019 Ford Edge, and it also beats the two AWD Toyota Venzas we’ve tested (7.1-7.5 seconds). The Santa Fe is just about even with the also-new Kia Sorento (6.3 seconds) that has the same engine and transmission, but it comes in a tad slower than the Subaru Outback in turbocharged XT form (5.9-6.1 seconds).
In 60-0-mph braking, the Santa Fe performed well within its competitive set. A 117-foot stopping distance is respectable; the test driver noted a slightly long pedal travel but good bite from the brakes and tires. That panic-braking performance is about even with the Sorento (115 feet) but better than the Venza (121-122 feet), Edge FWD (129 feet), and Outback XT (129-132 feet).
2.5 vs. 2.5T: You’re Doing It Right
We appreciate the Santa Fe’s newfound swiftness, but for most buyers, we’d recommend against any 2.5T trim. Hyundai tells us 75 percent of buyers stick with the 191-hp base 2.5-liter I-4 instead of the 277-hp 2.5T-powered model we tested. Smart.
The issue is with the 2.5T model’s transmission. Where the standard 2.5-liter models use an eight-speed automatic, the 2.5T models get an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic that’s simply not ready for duty in a family SUV here or in the three-row Sorento. Hyundai points out this is a wet-type dual-clutch transmission, which the automaker says “greatly reduces most drivability concerns.” All we can go by is our test SUV, which delivered rough shifts from a stop and at city-driving speeds—there was no escaping its lack of refinement. If we were in the market for a Santa Fe—and there are good reasons to consider one—we would steer clear of the responsive but rough dual-clutch as well as the somewhat surgey 2.5-liter turbocharged I-4. Or, we’d try the hybrid.
It’s not all bad, though. Road test editor Chris Walton was mostly impressed by the Santa Fe on our figure-eight course, which is a good evaluation of a car’s acceleration, braking, handling, and the transitions in between. The Santa Fe’s time of 26.7 seconds at 0.67 g (average) is about even with the Sorento but beats the Venza, Outback, and Edge FWD. What’s more telling is how it felt: Walton lauded the steering feel and grip. With about as many body motions as you’d expect of a mainstream SUV and the slightly long-travel brake pedal, the Santa Fe delivered a sportier experience than he expected.
Off the track, the 2021 Santa Fe rides smoother than the Sorento but not as well as the superbly tuned Outback. And the highway ride is moderately quiet, too, perhaps thanks in part to the acoustically laminated side glass on some SELs, all Limiteds, and all Calligraphy models.
Is the Calligraphy Trim Super Fancy?
Calligraphy has become the top trim for Hyundai SUVs. The trim level was introduced on the Palisade, where it signified additional premium features and some of the most interesting wheels offered on any sub-$100,000 car today. The 2021 Santa Fe Calligraphy also starts with wheels, though its 19s aren’t as attractive (20s are also available). Of course, it’s not just about curb appeal. Inside, the Santa Fe Calligraphy features a suede-like headliner that feels like it belongs in a luxury car, Nappa leather seats, a perforated and leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a head-up display.
That’s all very nice, but the large, shiny, cheap-looking plastic pieces near the interior door pulls detract from the atmosphere a little, and we wish the Santa Fe had the Sonata’s cool geometric piano-black turn signal stalks. We get it, though: Making a $43,640 vehicle feel like a million bucks without increasing the price to Genesis levels is a challenge.
What impresses us about the 2021 Santa Fe isn’t the Calligraphy trim specifically, but the model’s feature list. Hyundai waves its value magic wand over most of the Santa Fe lineup, adding features-per-dollar value across the rest of the trims. If the dual-clutch transmission isn’t a deal-breaker for you, consider the next trim down from Calligraphy, the Limited. Starting just below $40,000 with front-drive, that trim includes Hyundai’s Remote Smart Parking Assist, which is the most wonderful mix of gee-whiz entertainment value and actual usefulness. Limited is also where you get an easy-to-use 360-degree camera system.
One trim below the Limited is SEL, which gets the base 2.5-liter and torque-converter automatic. It can be optioned up with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, quilted leather seats, a 10.3-inch touchscreen, and panoramic moonroof for under $36,000 with FWD—that’s nearly compact-SUV money for a midsizer. As with all Hyundais, the 2021 Santa Fe comes with three years of complimentary maintenance and a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty.
But Is the Value There?
With its 2021 update, the Santa Fe’s biggest strength remains value. The SUV drives well, but all its positive dynamic qualities—including much quicker as-tested acceleration and good steering—are drowned out by a transmission we hope will be retuned or replaced altogether. Inside, we appreciate the SUV’s spacious cabin, the easy-to-find rear-seat recline levers, and how it makes folding down those rear seats a one-button-press endeavor.
Then again, the 2021 Santa Fe doesn’t dramatically shift the midsize SUV segment forward. The rear doors don’t have a near-90-degree wide-opening detent, fuel economy is good but not great, and the second-row USBs are too low (the Sorento places them halfway up the seat back). Even so, the Santa Fe is still worth consideration if you stick with the naturally aspirated base engine or the hybrid, thus avoiding the dual-clutch/2.5T combination.
Let’s be realistic, though: You’re not looking to shift anything forward—you just need a new ride. So if you want a value-oriented five-seat SUV with more presence than a Honda CR-V, Hyundai has an SUV that might work for you, and it’s called the Santa Fe.
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