2019 Hyundai Santa Fe- The Zia Sun Still Shines

It was only befitting that our test car in the proud state of New Mexico was the all-new 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe. Refer to your geography books, or what you learned in sixth grade, and you’ll recall that Santa Fe is the capital of the self-proclaimed “Land of Enchantment”. Aside from sharing the same namesake, the city and the vehicle each have historical significance. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonists, Santa Fe retains its title as the oldest U.S. state capital after it became the seat of government for the new colony of Nuevo Mexico. Debuting for 2001, the Santa Fe marked a major shift for Hyundai when it became the brand’s first, and currently longest-serving, SUV. But that’s where the similarities end. One is made of abode. The other is primarily steel. The city has 65,000 inhabitants. The car can only hold a maximum of five. But wait! Isn’t the Santa Fe capable of holding seven?! While that was recently true, it’s also marks a change in the Santa Fe’s evolution as it enters its fourth generation, and like the city, reflects back on its humble roots.

Hyundai blessed the last generation of Santa Fe with a confusing overlap of names; mainly to cash-in on the model’s unexpected popularity. When the third generation went on sale for 2013, it came in two guises. The Santa Fe, for the first time ever, had three rows and directly replaced the larger, short-lived and forgettable Veracruz. Remember it? Exactly!

But simultaneously, there was a shorter, five-seater version that was akin to all prior Santa Fe’s in size and purpose; christened the Santa Fe Sport. In other words, the Santa Fe Sport was truly the new Santa Fe, while the Santa Fe replaced another vehicle. Confused yet? It gets worse. This all-new Santa Fe is once again a five-seater, like the original and last year’s Sport. The three-row Santa Fe continues to be sold, largely unchanged for 2019, as the newly designated Santa Fe “XL”. Don’t worry, some of the madness will end in 2020, when the recently revealed behemoth Hyundai Palisade replaces it. Even Hyundai recognizes the mayhem, and in an uncommon move, clarifies which model replaces the other on their website.

From the HyundaiUSA.com website

The new Santa Fe still overshadows the original though. At 187.8 inches in length, it is 10 inches longer, a few inches wider (as we all are), and is a hair taller. All of this growth is to make room for Hyundai’s ever-growing SUV lineup, including the Tucson, Kona, and upcoming Venue.

Generous interior accommodations are a strong suit for this Santa Fe. With 36 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, and 71 cubic feet when folded, it easily trounces the new Chevy Blazer and Nissan Murano, Those numbers do fall slightly short of the Ford Edge and crafty Honda Passport. But the space utilization has to be appreciated. The cargo floor is accessible and easy to load with a wide opening, low liftover, and usable shape. Stashed under the cargo bay are several hidden and commodious storage compartments. The rear seats do fold easily with the release of a lever and reveal an almost vanlike flat load space and high roof.

The front seats are just as generous. The dimensions for head, leg, and shoulder room dominate the Santa Fe’s competition. The measuring sticks do not lie, and the cabin does feel airy for taller folks. There’s abundant space for long limbs and unlike so many modern crossovers, the console, dash, and door panels are not intrusive. The tall roofline easily arches over with plenty of room to spare.

In the back, the feeling of spaciousness is average for this class. That’s not a bad thing, as this category is popular for its versatility and hauling abilities. A rear passenger who is over 6ft. tall can comfortably sit behind a driver who is equally lanky. Knees easily clear the front seatbacks and the headliner may as well be in the stratosphere. Uber riders will also appreciate the reclining rear split seatbacks, dual rear USB charging ports, as well as the effortless entry/exit thanks to wide door openings and natural step-in height.

The driving position and view are classic Hyundai. The corporate steering wheel that is shared with other models has straightforward controls for the radio, adaptive cruise, and Bluetooth. Most of the controls are multi-adjustable toggles, instead of being just generic buttons. They’re easier to use by touch; something Ray Charles would’ve appreciated. The wheel itself tailors for tilt and telescope and offers an array of adjustments. Gauges are simple, crisp, and easy to read at a glance. The centre info display is also borrowed from other Hyundais and offers a smartly-arranged array of driving info and personalization menus.

The seven-inch radio touchscreen follows suit with the latest tablet-style arrangement. Despite being in the driver’s line-of-sight, I’m not typically a fan of this trend as they look tacky and like a design afterthought. The Santa Fe’s does make an effort to blend in and is somewhat incorporated into the dash, instead of looking like an iPad glued on. True to form, it’s easy to see at a glance while driving. As with almost every other Hyundai, the interface is user-friendly, quick, and among the best in the business. Pairing devices is easy-peasy too. Actual knobs for volume and tuning compliment the touchscreen, a lesson some other automakers could learn. The air conditioning controls are three knobs; as uncomplicated and logical as it gets.

Visibility is good all-around with a high commanding view, decent amount of glass, and aside from the rear quarters, thinner roof pillars than last year. The new Santa Fe also comes standard with a plethora of the latest safety tech; backup camera, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, forward collision assist, safe exit assist, and, on AWD models, downhill brake control. All of this is impressive with Hyundai’s commitment to safety. Perhaps my favourite newly discovered toy is auto-hold. Developed by Mercedes-Benz a decade ago, it has trickled its way down to the mundane commuter, such as our Santa Fe. Some of you who already enjoy such luxury will roll your eyes, but it’s very exciting for this novice. At a complete stop and while shifted in drive, push the console-mounted “auto-hold” button and the brakes will hold the car in place. This prevents driver’s fatigue and is a godsent in traffic or at red lights. Sadly, there was little of either in New Mexico’s wild frontier.

Storage space is plentiful. All four doors include usable map pockets and cupholders, the centre console armrest houses a deep storage bin, the dash below the passenger airbag has a tray for small electronics, and there’s another cubby below the ventilation controls. Add the bin under the cargo bay, the seatback pocket, and standard-sized glove box, and there’s no shortage of places to hide knickknacks.

Before moving onto the drive, let’s focus on the seats. The base SE, such as ours, exhibited durable cloth and nicely sculpted side bolstering. However, the cloth insets on the seat bottoms and backrests are made from an almost unexplainable material. It felt like synthetic silk and was slippery to the touch. It looked nice esthetically, yet didn’t feel of-this-world. Perhaps Hyundai consulted some of the infamous visitors in Roswell, New Mexico for inspiration. It’s not a complaint, but was just was an odd choice of cloth that is found both front and rear, and in no other earthly car.

However, what does draw true criticism was the lumbar support in the driver’s seat. Whoever engineered the Santa’s Fe seatback was diabolical. Like… an evil James Bond villain type of diabolical. Initially, it doesn’t feel too bad and would go unnoticed during the average test drive But after each hour-plus driving stint, there was enough pressure from the seat to feel like it was carving Carlsbad Caverns into my back. As opposed to being placed to the sides in the conventional manner, the vertical stitch seam in the centre of the seatback rubbed the spine where there was little padding and the rock-hard cushions must be formed by stones fished out of the Rio Grande River. There’s no give, and even with the lumbar setting at its least aggressive position, no mercy. Be sure to spend some time driving the Santa Fe before committing to buy, as this back-breaker would almost be a deal-breaker for me. To be fair, my front passenger did not complain of any issues.

Otherwise, the interior is tastefully detailed with soft touch materials and a pleasing swatch of wood grain that runs along the dash top and covers the upper reaches of the door panel. Fake stitching on the soft plastic adds to an upscale feel on this base model, and the bubbled speaker covers are intriguing. The choice of textures and colour coordination in the cabin are truly elegant and it’s obvious Hyundai sweated over the details. Cabin noise is wonderfully hushed, with minimal wind and road noise. Aside from some engine whine at higher speeds, it’s almost chapel-like. Hyundai claims that the body is now 15% stiffer than last year and their efforts have paid off. The Santa Fe feels more expensive than its price suggests.

On the road, the Santa Fe is adequate and does what is expected of any midsize crossover. There are two four-cylinder engine choices available; a 2.4 litre and a turbocharged 2.0 litre that is available on higher trims and boasts a 50 horsepower advantage. Ours, being the base, was saddled with the 2.4 litre. Codenamed “Theta II”, this particular engine has been used on the Santa Fe since 2010, as well as the Sonata and several Kia products. It’s an all-aluminum 16-valve unit with dual-overhead cams (DOHC) that has a unique cassette-type balance shaft with a dual-stage oil pump built in. Continously variable valve timing (CVVT) works on the intake side. All of this adds up to a decent 185 horsepower. Acceleration is sufficient for this class. The performance is not blazing yet it doesn’t feel weak-kneed on the open road. Full throttle accelerations can be hampered by the auto stop-start’s jitteriness, although that feature can be overridden. With auto stop-start disabled, there is enough power on tap from a standstill and the Santa Fe does not feel strained on hills or onramps. In normal driving, the auto stop-start is not as intrusive as some units from GM or Chrysler. The 2.6 litre is rated to tow 2,000 lbs.

Teamed to every Santa Fe’s engine is a newly developed eight-speed automatic transmission. On a day-to-day basis, it offers smooth, transparent shifts and is not intrusive. Gear selections are generally well-sorted. However, it does get confused when passing or climbing a grade. With so many gears on hand, the transmission can be indecisive and had a tendency to initially choose a lower gear, only to drop to yet another moments later.

AWD is available on every Santa Fe trim, and was an unexpected surprise in ours. Unlike most systems in this class which are fully computer controlled and inhibit the driver from selecting the driving mode, Hyundai allows the differential to be locked to deliver power to both front and rear wheels. Under normal situations, it’s still computer controlled and is biased towards driving the front-wheels. But if conditions appear uncertain or the road becomes unpaved, it is possible to lock-in power evenly 50-50 to both axles, much like the setup on older Subarus. We did take the Santa Fe briefly on some gravel trails and over some dirt mounds. The AWD was flawless and tenaciously dug into the earth for grip. But with only 7.2 inches of ground clearance, the Santa Fe won’t be tackling the Rubicon Trail anytime soon or going too far off the beaten track

With New Mexico’s long stretches of straight road and only the occasional sweeping curve, we didn’t get too many chances to test the Santa Fe’s handling dynamics. From what we could tell on some squiggly offramps, the body felt decently composed with no lean. But the front tyres hinted at losing grip prematurely if pushed. Steering turn-in also seemed slow on curves, requiring more effort than expected. In other circumstances, feedback was communicative regardless of speed thanks to the traditional motor-driven power steering. The Santa Fe felt compact enough in tight parking maneuvers. Although no sports car, the performance of this SUV is adequate for its intended purpose.

The suspension is a traditional setup, but has a nice European feel. Up front are MacPherson struts and in the back is multi-link setup. The ride is taut and firm, yet bumps are absorbed with grace quickly. Though not softly-sprung, only the largest of road imperfections made themselves noticed in the cabin.

It may be difficult to the untrained eye to spot the visual differences of the all-new 2019 Santa Fe versus last year’s Sport. As before, the classic midsize SUV proportions remain intact, and the rear styling echoes the last generation. There’s only so much designers can do with the bluntness of any SUV’s tail end. Blinkers that are located in the bumper are unique and mimic the equally-new Kia Forte. My only concern is that their visibility may not be as obvious to other drivers as the traditionally placed bulbs. The side profile is more upright than before and the windshield more perpendicular, hinting at the Bentley Bentayga’s greenhouse. The flatter hood enforces a more muscular and purposeful look than last year. Overall, it’s handsome until we get to the front, which is a subject of debate. Much like the Nissan Juke, former Jeep Cherokee, and Hyundai’s own Kona, the Santa Fe now has a squinty face with narrow LED accents placed where the headlights would typically be. The headlights are located lower to the sides of the bumper, adjacent to the foglights. A large hexagonal grille forms much of the front fascia. Jeep and Nissan have since moved on from this style, so Hyundai deserves credit for pushing the theme. With so many different light placements, it does seem to uncomfortably break some innate human relationship when looking at a car face-to-face.

As an observation, I’m thrilled to see that Hyundai has retained the same funky Santa Fe badge, including a Zia sun, that has been used since the original in 2001. The badge was initially used to pay homage to the New Mexico city and represent a change in Hyundai’s lineup. The unique logo provides a sense of reflection and familiarity with the Santa Fe’s history.

The EPA rates the 2.4 liter AWD Santa Fe at 21mpg city and 27mpg highway. We easily surpassed those numbers with 34mpg on the highway, and averaged 31mpg over the course of 600 miles. That included 75mph freeway jaunts, mountain grades, and also scooting around the city streets of Albuquerque. For an SUV with the Santa Fe’s size and capabilities, these numbers were pleasing.

Our test car was brand new with only 6 miles on the odometer when we grabbed the keys. Everything worked perfectly and there were no defects or lose trim. The only issue was a rattle in the left dash over rougher pavement. Despite my best efforts, the cause could not be located.

Starting at $25,750, the base Santa Fe SE is incredible value by offering standard 17-inch alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, air conditioning, LED daytime running lights, a rearview camera, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a 7-inch display screen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, four USB ports (two front and two rear) and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player. Standard safety features include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a driver attention warning to prevent drowsy driving, forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, and Hyundai’s Safe Exit Assist, which will temporarily prevent your door from opening if a vehicle is approaching from behind. Our SE had one option; the AWD which adds $1,700 to the bottom line. Once the destination charge was added, our quartz white Santa Fe totaled $28,495. Given the features, safety tech, long warranty, and versatility of the Santa Fe, the price is unmatched by its competitors.

Hyundai has evolved rapidly since the days when price was their main drawcard. Sure, the Santa Fe still plays that angle in this crowded segment. But unlike before, there’s true value here. It isn’t the class leader in any particular skill. But it doesn’t do anything badly either, aside from the literal pain-in-the-a** seats. It’s at least adequate in everything that’s required of it, excellent in some regards, and all of it comes together in a package that seems effortless to own. The amount of gear and tech that it’s equipped with was once reserved for high-end luxury cars or unimaginable a decade ago. Like the city that shares the name, the Santa Fe is endearing and a pleasant place to spend time. It’s a logical choice for logical people in a logical segment. A solid 3.5/5.0 boomerangs

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