Hyundai is giving the so-called top tier manufacturers legitimate cause for concern as they gain increasing market share. Hyundai is doing so by steadily upping the ante. With each iteration of a vehicle they bring out, Hyundai delivers closer and closer to what’s available from the likes of Honda and Toyota. Their angle has always been more for less. More features, less price. But if you’ve ever driven a Hyundai in the past, you’ll know there was something about them that felt a little “off.” It could be odd button placement, hollow-feeling plastic coverings, buzzy motors. Not bad necessarily, just “off.”
With that in mind, let me start my review with the Santa Fe. Honda, Toyota, VW: Meet your match. Hyundai just reached parity. The Santa Fe is uncompromisingly good.
Take in the styling. It’s contemporary, strong, and elegant. It’s lost that last element of Hyundai style that didn’t quite work in North America. With your well-weighted key in your pocket, approach the door handle and be greeted with automatically illuminating handles. Push the button on the handle to unlock the Santa Fe, get in, and you’ll find the seats are eminently comfortable. The interior is beautifully designed and well put together. Hard, hollow plastics are hidden away and hard to find. The shifter has weight, and feels cold to the touch as if it might be metal. The roof is all glass. The seats are heated and cooled. Even the rear seats are heated. Everything is exactly as it should be. Nothing here feels “off” at all.
I could spend hundreds of words describing all the features on my Limited-spec tester. Sunshades, adjustable steering feel, heating steering wheel, touch-screen nav… the list goes on. It’s a what’s-what of vehicle options these days. Top out the Santa Fe and you’ll want for nothing.
Push the button to start the motor and the only thing you notice is the absence of sound. The Santa Fe is incredibly quiet. It’s small-for-its-class 2.0L four cylinder motor has the latest trends in efficiency-boosting technologies: direct injection coupled with a turbocharger, which means you can’t judge it by its size. 2.0L in this motor makes 264hp and 269lb-ft of torque. That’s the sort of power you’d expect from a motor almost twice its size just a few years ago.
Driving the Santa Fe is a treat. It’s got a sporty feeling suspension and the vehicle feels tight as a drum. It lacks some of the suspension refinement of others — ahem, Mazda CX-5 — but unless you’re a hooligan, you’ll likely never notice. The brakes are great, notably so, so the Santa Fe remains composed under heavy breaking. Overall, the Santa Fe inspires confidence with the way it rides.
Still, it’s the Santa Fe’s turbo motor that is the real showpiece. It makes this sizeable crossover properly quick, and immediately scrubs from your mind any feeling that an SUV of this size would need a six cylinder motor. The power is addictive. So much so, in fact, that I was unable to get near the claimed fuel economy numbers, even with the car’s Active ECO mode on. Unlike other recent CUVs, where good mileage was fairly easy to achieve, the Santa Fe didn’t seem to be as willing to post good figures. I do attribute a big part of this to the fact that the car begs you to be heavy-footed and that I was happy to oblige.
The other area that I think contributes to poorer gas mileage is the transmission. It’s a very crisp-shifting six-speed automatic, which seemed to be overly-eager to downshift and felt a little too aggressive when doing so. Comfort definitely seemed to take a back seat to performance. On the highway, with the slightest provocation, it would drop a gear, sometimes two, and thrust the Santa Fe forward. Addictive, sure, but by the end of the week its over-eagerness was my only major complaint. It’s the first time I’ve ever been disappointed with an automatic transmission for being too sporty.
With Santa Fe’s refinement and available features you can actually cross-shop it with some pretty serious competitors (think Lexus). The Santa Fe will seem like a steal at $38,499, fully loaded. I haven’t driven the base model, but if the fundamentals are there (quiet cabin, good road manners) then, based on price, it also makes sense to shop the Santa Fe against the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, which are smaller vehicles and more directly comparable with Hyundai’s Tucson.
The Santa Fe is a real milestone vehicle for Hyundai, in my humble opinion. It’s the first Hyundai I felt was truly better than the competition with price taken out of the equation. If you’re looking for an SUV, or a crossover, make sure it’s on your list.