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2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Review: Punching Above Its Weight Class

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Auto123 reviews the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe.

The Hyundai Santa Fe is one crossover not to be trifled with. What started out as a quirky -- but above all, inexpensive -- alternative to the likes of the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V back in the early 2000s has become a sales behemoth and nicely styled, well-equipped crossover vehicle. In other words the Santa Fe of today is far removed from the one offered all those years ago - and you can tell that just from looking at it.

Far from the plasticky, nebulous thing it once was, the Santa Fe now shows a very unique and distinctive front fascia that includes triangle-shaped grille openings, DRLs mounted above that on the leading edge of the hood and the headlights – projector LEDs on my Calligraphy variant – mounted below those on either side of a grille. This was a look we first saw when the latest-gen Santa Fe debuted back in 2019, but the whole affair has been refined even further after a facelift for ’21.

That facelift has changed the headlight shape to better integrate them with the grille and added new front and rear skid plates and new wheels. And for the most part, I like it; what I’m not so sure about is the wheel design. They are 19-inchers – the largest size you can get – but they still appear a little small, and while their design recalls the monobloc look from older Mercedes-AMG vehicles, that is a very unique style and one I’m not sure works all that well here. I think I would have preferred something with narrower spokes and mostly silver finish, but unfortunately, this is the only design you can get for the top-spec Calligraphy trim ($47,499 MSRP, compared to the model’s base MSRP of $31,399).

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2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, profile
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, profile

Speaking of the Calligraphy, it is all new for 2021, and while it does add interior bits like body-coloured wing mirrors, tinted windows, black and chrome grille and LED taillights, it is far more than just a nip n’ tuck package.

It also adds an all-new 2.5L turbocharged four-cylinder that provides 277 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque as well as an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) for quicker shifting and better fuel efficiency. That’s a lot of under-hood grunt and tech, and I was keen to see how it felt off the paper, and on the road in the rear world.

First, allow me to take you around the interior which is of a quality not usual for this segment. This is higher-end, in fact it delivers a near-luxury experience.

Looking at the exterior points to the current Santa Fe being no also-ran in its segment, and looking at the interior confirms it. The Calligraphy trim adds real Nappa leather seating surfaces with diamond stitch inserts that look spectacular, leather-wrapped heated steering wheel with audio controls, 10.25-in infotainment display and heads-up display. That’s in addition to what the lower-spec Luxury Hybrid model offers such as a 12.3-in digital gauge cluster.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, interior
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, interior

It’s an incredibly inviting place to be, but an ultra-modern and techy-looking one as well. Clutter’s also been reduced thanks to a button-activated transmission, but there remain quite a few buttons on the centre stack, which I’m happy to report are nicely-sized, well-aligned and easy to read. Clutter is reduced even here, however, by making the single wheel control able to toggle between off-road modes and drive modes, so you don’t need separate sets of controls for each.

In addition to looking clean, the front seating area is roomy and those great-looking seats aren’t just for show, they’re nicely padded and supportive as well. Since it is a shift-by-wire system, there’s additional storage below the transmission tunnel so you can store items there nicely out of sight. It’s not a huge area, but it is close to one of four on-board USB ports, all of the USB-A variety and there’s also a 115V outlet in the back. Wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and charging are also all hear, with the charge pad able to cool your phone as it charges.

Not relaxed enough as you drive? Stuck in traffic? Go ahead and make use of the Sounds of Nature app, which uses the 12-speaker harman/kardon audio system to pump in relaxing sounds of rain patter, waves crashing or even the lively chatter of a coffee shop. It’s a feature I felt was superfluous at first, but now when I drive cars that don’t have it, I miss it.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, three-quarters front
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, three-quarters front

All that is well and good, but is it all window dressing? Anybody can drop a sparkly screen and install some cool apps in a car, but is it done in an effort to cover up a less-than-stellar ride? “Yeah, it’s bumpy. But look at this great high def screen with an app that pumps relaxing forest sounds into the cabin!”

The Santa Fe quickly put those concerns to rest; this is one well-engineered and well-put-together crossover.

Power from the 2.5L turbo engine is generous, as mentioned before, and the powertrain makes good use of the DCT to get the power down quickly. There’s even a set of paddle shifters, if that’s your kind of thing; I didn’t find myself using them that often.

The power delivery is such that it feels like there’s more power there than what’s claimed by the manufacturer, which is always a good thing and means I never was left wanting when it came to quickly accelerating to get through an intersection or passing when at highway speeds.

Which is likely just the ticket for most buyers; they want power to be confidence-inspiring – which it is – and that’s good enough. More important is the ride and handling, because those are the aspects of any given drive that speak directly to what it’s like to live with a vehicle on the day-to-day.

Those looking for a smooth, controlled ride will likely be impressed with what the Santa Fe offers. Most every bump except the harshest manhole covers and the like are hardly felt in the cabin, as the damper and bushing work do a great job of insulating the cabin. I couldn’t believe how smooth it was and having since tested the all-new Tucson, I can tell that Hyundai has really managed to hone the ride of their various SUVs and CUVs to perfection. It’s most definitely a ride befitting the “Calligraphy” name.

Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy 2021, avant
Photo: D.Heyman
Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy 2021, avant

There are also a host of different powertrain and AWD settings and driver aids to provide the most confidence-inspiring drive possible over a multitude of surfaces and in a number of conditions. Most drivers in Canada will likely stick mainly with the Smart and Snow drive modes, but the fact that there’s both a Race and a Sand mode suggests that this Santa Fe is up for a little more than simply the daily grind.

While there are a bunch of drive-assist systems, from lane keep assist to adaptive cruise control and so on, the highlight for me is the way either side of the gauge cluster becomes a blind spot camera as soon as you activate your turn indicator. It’s a very helpful system – just make sure you continue to shoulder check!

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is a great mix of interior luxury and tech, power, capability and practicality. It’s SUV-ing done right. You may have your loyalties – to Honda, to Toyota, to GM – and that’s fine but if you don’t and you’re starting from scratch with a blank canvas, the Santa Fe is a can’t-go-wrong.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, three-quarters rear

We like

Interior comfort and tech
Gutsy turbo power
Richly featured infotainment
    
We like less

Lack of wheel choice
Audio could be a little more punchy

The competition

Chevrolet Equinox
Ford Escape
GMC Terrain
Honda CR-V / Passport
Jeep Cherokee
Kia Sportage
Mazda CX-5
Mitsubishi Outlander
Nissan Rogue
Toyota RAV4
Volkswagen Tiguan

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, rear

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Photos:D.Heyman
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