First Drive: 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe is a Viable Crossover Contender

August 31, 2018 by John O'Dell

Dusty gravel trails were no cause for detour, altitude didn’t leave it gasping and wet roads didn’t bother its grip. Hyundai’s redesigned 2019 Santa Fe compact crossover handled it all without breaking stride.

On a recent 180-mile trip through Utah high country around the resorts of Park City and Sundance, the new Santa Fe showed that Hyundai can stand tall in the crowded compact crossover category.

The Santa Fe’s always been a price leader when compared to similarly sized crossovers from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, Jeep, Ford and General Motors. The new Santa Fe also competes on features, quality, drivability, comfort and performance.

Granted, the 2019 Santa Fe isn’t an off-road capable SUV like the Jeep Wrangler, despite the all-wheel drive system available across all five trim levels. But most crossovers aren’t true trailblazing SUVs. They are designed to give an elevated view of the road, space for bulky cargo and the clearance necessary to tackle the occasional dirt road.

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe disappoints only on fuel economy. Neither of its two four-cylinder engine choices sparkles in efficiency comparisons. Even the Santa Fe’s new eight-speed automatic transmission doesn’t help.

But Hyundai doesn’t think crossover buyers these days will worry much about a mile or two per gallon, and for those who do, Hyundai is planning a diesel version and at least one electrified model.

Executives at the recent Santa Fe press preview in Utah wouldn’t offer specifics, but hints they dropped point at a standard gas-electric hybrid model on the near horizon and possibly a plug-in hybrid to follow.

“It will be very competitive,” George Peterson, president of industry research firm AutoPacific, told “It’s better than much of the competition in terms of quality and is loaded with features while still being a value proposition.”


The Santa Fe gets a new body for 2019. It’s made with copious amounts of high-strength steel for improved crash safety (not yet tested by regulators) and ride quality. Its exterior and interior design are new, as is the standard eight-speed automatic and a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine option for upper trim levels.

Hyundai didn’t stint on standard equipment for the 2019 Santa Fe. Ultimate trim level is depicted. (Photo: Hyundai)

There’s also new nomenclature. The new Santa Fe — a two-row, five-passenger SUV — is what used to be called the Santa Fe Sport. Last year’s three-row, seven-passenger Santa Fe carries over, for one-year only, as the 2019 Santa Fe XL. A new larger crossover will replace it for the 2020 model year but reportedly won’t use the Santa Fe name.

Previous generations of the Santa Fe — Hyundai has sold 1.6 million worldwide since its introduction in 2000 — looked more like downsized minivans with sloping noses and canted rear tailgates for a sporty appearance.

The 2019 Santa Fe is designed to look like a muscular SUV. It has an upright grille and a squared-off rear roofline and tailgate. It is a tad lower and wider, and 2 inches longer than the previous model, giving it loads of legroom. Front and rear overhangs are shorter and ride quality better thanks to a 2.6-inch stretch in the wheelbase.

Trim Levels and Pricing

The 2019 Santa Fe comes in five trims. The base front-wheel drive SE starts at $26,485 including Hyundai’s $985 destination fee. The SEL is $28,785; the SEL Plus, $30,785; the Limited, $33,585 and the line-topping ultimate starts at $36,435.

Options are limited — chief among them are a $1,700 AWD system available in all trims and a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine available only on the Limited and Ultimate trims, for a $1,650 premium.

The rear view, often overlooked by car designers, should make a nice impression on Santa Fe followers

The rear view, often overlooked by car designers, should make a nice impression on Santa Fe followers. (Photo: Hyundai)

Engines and Transmissions

The base engine for all 2019 Santa Fe models is a naturally aspirated, 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 185 peak horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. The eight-speed transmission is specifically geared to enhance its capabilities.

An optional 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with its own tuning of the eight-speed automatic is available on the Limited and Ultimate trims. The turbo is rated at 235 horsepower and 260 pound-feet.

Fuel Economy

The Environmental Protection Agency rates all 2019 Santa Fe trims with front-wheel drive and the standard 2.4-liter engine at 22 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway and 25 mpg combined. All-wheel-drive trims with the 2.0-liter turbo are rated at 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 22 combined.

Adding Hyundai’s H-Trac AWD system cuts fuel economy to 21/27/23 for the base engine and 19/24/21 for the turbo.

Standard Features

The base Santa Fe SE is well-equipped, with Bluetooth phone and audio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, a 7-inch color infotainment screen, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision mitigation, lane-keeping system and full-range adaptive cruise control.

The SEL ladles on more, including 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, fog lights, heated front seats, satellite radio and the Hyundai Blue Link connected car system. The SEL Plus adds hands-free, dual-speed liftgate, dual-zone automatic climate control, Hyundai’s motion-monitoring rear-occupant alert system and a 12-speaker stereo system.

Limited and Ultimate trim levels get leather interiors, LED headlights, taillights and fog lamps, a dual-pane panoramic sunroof and an upgraded 8-inch infotainment screen.

Unique to the Ultimate are ventilated front seats, a driver seat memory system, 8.5-inch head-up display, Qi wireless charging pad and a surround-view camera system.

The Santa Fe offers 35.9 cubic feet of cargo bay, 71.3 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. And there’s hidden storage beneath the cargo floor. (Photo: Hyundai)

On the Road

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe provides the quiet and comfortable ride expected from a much c more expensive luxury crossover. It’s even quiet outside — on one section of high mountain a herd of sheep walking on asphalt seemed oblivious as the Santa Fe crept past.

  • s.fe xl gallery5
  • s.fe sport gallery1

It is no rocket, but the 2.0-liter turbo performed well at the 7,000- to 10,000-foot elevations around Park City and likely would be better closer to sea level.

The eight-speed transmission is silky smooth, but steering was a bit numb — although no more than with other electronically assisted systems. It tightened nicely, though, in Sport mode, one of three driver selectable modes that come with the AWD system. The others are Comfort and Smart, tuned for fuel efficiency.

Except for Sport mode’s tighter steering, quicker pedal response and full-time AWD function (it sends 35 percent of the torque rearward), there wasn’t much difference among them.

The AWD system does a decent job of controlling wheel spin and sending torque to the corners where it’s needed most. It felt secure on loose gravel and dirt roads as well as on rain-slicked asphalt.

Though not a true off-roader, the 2019 Santa Fe with AWD did prove capable of hauling itself up a very steep, slightly muddy and rock-strewn dirt trail near the 10,000-foot elevation.

Visibility is great, and thanks to an improved suspension system, the ride is smooth and body roll negligible when pushing things around tight corners.

Last Words

Hyundai’s come a long way since the early days of its reviled Excel sedan, and the 2019 Santa Fe showcases the automaker’s progress.

The SEL Plus will probably be the top-selling trim because of its lavish features at a relatively low price, but the 2.0-liter turbo in the Limited and Ultimate trims is more fun to drive. Too bad Hyundai didn’t make it available across the board as it does with AWD.

There’s an awful lot to like in the new Santa Fe.

Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, attended an event where Hyundai Motor America hosted travel and lodging.

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