By Derek Price
It only takes a short time driving the new-for-2019 Hyundai Santa Fe to realize one thing: this vehicle isn’t satisfied to be known as a “value leader” any more.
Hyundai has long packed its cars and crossovers with an overabundance of content to woo buyers at every price point, a strategy that — along with higher quality products — has helped lift this Korean brand out of the economy-car doldrums and into mainstream prosperity.
Something about the next-generation Santa Fe, though, feels like it’s reached an entirely new level.
This is no longer a vehicle you’d buy simply because it’s a good deal, although Hyundai still stuffs it full of features-per-dollar as aggressively as ever.
To me, after driving it on the winding country roads north of Hyundai’s factory in Montgomery, Ala., the Santa Fe feels like it’s targeting premium buyers like never before.
It’s evident in the quiet, smooth and refreshingly taut ride that shows meticulous attention to detail, particularly on the top-end Ultimate trim with its extra sound insulation and acoustic laminated glass. Few vehicles outside luxury-brand showrooms drive with this silence and poise.
It’s also obvious in the technology Hyundai developed for the Santa Fe, including a couple of features I’ve never experienced in any car before.
One, Rear Occupant Alert, uses a motion detector to sense movement in the back seat when the car is parked. If it detects movement from a pet or a child when the doors are closed, it will honk the horn and send a message to the owner’s smartphone.
The other, Safe Exit Assist, uses the vehicle’s radar sensors to detect cars that are passing nearby while you’re parked on the street. It gives a visual and audible alert if a passenger opens the door when a vehicle is approaching.
It also takes things an ingenious step further. If the sensors detect an approaching car, it will not allow the child safety lock to be disengaged until the approaching car has passed. This could potentially keep children from opening the door and stepping out into oncoming traffic.
The Santa Fe’s fresh body seems to have split personalities, and I think the overall look works well. It’s attractive without being ostentatious.
On one side, it’s definitely sportier looking with sleek, squinty LED lights up front that could have been stolen straight from a pricey European sports sedan.
On the flip side, the overall shape is boxier and more SUV-like than before. In fact, Hyundai never uses the term “crossover” to describe the Santa Fe. They call it an SUV, despite its car-based underpinnings.
It has a hint of SUV capability with available all-wheel drive and the capacity to tow up to 3,500 pounds when properly equipped.
Really, though, the new Santa Fe seems designed more for refined on-road excursions than wild adventures.
The cabin has more storage space and better visibility than before. It’s also possible to outfit it much like a luxury car, if you choose, with heated and cooled leather seats, a heads-up display, and one of the better designed touch-screen interfaces on the market.
All trim levels, including the base SE model, come with a suite of active safety features designed to stop collisions and make driving easier, including smart cruise control that can bring the vehicle to a complete stop and then restart in city traffic.
It also comes standard with lane-keeping assist, blind-spot sensors and other safety features.
Pricing starts at $25,500 for the two-wheel-drive SE with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and tops out at $38,800 for the all-wheel-drive Ultimate with a more powerful turbocharged engine and amenity-filled cabin.
At A Glance
What was tested?
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe Ultimate 2.0T AWD ($38,800). Options: Carpeted floor mats ($125). Price as tested (including $980 destination charge): $39,905
Wheelbase: 108.9 in.
Length: 187.8 in.
Width: 74.4 in.
Height: 67.1 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (235 hp, 260 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 city, 24 highway
Why buy it?