By Derek Price
Hyundai is upping the appeal of its Santa Fe crossover with an all-new hybrid powertrain this year.
It’s an alluring option for people who want good gas mileage along with bang-for-the-buck value. My tester, a loaded Limited model with leather seats and a luxury-car level of driving aids, rang up around $40,000, making it one of the best bargains I’ve driven recently.
Purely in terms of fuel economy, the Santa Fe doesn’t stack up to a number of hybrid competitors. The federal government rates it at a combined 32 mpg in city and highway driving, a nice leap over the 24-mpg rating of its gas-only, all-wheel-drive cousin.
The Toyota RAV4 Hybrid carries a 40-mpg combined rating, though, while the Honda CR-V Hybrid hits 38.
In comparison, this new Hyundai shines in things that are harder to quantify: smoothness and sophistication.
To me, the Santa Fe feels like a more premium product than either the Honda or Toyota competitors. It responds faster and accelerates more authoritatively — admittedly not high on the priority list for hybrid shoppers — but also has a supremely quiet cabin that makes highway rides impressively pleasant, especially for this price point.
Switching between electric and gasoline power feels seamless, whether mashing the gas pedal at a green light or merging in highway traffic. It doesn’t have the anemic feeling that some hybrids suffer from for the sake of fuel economy.
All versions of the Santa Fe get a noticeable update for 2021 with a fresh look in the front and back, plus more standard equipment. The cabin also is cleaner now thanks to a new center stack and console design with electronic buttons to control the transmission.
Quilted Nappa leather gives the interior a high-end look. Coupled with a new design for door inserts and a suede-like headliner, the overall impression leaves more of a “wow” factor than most competitors at this price point.
So does the technology.
The latest Santa Fe comes with all the requisite driver-convenience goodies either standard or optional. Hyundai’s Highway Drive Assist is so refined that it feels almost like the vehicle can drive itself, even though the driver needs to maintain full attention for safety.
Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both available this year to make connecting smartphones easier. Even more impressive is the ability to pull forward or backward into parking spaces by remote control, making this the only vehicle in the segment with that capability.
Overall, the Santa Fe looks and feels more like a smaller version of the plush, outstanding Palisade SUV. The hybrid version draws even more comparisons with its silent acceleration.
Pricing starts at $33,650 for the Blue trim. The more full-featured SEL Premium is priced at $37,600, while the Limited tops the lineup at $39,950.
The gasoline-only Santa Fe starts at $27,000 and tops out at $42,450 for the fancy new Calligraphy trim with 20-inch wheels.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD ($39,950). Options: Cream white paint ($350), carpeted floor mats ($155). Price as tested (including $1,185 destination charge): $41,640
Wheelbase: 108.9 in.
Length: 188.4 in.
Width: 74.8 in.
Height: 66.3 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine plus 44-kW electric motor (combined 225 hp, 195 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 33 city, 30 highway
Why buy it?
It’s a smooth, sophisticated two-row crossover. The new hybrid powertrain delivers better fuel economy without sacrificing much performance.