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2019 Hyundai Santa Fe: First Drive Review

The SUV market is sort of like the wild, wild West, as there are many contenders all trying to stake a claim in the segment. Hyundai is no different, with its new 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe, and their choice of the former mining town of Park City, Utah, as a home base to test it in. The seasonal ski resort town, which is also home to the Sundance Film Festival, offered a great chance to put this fourth-generation SUV through its paces. While here, we experienced thin air and high altitudes that will leave you positively giddy. Or that could have been caused by the Santa Fe.

We’ll cut to the chase. The Santa Fe is definitely not an also-ran, but there is a tiny bit of room for more. This vastly improved SUV now competes against the Ford Edge, the Nissan Murano, the Jeep Cherokee, the Subaru Outback, the Kia Sorento and the Chevrolet Blazer.

The 2019 Santa Fe comes to market with a totally new body, giving it a more mature, premium-looking appearance with better quality equipment, inside and out. Bigger, better and lighter, the exterior features a bold new Kona-inspired cascading waterfall-style grille, complete with daylight running lights that reside above stacked headlights, a la Jeep Cherokee. The Santa Fe’s bumpers now include air curtains to trim air turbulence over the front wheels. It will be available in five trim levels ranging from base SE, SEL, SEL Plus, Limited and Ultimate luxury models. The 2019 Santa Fe model replaces the Santa Fe Sport, while a newer Santa Fe XL will take the spot formerly occupied by the 2018 Santa Fe.

The new Santa Fe is much quieter than the outgoing model, thanks to new lighter-weight insulating material. Overall it feels as though the Santa Fe has trimmed down to the tune of 88.1 pounds. Gone is the heavier insulation found in previous versions. As a result, occupants will find a quieter noise-isolating interior.

Getting Along
There are now two 4-cylinder engine choices, starting with the base 2.4-liter GDI 185-horsepower engine that makes 178 lb-ft of torque. The more desirable engine will be the 2.0-liter Turbo GDI 235-hp 4-cylinder engine with 260 lb-ft of torque. Both are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual shift functionality. The Santa Fe now offers three drive modes, including Comfort, Smart (nee’ ECO) and Sport drive modes.

The 8-speed transmission, in addition to having two more gears for added fuel efficiency, is now a smoother operator. This new Hyundai is normally a front-drive-based system, but it is now available with an HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. The AWD system actively distributes power between the front and rear wheels as needed, totally on the fly, via sensors that monitor the road at a rate up to 100 times per second. Eventually, it settles back into front-drive mode once cruise speed has been achieved. Torque distribution can vary from a standard 50:50 (F:R) split all the way to a 65:35 bias while in the Sports Drive Mode.

Our red test vehicle with black interior was smartly appointed with high-quality materials, including a grainy sandpaper-inspired headliner that is unusual and attractive at the same time. The black monochrome leather interior had a closed-in feeling that looked a lot better in the lighter two-tone color scheme. Opening the panoramic sunshade made the interior appear much larger, where the attention to detail became much more evident. That same detail exudes quality all the way down to the gauges on the TFT screen and the forward-looking color head-up display.

From a seating standpoint, Hyundai seems to have done their homework. Gone are the days when a driver needed a backside massage following a stint of two hours or more in a Hyundai driver’s seat. Instead, we are dealing with seat cushions that offer more backside support than ever before. In back, a 60/40-split bench seat with push-button releases folds to accommodate skis and other gear for a day on the slopes. There is also a cargo underfloor storage tray and a hidden compartment. In order to take it all out (or to stuff it in), there is a 2-speed automatic hatch opener that allows for hands-free opening or closing as required.

Infotainment is top-shelf with the new 8-inch multimedia navigation system that includes HD radio traffic and info. The Infinity premium audio system includes 12 speakers and a subwoofer with Harman Clari-Fi music restoration technology. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are also here, and Hyundai’s BlueLink system now features smart watch and Alexa integration.

Safety doesn’t take a back seat with the Santa Fe, either. Standard features include forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring, a 4-stage lane-keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert, safe-exit assists that alert if cars are coming from behind as passengers exit the vehicle, high-beam assists, Smart Cruise control with stop and go and driver-attention warning. New for this year is Hyundai’s rear occupant alert to remind of a child or pet in the rear seat. It begins texting you, and sending other alerts to your mobile phone, should you forget.

Mountain Goating
Behind the wheel of the Santa Fe, we found a stout performer in the 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Extremely quiet under normal operations, it offered the perfect amount of power on level roadways and didn’t raise a ruckus while cruising on most of Utah’s interstate highways.

It wasn’t until we began to pass a tractor-trailer on a severely graded mountain incline at an altitude of around 7,000 feet above sea level that the smallish 4-cylinder expressed its displeasure by squawking a bit as we made our way past the multi-axled tandem big-rigs dotting the highway. We finally got there, but we did wish the little engine had the proper guts to push past the truck in a more rapid fashion.

Off-roading was impressive, as the Santa Fe seemed to smooth out what would have been a washboard-type surface for other vehicles. It was even more impressive while the torque vectoring kicked in just as the wheels started to sense some wheel slippage; it quickly recovered once the system engaged.

The Santa Fe’s road feel is much better than previous years, thanks to its improved suspension with more upright shock towers and around 15.4 percent increased torsional rigidity over the 2018 version. This enabled the Santa Fe to show off cornering abilities and an overall ride quality both on paved and gravel roads, which did not exist in the previous version. Desire for more power from the 2.0T engine aside, it’s such an improvement that we think if Genesis were to build an SUV, this would be it.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe MSRP
Santa Fe SE: $25,500
Santa Fe SEL: $27,600
Santa Fe SEL Plus: $29,800
Santa Fe Limited: $32,600
Santa Fe Ultimate: $35,450
HTRAC AWD: (add) $1,700
Destination: $980

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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