Looking at the fourth-generation 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe, what you initially observe is a well-contented, value-packed vehicle with solid fuel economy and that terrific Hyundai warranty. Look a little closer and what you really see is the future of Hyundai. Historically a builder of primarily passenger cars, Hyundai is turning its sights on trucks, and for good reason: Trucks are outselling cars, at least in the American market.
Sales have been sluggish for this Korean carmaker for more than a year. Through the first seven months of 2018, total sales were down more than 2.5 percent. The issue has been declining passenger-car sales throughout the industry. Hyundai’s portfolio is car heavy when compared to many other automakers. During that 7-month period, its car sales were down nearly 17 percent. That outweighed the nearly 24 percent uptick in the brand’s truck sales during the same period to produce an overall loss in year-over-year numbers. The solution: Hyundai needs a stronger truck footprint.
Aware of this weakness, Hyundai is turning its attention to trucks. A pickup is still in its near future, and the completely redesigned 2019 Santa Fe — which replaces the current Santa Fe Sport — is the most serious SUV the company has ever launched. Far from abandoning the passenger-car business (as the recently released, better-than-ever 2019 Veloster demonstrates), Hyundai is pivoting to trucks to increase its appeal to the American audience. That means more and better trucks. Hyundai promises three additional crossovers by 2021. Oh, and then there’s that pickup.
Across the board, the goal of designers and engineers was to make the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe more of an SUV than previous models. In developing the structure, planners increased the use of high-strength steel to 67 percent – a 14-percent increase over the 2018 model. Torsional stiffness is up 15.4 percent. There are also some additional support pieces here and there.
Today’s airliners are mostly held together by structural adhesives. Hyundai upped its use of structural adhesives by 45 percent to nearly 400 feet of the stuff. This not only makes for better structural integrity, but it also reduced the 2019 Santa Fe’s weight by 52 pounds. All of these improvements conspire to reduce flex, body roll and increase cabin integrity, enhancing passenger safety and increase overall toughness.
Covering that stiffer, more durable structure is a wrapper more befitting an SUV. Designers erased any semblance of being car-like. Arguably the greatest styling transformation is appreciated looking at the Sante Fe’s face. Here a bigger, more aggressive chain-mail cascading grille is flanked by fog lights the size of dinner plates. Flaring out on each side at the top of the grille are narrow snake-eye headlights similar to those on the Jeep Cherokee.
The stance is wider, making the new Sante Fe appear more planted. Chiseled sides and a somewhat boxy look overall make this crossover seem more rugged. Toss in the optional 19-in wheels and the package screams "capable!"
Where Rubber Meets the Road
A new Hyundai-designed 8-speed automatic transmission translates engine output to the wheels. Adding ratio range at both ends of the spectrum, the new tranny increases thrust from a standstill, as well as saving fuel at speed. It also oversees the HTRAC all-wheel-drive system (available for every trim level). A 3-mode system (Normal, Sport and Smart), has more to do with weather conditions than road surfaces, but it is, after all, a crossover.
Hyundai has made the AWD system predictive rather than reactive. Taking into account several factors, such as speed, steering angle and so forth, it engages the rear wheels before actual front-wheel slip occurs.
Off-roading on our initial drive in the renovated Santa Fe consisted mostly of gravel trails near Park City, Utah. Truth be told, this isn’t a vehicle bred for rock crawling, but it performed well on the loose gravel whether on hills or flat terrain.
What it means to you: Wranglers and 4Runners have nothing to fear from Sante Fe, but Hyundai is becoming more serious about trucks. Whether this newfound seriousness ever reaches the point of true off-road capability remains to be seen; however, in the meantime, the 2019 Santa Fe certainly looks the part.