2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Test: Efficient Luxury on a Budget

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid Test: Efficient Luxury on a Budget

11/25/2021

As SUVs from Genesis win comparisons and our highest accolades, parent company Hyundai found a bit of white space to elevate its own vehicles. That’s evidenced by the Santa Fe, the 2021 refresh of which prompted several of our editors to describe it with a word not often associated with Hyundai: luxury.

They’re not wrong. Higher trim levels of this midsize crossover will satisfy drivers who seek comfort and quality but prioritize value over badge cachet. In our experience the hybrid powertrain exemplifies that better than the quicker and more powerful 2.5T engine. The Santa Fe Hybrid earns few instrumented advantages, but we still prefer it.

No, It’s Not as Quick

The Santa Fe Hybrid is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4 engine paired with an electric motor, which together produce 226 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. That’s sent through a six-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels via standard all-wheel drive, which enables a zero-to-60-mph time of 8.2 seconds. Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana says that the “electric motor provides good pull off the line, but the gas engine is just adequate.”

That contrasts the available turbocharged 2.5-liter I-4, which makes a robust 277 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque distributed to optional AWD after an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic. With it, we measured a 6.2-second 0-60 mph sprint. That two-second difference is appreciable, as is the 2.5T’s 3.1-second 45-65 mph passing time, markedly quicker than the hybrid’s 4.3-second result.

Yet uncouth manners vex the 2.5T powertrain. Its gearbox has been a constant pain point; we called out its inescapable “lack of refinement” in our First Test, and we’re learning to live with it in the mechanically similar Kia Sorento SX in our long-term review fleet. Low-speed stutters and vibrations seem intrinsic to its dual-clutch construction.

No such issues with the hybrid’s six-speed. It cooperates nicely with the electric motor to provide smooth departures and shifts once underway. Unlike the dual-clutch, it’s not at all obtrusive. Six ratios isn’t an exceptional count by today’s standards, but it works here.

No, It Doesn’t Handle as Well

Just like on the drag strip, the Santa Fe Hybrid can’t match the 2.5T model in our handling tests. On the skidpad, it held on to 0.79 g average, while the 2.5T did the same at 0.83 g. On the figure eight, the Hybrid’s 28.0-second, 0.60 g average lap trailed the 2.5T’s 26.7-second, 0.67 g result. Additionally, 60-0 mph braking took 123 feet in the hybrid, and 117 feet in the 2.5T.

Even so, road test editor Chris Walton had high praise: “I would have never expected this from a hybrid midsize SUV.” In particular, he referred to its “remarkably neutral chassis” and “natural, precise” steering. As Walton was similarly impressed by the 2.5T’s handling, it seems that the Santa Fe’s revised platform gives this SUV newfound refinement.

Yes, It’s Much More Efficient

Off of the track and on real-world roads, there’s a test where the Santa Fe Hybrid does better than the 2.5T—one that matters more to regular drivers. In Limited trim, the Santa Fe Hybrid earns a 33/30 mpg city/highway fuel economy rating, markedly better than the 2.5T, which gets 21/28 mpg when equipped with AWD. Worth noting is that the entry-level Hybrid Blue trim earns a 36/31 mpg score. Credit that to its wheels, which measure 19 inches on Limited and 17 inches on Blue trim.

If convenience is a luxury, that improvement enhances the Hybrid’s appeal. With an estimated range of 566 miles on a full tank, the hybrid needs to stop at gas stations less frequently than the 2.5T, which can cover about 451 miles between fill-ups. The EPA says it also nets approximately $500 of savings in annual fuel costs, coming in at $1,500 as opposed to $2,000. Of course, your mileage will vary, but it’s hard to imagine situations where the hybrid wouldn’t be more frugal than the 2.5T.

We’re curious to assess the upcoming Santa Fe Plug-In Hybrid, which can cover 31 miles on electricity alone and should cost only about $1,100 in fuel and electricity per year—but has only 440 miles of range due to its smaller fuel tank.

There’s also the base 2.5-liter I-4 that makes 187 hp and 178 lb-ft through an eight-speed automatic. Given our experience with that engine in the smaller Tucson, we can’t imagine it’s better to drive in the Santa Fe. It’s certainly not as efficient, earning 22/25 mpg.

Is the Santa Fe Luxurious?

Regardless of what’s under the hood, aspects of the 2021 Santa Fe position it as a near-luxury crossover. Its cabin and cargo area are tremendously spacious. The pleasing front-row layout puts technology on display and has some very clever storage solutions. Its center console is riddled with buttons, but as senior editor Greg Fink said, “it only takes one good look to understand their logic.”

Stepping up to a high-end model like our Santa Fe Hybrid Limited test vehicle brings lots of premium features. Lovely quilted leather seats are heated in both rows and ventilated up front. The plush leather-wrapped steering wheel is also heated. Behind it, an all-digital gauge cluster displays camera-based blind spot monitors activated by the turn signals. Second-row passengers get door window sunshades, and a faux-suede headliner surrounds the huge moonroof. The total price for our well-equipped Santa Fe Hybrid came to $41,690—comparable to 2.5T models, and undercutting the Genesis GV80’s approximately $49,000 base price significantly.

To be sure, Genesis’ GV70 midsizer is on a different level in terms of design, materials, and refinement. That’s good for the Santa Fe—as corporate counterparts raised the bar, Hyundai saw room to reach higher. Now this SUV gives others a run for their money in the truest sense of the term. That’s particularly true of the hybrid powertrain, which adds relaxation to every drive with its smoothness and efficiency.

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