2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Review

Ron Sessions, Independent Expert | May 05, 2021

Introduction - Find the best Hyundai deals!

Hyundai’s longest-running offering in its five-strong SUV lineup is the Santa Fe, which gets a significant refresh for the 2021 model year. Outside, the biggest change is a bold, mask-like grille accented by slit-like high-mounted LED driving lights. Inside, the new Santa Fe gets a classy-looking high-mounted center console and updated driver and infotainment displays.

Under the skin is a stiffer, stronger structure updated for improved handling and crash safety. The structure is also bolstered to handle the weight of the lithium-ion battery and related components for the first-ever Santa Fe gas-electric hybrid. Additionally, the Santa Fe gets two new gas engines and transmissions.

A new top-of-the-line Calligraphy model also makes its debut this year, equipped with quilted premium leather seating, 19- or 20-inch alloy wheels, Hyundai Traction (HTRAC) all-wheel drive, a color head-up display, a faux-suede headliner, automatic up/down power windows, and a 277-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. 

The Santa Fe’s updates and upgrades take the 5-passenger midsize SUV upscale a notch or two, creating some distance between it and the redesigned, lower-priced, but now same-size 2022 Hyundai Tucson

What Owners Say About the Hyundai Santa Fe - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Dark Gray Front Quarter

Photo: Ron Sessions

Data gathered from verified owners for the J.D. Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study shows that 56% of last year’s Hyundai Santa Fe owners are male (vs. 58% for the segment), and the median age of a Santa Fe owner is 61 years (vs. 58).

Owners indicate their favorite things about last year’s Santa Fe were (in descending order) the:

  • Exterior styling
  • Driving feel
  • Feeling of safety
  • Getting in and out
  • Interior design

Owners say their least favorite things about last year’s Santa Fe were (in descending order) the:

  • Driving comfort
  • Setting up and starting
  • Infotainment
  • Powertrain
  • Fuel economy

In the J.D. Power 2020 APEAL Study, the Santa Fe ranked number three out of eight midsize SUVs.

What Our Independent Expert Says About the Hyundai Santa Fe - Find the best Hyundai deals!

In the following sections, our independent expert gives an analysis of the range-topping Santa Fe Calligraphy equipped with standard all-wheel drive and optional carpeted floor mats. The test vehicle’s price totaled $43,440, including the $1,185 destination charge.

Getting In and Getting Comfortable

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Black Leather Front Seats

Photo: Ron Sessions

Although there are roomier midsize SUVs in the market, the 2021 Santa Fe offers plenty of space for five adult passengers and their cargo. The interior has an airy feel to it, with good outward visibility to the front and sides. It’s quiet, too. 

Particularly in the new, range-topping Calligraphy trim, the Santa Fe’s cabin is richly appointed with soft, Nappa leather-covered seats and generous servings of stitched, quilted, and wrapped soft-touch surfaces on the instrument panel, console, and door trim. The heated, ventilated, and lumbar adjustable front buckets offer sumptuous comfort balanced with good lateral thigh and lower torso support. 

Gripping the heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel, the driver interacts with a new 12.3-inch reconfigurable instrumentation display that changes colors with different selectable drive modes. When the driver activates the turn signal in a Santa Fe Calligraphy, one of the two virtual analog gauges transforms to show a live view of the blind spot on the side of the SUV corresponding to the driver’s intended action.

Soft, ambient lighting with 64 selectable colors highlights sections of the Calligraphy’s doors, instrument panel, and footwells. A standard panoramic sunroof bathes the cabin in vitamin D, and the climate control system is an automatic dual-zone set-and-forget type.

A new, high-mounted center console with the appearance and quality feel of something from Hyundai’s Genesis luxury division houses the electronic pushbutton transmission gear selector. The arching console opens up storage space for a purse or tablet in what would be the transmission tunnel in older-design SUVs. 

Elsewhere, there’s plenty of storage in the glovebox, covered console cubby, an open shelf above the glovebox, plus door side pockets. In the console, there’s a vertical mail-slot-type phone charger, a small covered bin for key fobs, candy bars, USB ports, and such, and a pair of cup holders that, unfortunately, won’t accommodate large beverage containers, or even squared-off 16-ounce Pure Leaf iced tea bottles.

The rear seatback is split 60/40, reclines individually, and has a fold-down center armrest with cup holders. Hyundai resisted the temptation to cram a tiny third-row seat into the Santa Fe (as corporate stablemate Kia did with its Sorento), instead treating back-seat passengers to segment-leading legroom – more than what you’ll find in the Chevrolet Blazer, Honda Passport, Nissan Murano, and Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport.

Loading cargo is easy, thanks to a hands-free power liftgate with adjustable opening speeds. Unlike similar designs from other automakers, Hyundai’s hands-free system doesn’t require you to wave a leg under the bumper for it to work. But it can unexpectedly open if you stand near the back of the Santa Fe with the key fob on your person.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Infotainment System Review

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Interior Dashboard

Photo: Ron Sessions

Along with the Santa Fe Limited, the new Calligraphy trim comes standard with Santa Fe’s premium infotainment system. Its highlights include:

  • 10.25-inch high-definition touchscreen display with split-screen functionality
  • Wired (via USB cable) Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
  • Embedded navigation with junction-view lane guidance
  • HD Radio with traffic flow and incident data
  • 3-month trial of SiriusXM satellite radio
  • Dynamic voice recognition
  • Four USB ports (one front power/data, one front, and two rear power)
  • Blue Link connected car services
  • Wireless charging for Qi-enabled phones

Calligraphy trim includes an immersive 12-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound premium audio system with 630 watts of power and Clari-Fi music restoration technology.

Drivers can operate the infotainment system using decent-size touchscreen tiles on the elegant-looking horizontal dash-top display or steering wheel and voice controls. Below the climate control vents on the Santa Fe’s new raised center console are simple-to-use analog rotary volume and tuning knobs, plus a bank of hard shortcut buttons for quick access to favorites, navigation, radio, media, and more. These eliminate the need to scroll through distracting on-screen menus. The premium-looking controls have a quality tactile feel and wouldn’t look out of place in a product from Hyundai’s Genesis luxury brand.

Hyundai also offers wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which cleans up the clutter of a USB cable connecting to your phone. Counterintuitively, the wireless connectivity is only available with the smaller 8-inch infotainment screen in the Santa Fe’s less-expensive SE and SEL trims. However, Hyundai says a wireless system is coming soon for the premium system with the 10.25-inch screen. 

When it’s time to take a break from life’s hectic pace, the Santa Fe humbly presents “Sounds of Nature.” Front-seat occupants can access it by selecting “media” from the row of hard buttons on the center of the dash under the infotainment screen button. Menu selections include rain forest bird calls, ocean waves gently pulsing on the beach, a crackling fireplace, trudging through freshly fallen snow, and more.

The Santa Fe’s premium 10.25-inch system comes with dynamic voice recognition that recognizes natural language commands and context. Using the push-to-speak button on the steering wheel, the driver can request a change in cabin temperature, adjust seat or steering wheel heating, send a text message reply, inquire about sports scores and stock prices, check the weather forecast for a specific location, and much more. The system quickly and correctly executed my request to find a point of interest in a nearby town and generated helpful map directions and voice prompts. 

The 2021 Santa Fe Calligraphy also features the Blue Link connected car system that allows drivers to perform functions such as remotely starting the engine, locking and unlocking the doors, opening the liftgate, setting the climate control (including seat heating/ventilation), finding the car in a parking lot, checking the fuel level and battery health, and more – all by using the MyHyundai smartphone app. Hyundai offers full access to Blue Link connected services at no cost for the first three years of ownership. Blue Link also now works with smartwatches and inside the home using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

Standard in Calligraphy trim, Digital Key turns any Android smartphone, even those of friends or family, into a vehicle remote using Near Field Communications. Like Blue Link, Digital Key allows the holder to lock and unlock doors, activate the panic alert, and start and drive the car, but only in near proximity to the vehicle. The owner can also set the time the Digital Key remains active and remotely revoke it. Digital Key also allows setting personal preferences for seat and mirror positions and audio and navigation settings for up to three people.

What It’s Like to Drive the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Dark Gray Side View

Photo: Ron Sessions

Hyundai is moving to greater electrification in its powertrains. But in the meantime, it’s improving its gas engines as well. 

The 2021 Santa Fe has two new gas engines. A naturally aspirated 2.5-liter 4-cylinder with 191 horsepower and 182 pound-feet of torque replaces last year’s 187-horsepower/179 pound-feet 2.4-liter in the SE and SEL trims. It uses an 8-speed automatic to power the front or all four wheels.

The one you want is the new 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, replacing last year’s 2.0-liter turbo. Only available in the Limited and Calligraphy, it produces 277 horsepower and, more importantly, 311 pound-feet of torque over a broad engine speed range, increases of 42 horsepower and 51 pound-feet, respectively. 

Hooked to a new wet-plate 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the 2.5-liter turbo delivers eager performance for zipping through traffic, merging onto fast-moving freeways, or overtaking slower vehicles. And yet, it provides near-identical fuel economy to the naturally aspirated 4-cylinder. The wet-plate clutch helps smooth out the judders suffered by some dry-plate-clutch DCTs when launching uphill from a stop. The Santa Fe’s 2.5-turbo DCT powertrain has an engaging feel, with the quick-shifting finesse one would typically expect from a Volkswagen or Audi.

Also notable considering the 2021 Santa Fe is just a mid-cycle refresh are its chassis improvements. Structural upgrades and greater use of high-strength steel result in a stiffer body that enables more precise responses to steering inputs. A larger brake booster with reduced pedal stroke results in satisfyingly linear brake response. A new front subframe helps dissipate sharp road impacts and improves ride quality. It’s these little things, when taken together, that make the 2021 Santa Fe feel more solid and composed.

Hyundai SmartSense Review

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Blind Spot View Monitor

Photo: Ron Sessions

The 2021 Santa Fe comes standard with several of Hyundai’s SmartSense advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), and the Calligraphy has everything the automaker offers in terms of driver-assistive technology. This year, Hyundai upgrades and adds to these technologies to provide improved functionality. Changes include:

  • New cyclist and junction-turning detection for the forward-collision warning system
  • Lane-following assistance
  • Parking collision-avoidance assistance (automatically brakes when reversing at low speed if the system detects an obstacle)
  • Navigation-based adaptive cruise control with Road Curve Control (automatically slows for upcoming curves based on navigation data and GPS)
  • Blind-spot View Monitor (shows an image of the blind spot in the driver display when the turn signal is activated)
  • Full-color windshield head-up display (Calligraphy only)
  • Next-generation Highway Drive Assist (combines adaptive cruise control and lane-centering assistance to reduce stress during highway drives)
  • Remote smart park assist (an automatic parking assist system that moves a driverless Santa Fe in or out of a perpendicular parking space using the keyfob remote) 

Note that these are simply the changes to the entire collection of SmartSense technologies. The complete list of what’s available is mighty impressive, especially in a vehicle from a mainstream automaker. Even more impressive is that this tech is standard equipment in the 2021 Santa Fe Calligraphy, not lumped into a series of optional packages that can add thousands of dollars to the out-the-door cost, as is common in some luxury vehicles.

For the most part, these systems work in the background, providing assistance or intervention only in the split second when you need them. Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning with collision avoidance are must-haves that no driver should leave home without. The Santa Fe Calligraphy goes one step further, adding blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning graphics to this trim’s exclusive head-up display, putting the alerts directly in the driver’s line of sight.

Another advancement is the Santa Fe’s ultrasonic rear occupant alert. A simpler rear-seat reminder system is standard on the base Santa Fe, reminding the driver to check the back seat for pets or kids if the rear doors were opened and closed before driving the vehicle. The ultrasonic system in high trim levels checks for movement in the back seat after the SUV has been parked and locked and alerts the driver with horn honks, light flashes, and a Blue Link smartphone notification if you’ve left precious cargo behind.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe FAQ - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Cargo Space

Photo: Ron Sessions

How much cargo space does the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe have?

There are 36.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, and 72.1 with the 60/40-split rear seat folded flat. That’s enough room to carry four or five airport roller bags behind the rear seat or a mountain bike with the rear seat lowered. The Calligraphy and other Santa Fe models with all-wheel drive have no spare tire, so there’s more space under the cargo floor to hide valuables such as a laptop, purse, or camera.

Does the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe get good mileage?

In EPA testing, the naturally aspirated 191-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder powering SE and SEL trims gets 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving with front-wheel drive and 24 mpg with all-wheel-drive. It rates the turbocharged 277-horsepower 2.5-liter under the hood of Limited and Calligraphy trims at a nearly similar 25 mpg combined with front-drive and identical 24 mpg combined with AWD. 

The Calligraphy AWD test vehicle managed an average of 23.3 mpg over 110 miles of mixed in-town and highway driving. With the gas-powered Santa Fe’s generous 18.8-gallon fuel tank, the driving range for this trip would have topped 430 miles.

For buyers interested in higher fuel economy numbers, there’s the 2021 Santa Fe Hybrid with an EPA estimated 32-34 mpg rating in combined driving. 

Is the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe safe?

As this review was published, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had not finalized crash-test results for the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe. However, the NHTSA gave the 2020 Santa Fe, which does not have the structural improvements and added safety features of the 2021 model, a full five out of five stars overall for crashworthiness. That bodes well for the 2021 model.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has named the 2021 Santa Fe a Top Safety Pick with Good scores in all crashworthiness metrics. 

How much is the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe?

Prices for the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe range from $26,850 for the base SE to $42,100 for the range-topping Calligraphy. All-wheel drive is a $1,700 upcharge for SE, SEL, and Limited trim and comes standard on the Calligraphy. Santa Fe Hybrids cost between $33,650 and $39,950 and include standard AWD.

The destination charge for all models is $1,185.

What are the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe competitors?

In the J.D. Power 2020 Initial Quality Study (IQS), the Nissan Murano ranked highest in the midsize SUV segment. The Chevrolet Blazer and the Hyundai Santa Fe were the next highest-ranked models. 

In the J.D. Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout Study (APEAL), the Chevrolet Blazer ranked highest in the midsize SUV segment. The Nissan Murano and the Hyundai Santa Fe were the next highest-ranked models.

Other competitors to the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe include the Ford Edge, Honda Passport, and Subaru Outback.

Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Dark Gray Rear Quarter View

Photo: Ron Sessions

Freshly updated with design cues from Hyundai’s fast-selling 3-row Palisade flagship, the 2021 Santa Fe offers a more premium appearance while maintaining its high-value price position. The new turbocharged powertrain delivers eager performance and a pleasing driving experience. And Hyundai continues to be a leader offering a comprehensive roster of advanced safety and driver-assistive technology, much of it standard equipment on most Santa Fe trims.

If that’s not enough to convince you the 2021 Santa Fe is worthy of your consideration, it offers tremendous peace of mind with one of the best vehicle warranties in the business. In addition, Hyundai covers all scheduled maintenance (such as oil changes) for three years at no cost to the customer.

It almost goes without saying that the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is a smart choice for buyers looking for a roomy, comfortable, and stylish 5-passenger midsize SUV.

Ron Sessions is a seasoned vehicle evaluator with more than three decades of experience. He has penned hundreds of road tests for automotive and consumer websites, enthusiast magazines, newsletters, technical journals, and newspapers.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2022 J.D. Power

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