2019 Hyundai Santa Fe: Next-gen SUV gets bolder design, upgraded materials [First Look]

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2019 Hyundai Santa Fe (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

Hyundai has sold more than 1.6 million Santa Fes since it first went on sale in 2001.

This is kind of a big deal, considering in 2012 Hyundai’s utility vehicle sales mix was just 17 percent of its lineup. Six years later, the mix is now at about 44 percent – which is still slightly lower than the overall market mix of 64 percent.

So, this redesign of the 2019 Santa Fe is kind of important.

Good thing they nailed it.

From the design and the interior materials used to the overall ride and handling, the two-row 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe is vastly improved over the previous generation.

During a video shown at the press preview, Andrew Moir, design manager at Hyundai, said the previous generation had more of a minivan expression with its deeply raked windshield and soft lines. With the redesign, the idea was to make Santa Fe look more like an SUV.

To that end, the designers gave the 2019 Santa Fe a more upright stance, lower beltline and blunted front end.

While I’m still undecided about the squinty daytime running lights, I think the overall exterior design comes off as both bold and attractive.

The interior is also really nicely done with a clean dash design and uncluttered center stack. I know a lot of people object to the infotainment screen that sits atop the dash, but it doesn’t bother me, and frankly, it’s better placed here for keeping your eyes up and on the road.

We were only driving Ultimate trims during the press preview, which included all the up-level content, and I really liked the grade of materials and overall fit and finish.

Of particular note: The heather-colored mélange headliner material, which is paired with the up-level leather seating surfaces. Most automakers go for a solid color, but the Santa Fe has a gray-and-white flecked material that adds an airy lightness to the interior of the higher-trimmed vehicles.

I’d also like to point out that Hyundai made significant changes to the front seats to improve overall comfort, and the 8-way power adjustable seat (starting at the SEL trim) now has a cushion extension and cushion tilt.

This is huge.

Previously, as a petite driver, I had deemed the Santa Fe undrivable because I couldn’t get a good driving position. To reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel, I ended up trapping my knee between the seat and underside of the steering column. This has been corrected with the 2019 model year.

For 2019, Santa Fe has two available engines: the standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder and the 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylidner.

We spent the bulk of our time with the 2.0L, which delivers 235 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. This is a fairly well-powered engine with nice off-the-line starts. It struggled a bit with the mid-level acceleration – such as when you’re trying to get up to speed on a highway on-ramp.

However, I have to wonder how much of this would have been due to the fact that we were at an elevation of about 8,000 to 10,000 feet for the entire drive. I’d be very curious to see how it performs in someplace like Chicago.

We did a short loop in the 2.4L version, which delivers 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, and found that it was fine for city driving, but struggled in hard acceleration and steep upward climbs. It was also a lot louder than the 2.0L.

The 2.4L is the standard engine across all trims, and the 2.0L is available only on the Limited and Ultimate trims.

One of the biggest changes Hyundai made to the Santa Fe was adding the SmartSense safety suite as standard fare. This suite includes forward collision avoidance, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic avoidance, driver attention warning, high beam assist and safe exit assist.

Hyundai also adds an innovative version of the rear occupant alert. Similar to versions from other automakers, it gives you a visible alert on the behind-the-wheel gauges as the driver exits the vehicle. But if the driver leaves and locks the vehicle, and then sensors within the vehicle detect movement – whether from a child or a pet – then the horn starts honking. If that goes unheeded, it’ll send both text and email messages to the owner.

While this isn’t available on the base trim, it is standard starting at the SEL Plus level.

Another interesting thing Hyundai does with the 2019 Santa Fe is ditching packages. You simply get more content as you level up through the trims. And the only options available are all-wheel drive ($1,700) and the up-level 2.0L engine ($1,600 Limited, $1,650 Ultimate).

The trim breakdown and feature availability is as follows:

SE ($26,485): Includes 7-inch LCD touchscreen display, Android Auto/Apple Carplay and Hyundai SmartSense.

SEL ($28,585): Adds drive mode select, proximity key, push-button start, door handle welcome lights, side mirror approach lights, 8-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, SiriusXM and BlueLink.

SEL Plus ($30,785): Adds rear occupant alert, 18-inch alloy wheels, hands-free smart liftgate, dual automatic temperature controls, second-row cargo area release, auto-dimming rear view mirror and Infinity premium audio.

Limited ($33,585): Adds panoramic sunroof, LED cabin lights, LED headlights, LED taillights, 8-way power passenger seat with height adjustment and side mirrors with turn signal indicators.

Ultimate ($36,435): Adds surround-view monitor, 8-inch LCD touchscreen display with navigation, integrated memory system for the driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, head-up display and wireless device charging.

As previously mentioned, the new Santa Fe is a two-row model. This is likely to create some confusion for the 2019 model year as the 2018 three-row Santa Fe carries over into the 2019 model year as the Santa Fe XL, and the “Sport” designation for the two-row model is dropped.

This is all in anticipation of a soon-to-be-announced, all-new three-row vehicle, which will not fall in the Santa Fe family.

The 2019 Santa Fe is on sale now.

The Bottom Line:

Hyundai makes a fine vehicle these days, and previously I had been able to recommend every one of them – except the Santa Fe.

But with a refined ride and handling, nice interior materials, a vastly improved driver’s seat and a quiet cabin experience, this 2019 Santa Fe should be added back on the “must-test list” if you’re also looking at vehicles such as the Ford Edge, Subaru Outback, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sorento and Nissan Murano.

Though the 2019 Santa Fe is only available as a two-row model, expect news soon about an all-new three-row vehicle being added to the lineup. And don’t get too confused about the Santa Fe vs XL nomenclature.

Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Hyundai covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.