“It's about a tire deep,” said the Hyundai rep.
“You mean half a tire? Like, to the hub?” I said.
“No, like the whole tire will go under, but go ahead!”
Dropping the new, fourth-generation 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe crossover into a mud pit of indiscriminate depth would normally worry me. This isn’t a body-on-frame 4Runner, it’s a compact crossover that Hyundai wanted to feel more like an SUV. After bumbling, bubbling and bogging out of that 20-some-inch puddle using the company’s HTRAC all-wheel-drive system. I’d say Hyundai succeeded.
It definitely looks the part. The Hyundai design center in Korea gave the Sante Fe a mega makeover in line with the smaller Kona. It’s handsome. The face already looked great on the little runabout, if a little squished. Now it has room to breathe.
The front and rear are both more upright than the outgoing model. The narrow lights on top in front are the daytime running lights, the middle lights are the headlights and the small ones at the bottom are fogs. In back to, everything is more up-and-down. Check out the 3D taillights that sort of look like a River Raid level in high definition. The exhaust is now integrated into the bumper and the whole thing has a poor man’s BMW X5 feel to me.
The 2019 Santa Fe basically takes over for the smaller Santa Fe Sport from 2018. And the new Santa Fe XL will be the company’s midsize crossover for 2019. Hence, Hyundai dropped the previous model's 3.3-liter V6, which we're guessing will be found in the XL. The basic Santa Fe now comes with either a turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter four making 235 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque or a 2.4-liter making 185 hp and 175 lb-ft. Also, an eight-speed automatic replaces last year’s six-speed automatic all around.
The new HTRAC all-wheel drive system, available on all trims, defaults to front-wheel drive until slip is detected. Then it can send up to 50 percent of the power rearward. In sport mode it starts at 65 percent front, 35 percent rear and varies from there. The Santa Fe also gets brake-based torque vectoring to deliver the right amount of power to each side. The system, Hyundai says, reads 50 input signals from a combination of the driver, engine, transmission, traction control and environmental.
All this all-wheel drive stuff isn’t just lip service for a dusting of snow or light beach duty. Over rain-weakened dirt roads it wouldn’t slide until I went full Scandinavian Flick and at the end of the day I was looking at a 300-or-so-foot climb up a deeply rutted and rocky trail. A drunken billy goat was the thought that came to mind, but not in an offensive way. The Santa Fe climbed, slipped and gripped its way up the slope, only pausing to figure out which wheel needed power. It also has hill descent control, which keeps your speed steady on slick declines, making this more SUV than almost anyone needs.
In the cabin, on anything but that 20-inch mud puddle or that 35-degree climb, there’s no drama. Hyundai uses more structural adhesive and a new sound deadening material to quiet any remaining road and wind noise, though the turbo engine noise did punch through now and then.
The massive panoramic sunroof lets in tons of light. With that extra light, you see all the textures in the dash and headliner. The upgraded Infinity radio speakers get topography map inspired grilles. The fully-loaded Ultimate version has a metallic weave on the doors and a headliner material that could be best described as a multicolored brown sandpaper. By far the most interesting use of brown fabric I’ve ever seen. The two other interior choices are black or gray based. The seats are a particular highlight with separate adjustments for the front and back of the bottom and under knee support.
I’m not a huge fan of the dash-propped infotainment screen, but it’s easy to reach without leaning too far forward. Knobs on both sides control volume and tuning while a head-up display (standard only on the Ultimate trim) gives speed and navigation information.
Hyundai went all in on safety with its new standard SmartSense package that includes forward-collision warning with avoidance assist and pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision with avoidance assist (it will take the wheel), lane keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert, safe exit assist (watches for cars approaching in the door path), high-beam assist, smart cruise control with stop and go and driver attention warning.
That lane keeping assist is key, as it has four levels to choose from. The top level actively keeps you centered in the lane, the one below only moves the wheel when you’re crossing the line, the third level just flashes a light and the fourth level is off. The system will hold the car centered in a curve, even on two lane roads. The system does ease fatigue, but I want to push the new turbo four — so I slit it into the off position.
This engine feels just about at its limit in this application. On flat roads it accelerates well, but on inclines, and trying to peel into a spot in traffic, it falls short. The eight-speed feels like it’s doing everything it can but climbing paved mountain roads had this four hanging out near the redline. It also hesitates before taking off from a stop sign, despite the stop/start system being as unobtrusive as I’ve felt. I didn’t try the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter I4 engine.
As for handling, it’s a compact crossover; you won’t take this to your local track day instead of your Porsche 911 GT3. With that said, It feels way more solid than the outgoing model. Even over washboard dirt roads, I can’t hear any squeeks or rattles. Hyundai added more reinforcements all around making the whole package more than 15 percent stiffer than last year’s car.
The largest available wheels are 19s and are wrapped in a tire sporting a 55 aspect ratio. That means the McPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension don’t have to work as hard to hide most normal road imperfections.
With the redesign, the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe is the best looking (by far) crossover in its competitive set, including includes the Ford Edge, Subaru Outback, Nissan Murano, Kia Sorento and Jeep Cherokee. But it is still a crossover, no matter how square it looks and tough it acts. Pricewise, the SE starts at $26,480. That’s less than all the competitors and the only one I might call subjectively better overall is the Edge, but that’s a whopping 4K more. If I'm looking for a compact crossover with SUV aspirations, this is high on my list.
—Jake Lingeman, road test editor
Base Price: $26,480
Powertrain: 2.4-liter I4, eight-speed automatic, FWD (optional 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, eight-speed, AWD)
Output: 185 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 178 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm (235 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 260 lb-ft @ 1,450-3,500 rpm)
Curb Weight: 3,591 lb
Fuel Economy: 22/29/25 mpg (20/25/22 mpg for 2.0T)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Great looking, inside and out
Cons: Needs a little more grunt under the hood