Mountain Wheels: Continually improved Hyundai Santa Fe moves in upscale directions |

Mountain Wheels: Continually improved Hyundai Santa Fe moves in upscale directions

For 2021, the Hyundai Santa Fe reconfigures and doubles its offset headlamps as well as adds an all-new hybrid powertrain to supplement turbo and non-turbo 2.5-liter gasoline engines.
Photo from Hyundai

This week’s column is a bit of a conundrum, as it addresses an import SUV that’s already been replaced, and is not a column about the new model. And yet, we will still talk about the new one because that’s what you probably want to hear about — unless you are looking for a deal on a still-new old model.

Confused? I apologize, but the car business is all about innovation. The initial subject at hand is the 2020 Hyundai Santa Fe, which is very different than the all-new 2021 Santa Fe. Granted, I had a good experience in what is now the previous model, itself a quantum leap from what might be your long-ago memory of what Santa Fe used to be and represent.

My new (old) 2020 was the 2.0-liter turbo, all-wheel drive Limited model, priced at $40,430 — a solidly reliable cold-weather machine that got me all the way to Grand Junction and back the next day so I could do virtual Uber duty and take some friends to Vail Village for New Year’s Eve, where we were apparently about 50 feet away from former Vice President Mike Pence.

Exciting? You bet. Even this somewhat older new Santa Fe felt vastly transformed in size and scope, with a presence and stability that seemed much more akin to the new, full-size Palisade. It was small enough to still have a bit more sporty appeal, and during my long and cold highway drives, it still got between 26 and 31 mpg (pretty good, as it’s officially rated for 26 mpg highway).

And unlike the Palisade, or pretty much every larger SUV out there, Santa Fe still has a bit of car feel and scale to it. It’s not as tall (visibility was rarely an issue) and it still held plenty of cargo and seemed comfortable with a brief load of passengers. The denim-styled headliner was also an interesting touch.

Sure, it was still abundantly plasticky in spots, especially the center console box, but the design offered enough contemporary details — like the rippled Infinity speaker cones, the multilayered and cowled dash and the odd, organic-shaped vents — to make it look kind of cool. Up front, the very large, trapezoidal, knee-height lamps, wedged into the edges of the grille, are certainly a bold statement.

So what are you going to get in the actual 2021 Santa Fe, instead? Quite a bit, from what I understand. The mysterious spectacle of Hyundai’s ultra-modern SUV headlamp shift — kind of like the eyes on a flounder — sees the 2021 now get two extra headlamps at the edges of the grille, like they’ve magically emerged in some evolutionary spurt. There are still smaller LED lights and turn lamps up higher where other brands still put their actual headlamps. Hyundai’s strategy seems to go low, which is a bit peculiar at first.

Besides a litany of overall tweaks and contortions to the Santa Fe’s look, the big changes are the introduction of the company’s first hybrid in its SUV family. It’s powered by a 1.6-liter turbo with an actual six-speed transmission and standard all-wheel drive. None of those are very regular things on a hybrid, if you’ve been looking. The result, I am guessing, will be more ferocious and weather-ready behavior, with a combined 225-horsepower output.

Engine choices for nonhybrid models have also been changed and modified, including a new, 191-horsepower, 2.5 liter, direct injected, four cylinder as the standard choice and an upgraded 2.5-liter turbo, which ought to put out about 277 horsepower — 18% more than the old 2.0 liter. Both have eight-speed transmissions, with a dual-clutch version in the zippier turbo.

And as Hyundai continues to offer flashier products, the new Santa Fe will also be available in a Calligraphy trim level. The turbo and all-wheel drive come standard there, plus 20-inch wheels, quilted Nappa leather throughout and a variety of higher-end finishes.

You can also order it with the Remote Smart Park Assist — which, if you saw the ads, really will eerily and magically move your car in and out of a tight parking spot, like the world’s largest remote-controlled toy vehicle.

Andy Stonehouse

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