First drive review: 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid finds a new middle ground for efficient family SUVs

Combine the need for greater fuel efficiency and the heart of the market, and you have the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid right in that sweet spot. And yet the Santa Fe arrived with no direct competition. That’s astounding.

The closest direct competitor is its cousin, the 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid, but it can’t be had with all-wheel drive. Every other midsize competitor, from the Nissan Murano and Chevrolet Blazer to the Honda Passport and two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee, doesn’t offer a hybrid powertrain today.

Go up a size class and there’s the three-row Toyota Highlander Hybrid or down a notch and there are plenty of options from the Honda CR-V Hybrid to the Toyota Venza and RAV4 Hybrid, even Hyundai’s own compact Tucson.

Although the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid might be the only hybrid its size, it’s a darn good one thanks to a smooth, efficient powertrain, easy-to-use technology, and well packaged interior.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

Doing things differently

For those who have lived with hybrid crossover SUVs for the last decade saddled with continuously variable transmissions, prepare to be surprised. The Santa Fe Hybrid utilizes a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission. It’s connected directly to a 44.2-kw (59-hp) electric motor, which is powered by a 1.49-kwh lithium-ion battery pack. On the other side of a clutch is a 1.6-liter turbo-4 producing 177 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. A 13-kw starter motor/generator mainly helps the engine be on the ready. Total system output is an estimated 226 hp, and it all meshes together smoothly.

With a light foot the Santa Fe Hybrid can pull away from a stoplight on battery power alone, but it won’t get very far or go very fast before the gas engine kicks in to augment with more power. The transmission layout gives the entire powertrain keeps it smooth, and the setup sounds and reacts more like a traditional gas-powered vehicle—with smooth, clean shifts—than like the smaller Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and its annoying thrash when asked to hurry.

The instant burst of torque from the electric motor and battery pack enables the Santa Fe Hybrid to jump off the line quicker than any other Santa Fe model today, initially. The available 2.5-liter turbo-4 would probably take it in a 0-60 mph race, but that 0-30 mph sprint is probably closer than one might think.

The electric power steering is light and unremarkable. Asking for much feedback or for what’s going on at the wheels would be a step too far, but the front strut and rear multi-link suspension delivered a composed ride even on the Limited model’s 19-inch aluminum wheels.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

Efficient enough

The Santa Fe Hybrid doesn’t have eye-popping EPA fuel economy ratings at 33 mpg city, 30 highway, and 32 combined in the loaded Limited trim I tested (the base Blue model has better ratings of 36 city, 31 highway, and 34 combined). Over the course of 225 miles of mixed suburban driving in 80-degree weather the Santa Fe Hybrid Limited averaged 30.2 mpg according to the onboard trip computer (unadjusted for accuracy).

That beats every direct non-hybrid competitor including the Nissan Murano, Jeep Grand Cherokee two-row, Chevrolet Blazer, and Honda Passport. The Kia Sorento Hybrid is more efficient, but is front-wheel-drive-only, whereas the Santa Fe Hybrid only comes with all-wheel drive. Vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 Prime and Hybrid along with Hyundai’s own Tucson Hybrid, which are a size class smaller, are simply more efficient—as is the significantly larger Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at up to 36 mpg combined.

For those wanting more miles per gallon or a more efficient powertrain, the 2022 Santa Fe a plug-in hybrid is on the way with 31 miles of all-electric range.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

Same great Santa Fe

Remove the hybrid powertrain from the equation and the refreshed Santa Fe is the same well-packaged midsize crossover SUV it has been. There’s no issue with 6-footers sitting behind 6-footers, the rear seat slides on rails to either expand rear seat legroom or cargo space, and it’s attractive enough to look at. The refreshed face is a lot to take in with a wide, gaping grille, T-shaped daytime running lights, and split LED lighting, but it’s not ugly.

I appreciate the fact that hard buttons for the infotainment system’s audio inputs, climate controls, and vehicle system controls such as drive modes supplement the touchscreen. They are grouped into pods that make logical sense and require no orientation or learning curve.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

The Santa Fe Hybrid costs $34,835, which is a $6,800 premium over a base non-hybrid Santa Fe, and comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, LED lighting, and automatic emergency braking. The SEL Premium Hybrid model hits the sweet spot in terms of price at $38,785 with the addition of leather-trimmed seats, a 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and an impressive Harman Kardon sound system, though the larger touchscreen ends up trading wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for plugging in. My loaded Limited tester felt like no bargain at $41,640, though it’s the only way to get a surround-view camera system and heated rear seats.

It’s not always ideal when there’s only one option on the table, but in the case of the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe, it's a good one for those who need a roomy crossover and aren’t ready to plug-in but value high mpg. It’s just a shame Hyundai’s priced it at such a premium over the gas-only models—almost as if it’s purposely keeping the hybrid from its sales potential.

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