Usually, when I hear about a “refresh” of a given vehicle, I expect some updated colors and options and not much more. Big changes are reserved for new generations and totally fresh designs. Hyundai took a different approach with the 2021 Santa Fe, a five-passenger crossover that’s been around since the 2019 model year. While the 2021 Santa Fe received a new nose, it also rides on a new platform shared with its quasi-sibling, the 2021 Kia Sorento.
I’d driven this particular Santa Fe’s turbocharged engine and dual-clutch transmission in the 2021 Kia K5 GT, as did Tyler in the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line, but in both cases, we dealt with an abundance of power and torque through just the front wheels. In Santa Fe guise, Hyundai offers their H-Trac all-wheel drive to help you get moving and retain momentum once you’re at speed.
Where the Sonata N-Line takes a fun, sporty approach, the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.5T is decidedly more calm.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, the top trim level of the 2021 Santa Fe lineup. Both Calligraphy and one-tier-lower Santa Fe Limited share the Sonata N-Line’s 2.5 liter turbocharged four and wet dual-clutch transmission. The turbo 2.5 produces 281 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, and that DCT offers eight gears to make the most of the boosted engine. Trim levels below the Limited make do with a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter that outputs only 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft.
All gas-powered Santa Fe models start life as front-wheel drive, and H-Trac AWD is optional. Surprisingly, the rated fuel economy isn’t much different between the naturally-aspirated Santa Fe and my loaner Santa Fe 2.5T – speed demons choosing the turbo will see one mile per gallon less in city driving and three fewer on the highway.
Adding another 90 horsepower and 130 lb-ft doesn’t come cheap, though. Equip a Santa Fe SEL as close to a (turbocharged) Santa Fe Limited as you can get, and you’ll still find about a $4,000 price jump to get that power and torque.
MSRP of my 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.5T came in at $43,430.
I liked this drivetrain, in front-wheel drive form, in the K5 GT. That was a car with a sporty bent, which let me excuse some behavior for the greater goal of back roads fun. Family crossovers, though, need to be a bit more polished.
In this case, Hyundai didn’t choose the 2.5T drivetrain as the “premium” offering for the 2021 Santa Fe because the Santa Fe is fun to drive. Far from it, the 2021 Santa Fe doesn’t encourage any sort of spirited driving beyond the occasional full-throttle on-ramp romp. Rather, the 2.5T is here because it’s what Hyundai has to use, slotting between the lower-powered naturally-aspirated 2.5 and the bigger V6 in the Palisade.
My complaints with the 2.5T in the Santa Fe mostly have to do with the transmission, a wet DCT. Dual clutch transmissions are great for performance driving, in theory, due to fast shift times and no power loss through a torque converter. In a 4,000 pound crossover used for family duties, though, it’s irritating more than anything. No torque converter means you can’t “creep” because the clutches aren’t engaged. City driving and slow, heavy traffic were both met with little shudders as the transmission tried to engage smoothly at 0.5 miles per hour. Parallel parking was a tedious affair, trying to manage brake input with the delay of clutch engagement.
On the move, past “crawling” speeds, the drivetrain was far better behaved. I wished it would hold first gear a bit longer, as the engine just starts building boost and then *click* you’re in second gear and out of boost again. It makes the Santa Fe feel slower than it is. A heavier right foot alleviates this problem, and otherwise, shifts are quick as is the Santa Fe in general. No, it’s not “sporty” but it can be quick enough in a straight line, with a power to weight ratio around 14.2 pounds per horsepower. By comparison, the non-turbo Santa Fe has to drag around over 20 pounds per horsepower.
Engine and transmission aside, the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe 2.5T Calligraphy was a lovely place to spend time. People buying these sorts of vehicles, especially in top trim levels, want a mix of luxury, creature comforts, and value. I do think Hyundai delivers in that case.
Being a deliberate two-row vehicle, the heated second row seats offer plenty of legroom while not giving up cargo space behind. USB charging ports abound. The panoramic sunroof extends past the second row, making the all-black interior feel somewhat airy, and sun shades pull up from the rear doors if all that sun is too much.
Up front, Hyundai’s technology continues to lead the pack. Infotainment is excellent and easily controlled, with a high-resolution touchscreen and easy-to-use software. One mystery – Apple CarPlay doesn’t display across the whole width of the display. Other Hyundai and Kia products do use the whole screen, so this is a programming tweak that could be made. Harman/Kardon puts their badges on the “premium” sound system, which sounded pretty good for the segment and price point of the Santa Fe. I appreciated all the hard buttons for commonly-used audio and climate controls, a safer option compared to “touchscreen all the things.”
Driver assistance is another continued highlight of Hyundai’s vehicles, and the 2021 Santa Fe is no exception. Blind spot cameras activate with your turn signals, displaying in the gauge cluster. Brilliant. Hyundai’s Highway Drive Assist with lane following takes some mental burden out of long highway drives, helping the car through curves thanks to navigation software. No, you don’t need your destination programmed for this to work.
Seating overall was comfortable, though as A Tall (at roughly 6’1″) I had a tough time finding the perfect driving position. My legs or my arms took turns feeling “wrong” depending on how I moved the seat. Ride quality was excellent, with bumps, potholes, and expansion joints all soaked up well. While the Santa Fe doesn’t encourage hoonery, steering and body control were both good enough that an exuberant off-ramp won’t leave you with a ponderous, understeery mess, either.
Barring high-performance German offerings in the “big two row crossover” scene, no offering here is particularly exciting. You’ll pick one based on styling, creature comforts, and road manners more than anything. Styling is subjective, but I do think the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy is a solid offering among the Edges and Muranos of the world. Where it let me down was in that sweet turbocharged drivetrain. It’s out of character for the car, and not well-behaved enough to get a pass.
Hyundai offers the 2021 Santa Fe Hybrid, which bridges the gap between the power output of the two gas-only Santa Fe offerings and returns better fuel economy in the process. It’ll also be not-fun to drive, but in a far more refined way that eliminates the complaints I had about the turbo and DCT behavior around town.
In the meantime, if Hyundai wanted to stuff the H-Trac all-wheel drive system in the Sonata N-Line, we certainly wouldn’t complain.