Autotrader: Why the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is one of the best cars of the year

United States

Boasting sharp new styling inside and out, and a new range-topping Calligraphy trim that serves as a “serious alternative to a similarly sized SUV from a luxury brand,” the redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe easily earned a spot on our list of best new cars for 2021.

Best new cars of 2021

In highlighting the best new cars of the year, we said the two-row Santa Fe’s changes made it “look and feel more like the outstanding three-row Palisade.” That’s not faint praise, as the Hyundai Palisade was on our list of Best New Cars of 2020.

The Hyundai Santa Fe


The most noticeable change is the Santa Fe’s new look, the clearest example of which is right up front. A wide front grille, tapered at both ends, is flanked by T-shaped LED lights. The rear taillight profile has also been updated, and the overall effect is crisp and modern. Hyundai HYMTF, +1.26% has redesigned the interior with more premium amenities and introduces the new upscale Calligraphy model. There are new, more powerful gasoline engines, plus a hybrid version (reviewed separately) in addition to new advanced safety features. A 2022 Hyundai Santa Fe plug-in hybrid (PHEV) arrives later this year.

How much?

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe starts at $ 26,850 plus $ 1,175 destination charge, and will reach past $ 40,000 for a fully loaded Calligraphy model.

See: The best 3-row SUVs for less than $ 40k in 2021

Behind the wheel

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is available with two gasoline-engine choices.

We drove a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy, the top model fitted with the turbo 2.5.

Our first impression: The new Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy exudes luxury. The heated and vented front seats, which are covered in a soft leather with quilt-type stitching in the upper back area, are very comfortable, and the interior’s overall design is elegant.

Also see: Review: The 2021 Hyundai Ioniq, the affordable electric

Adding to the rich ambience are a digital instrument panel and a large horizontal touchscreen high on the dash. Also notable is the new center console, which features the electronic push-button controls for the Santa Fe’s 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

The turbocharged 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine is well suited for the job. With 277 horsepower, it makes for a Santa Fe that climbs long highway grades with ease, even when all five seats are occupied. Turbo boost arrives quickly and in smooth fashion.

If there’s one complaint, it’s this: The engine, which employs both port and direct fuel injection, is a bit grumbly during light acceleration. But power does reach all four of the Santa Fe’s wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission that shifts smoothly during acceleration. Every once in a while, though, low-speed downshifts lack the smoothness you’d expect of Hyundai.

That stated, the 2021 Santa Fe works well in the daily grind, aided by light-effort steering, well-tuned brakes, and good overall ride quality. Further, the back seat accommodates adults with ease, and the cargo area remains generous; in fact, it’s about half a cubic foot more spacious than the one in the previous Santa Fe.

Note: The Calligraphy’s standard all-wheel-drive system features three driver-selectable modes: Normal, Sport, and Smart. In Sport, more torque is sent rearward to give the Santa Fe sportier driving manners.

Fuel economy

Both power and fuel economy improve significantly for 2021. The base model with a non-turbo 2.5-liter engine and front-wheel drive gets 22 mpg city/28 mpg hwy/25 mpg combined. A turbocharged 2.5-liter with AWD is rated at 22 mpg city/25 mpg hwy/24 mpg combined.

Standard features and options

The base model, the Santa Fe SE ($ 26,850), is well equipped. Powered by a 191-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder backed by an 8-speed automatic, the front-wheel-drive SE has 18-inch wheels and a wide range of advanced driver assists, such as forward-collision avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, adaptive cruise control, and driver attention alert. The forward-collision system also detects cyclists and junction-turning detection, where the system can detect an oncoming car while you’re turning left at an intersection.

The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe does not shy away from tech. The infotainment system is based around an 8-inch screen and comes with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. However, there is an available 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 10.25-inch-wide navigation screen.

A new push-button transmission shifter creates more storage space in the center console. Soft-touch materials and ambient lighting add a luxurious ambience. New materials, colors, and the addition of available Nappa leather make the SUV’s interior more inviting. Hyundai also has added more convenience features, such as power-folding rear seats and 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio.

As you move up the Santa Fe’s trim level lineup, there are more powertrain choices. The Santa Fe SEL ($ 28,650) and Santa Fe Limited ($ 38,600) are available with the turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine, rated for approximately 277 horsepower and backed by a new wet 8-speed dual-clutch transmission. All-wheel drive ($ 1,700) is optional on the SE, SEL, and Limited, but comes standard on the Santa Fe Calligraphy ($ 42,100). Nineteen- and 20-inch wheels are available.

There are more safety features, such as blind-spot collision-avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist, safe exit assist, parking distance warning in the front and rear, surround-view monitor, and a blind-spot monitor. Remote smart parking assist comes on Limited and Calligraphy models.

See: The best 2021 SUVs priced under $ 30k

Other options include heated power seats covered in quilted Nappa leather, heated rear seats, a 10.25-inch navigation system, rain-sensing wipers, an eco-suede headliner, and a full-color head-up display.


Forward collision avoidance assist is standard on all trims. This system alerts the driver of an impending collision and can actually bring the SUV to a complete stop in low-speed braking situations. In addition, Safe Exit Assist is standard on SEL and higher trims. This system monitors approaching traffic from the rear and keeps rear-seat passengers from exiting the vehicle until the traffic has safely passed.

There’s also an automatic high-beam assist feature. This feature automatically engages the Santa Fe’s high beams to provide more light when there is no oncoming traffic and dims them when it detects an approaching vehicle or a car directly ahead.

What we like
  • Significant refresh brings two powerful gasoline engines
  • Updated styling plus refreshed, updated interior
  • The Calligraphy version is quite nice
  • Many advanced driver assists and safety features come standard
What we don’t 
  • Some advanced driver assists are optional
  • Some people prefer the traditional shifter over the new push-button setup
Other cars to consider

2021 Kia Sorento—The Santa Fe and Sorento are mechanical cousins, but the Kia 000270, -0.93% continues to be available with a 3rd-row seat, something the Hyundai does not have.

Used Toyota Highlander—The Highlander is a little bigger than the Santa Fe but find one lightly used (say 2 or 3 years old) and the price is likely to be comparable. The Toyota TM, +0.29% Highlander has three rows of seating and a slightly more traditional look versus the more youthful-looking Santa Fe.

Autotrader’s advice

We like the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited. It has a 277-horsepower engine, 19-inch wheels, power-folding side mirrors, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a surround-view parking camera, and blind-spot monitoring system. This version is the best balance of reasonable price and desirable amenities. 

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