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Roomy, solid, but 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe needs to find its crossover mojo

2020 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe different?

Nothing major while Hyundai readies a model-year-2022 refresh of this five-seat midsize crossover SUV. Tweaked styling and possible hybrid and high-performance powertrains will highlight the refresh, which would sustain the Santa Fe to its next full redesign, probably for model-year 2024.

Meanwhile, changes to the 2021 edition will likely be limited to new color choices and perhaps some trim-level feature shuffling. This roomy rival for the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Subaru Outback, and Ford Edge will continue with naturally aspirated and turbocharged four-cylinder engines and front- or all-wheel-drive (AWD). It slots between the compact Tucson and the larger, seven-passenger Palisade in this South Korean automaker’s crossover lineup.

Should I wait for the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe or buy a 2020?

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

With no noteworthy 2021 changes expected — but a price increase almost certain — a 2020 Santa Fe is the better bet. Its looks will have a longer shelf life, given the anticipated model-year-’22 facelift. And you can probably take advantage of incentives and deep discounts as dealers try to recoup sales lost in the coronavirus pandemic. Those deals might not be so attractive by the time the 2021 Sant Fe launches.

Hyundai simplified Santa Fe’s 2020 lineup, paring two trim levels and retaining SE, SEL, and Limited grades. Expect that roster to repeat for ’21, although we’d like to see Hyundai restore some safety features to the SE. Look for all ’21 Santa Fe models to again come with a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine while SEL 2.0T and Limited 2.0T grades return with a more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged four.

Will 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe styling be different?

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

No. It’ll retain a distinctive nose with a honeycombed version of Hyundai’s signature grille and busy stacks of lights. Taillamps with a hint of BMW dress up the rear. In between, the ’21 Santa Fe will remain handsome if generic.

Trim-level differentiators should again run to details such as fog lights for SELs and Limiteds, and dark exterior accents for the latter. Wheel size and design should remain another cue, with 17-inch alloys standard on the SE and SEL, 18-inchers optional for the SEL and standard on the Limited, and 19s exclusive to 2.0T models.

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

The SEL and Limited should return with digital gauges. Every ’21 Santa Fe will again feature large, clearly labeled knobs and buttons for audio, climate, and vehicle functions. They minimize distracting interactions with the well-sorted infotainment touchscreen. SE and the SELs should return a 7-inch display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support. The Limiteds will again upgrade to an 8-incher with imbedded navigation.

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

Look for cloth upholstery to remain standard on the SE and SELs, with leather part of the SEL Premium Package but included on the Limited and 2.0Ts. Even with it, a bit too much unpadded plastic prevents the cabin from matching the class-above ambience so compelling in the Palisade. No quibbles about Santa Fe’s passenger room and comfort, though. Both are generous, the seats are supportive, and the rear bench can accommodate three adults with little crowding, a rarity in this segment.

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

Small-items storage space is plentifully. Cargo volume — 35.9 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks, 71.3 with them folded – is about average for the competitive set. Underfloor bins are useful but too far forward to be easily reached from the rear of the cargo bay. The ’21 Santa Fe SE and SELs should return with a manual liftgate. Expect powered, hands-free operation to remain optional on the SELs and standard on the Limited and both 2.0Ts.

Any 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe mechanical changes?

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

Unlikely, although a high-mileage hybrid model could be in Santa Fe’s future, teaming a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with battery power for a net 227 horsepower. Also in the pipeline might be a high-performance N-Line model with a 2.5-liter turbo four of some 290 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. Both are in the powertrain portfolio shared by Hyundai and its corporate cousin, Kia. They could come to Santa Fe as part of its ‘22 refresh or ’24 redesign.  

Count on the 2.4-liter versions of the 2021 Santa Fe SE, SEL, and Limited to return with 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. They’ll furnish serviceable acceleration, with good response around town and, with liberal throttle application, enough gumption for freeway merging. But they have little in reserve for highway-speed overtaking.

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

The ’21 Santa Fe SEL 2.0T and Limited 2.0T should again have 235 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. In our tests, quick movement away from a stop lags until their turbo spools up, a delay you must compensate for when, say, planning a brisk turn across oncoming traffic. Otherwise, acceleration is impressively strong, although often accompanied by a gravely engine note.

Every ’21 Santa Fe will again use a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. And all will be available with AWD that automatically shuffles power front to rear when sensors detect tire slip. It’s helpful in snow or on unpaved surfaces, and a dash button locks in a 50:50 front/rear torque split for extra traction. It also includes driver-selectable Normal, Sport, and Smart modes. But with ground clearance a class-average 7.3 inches and no terrain-response setting, the ’21 Santa Fe won’t cotton to real off-roading.

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

On-road handling is admirable, with firm steering and controlled body motions. The AWD’s Sport mode allows a subtle rear-torque bias to enhance cornering balance. The 2.0Ts noseplow less through fast turns than the other models. But their 19-inch tires contribute to a much firmer ride, with sharp bumps jolting the cabin to a degree absent with the 17- or 18-inch wheels and tires.

Will 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe fuel economy improve?

EPA ratings should carry over from model-year 2020, so Santa Fe should again rate no better than midpack in its competitive set.

With the 2.4-liter, expect ’21 Santa Fe EPA ratings of 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 21/27/23 with AWD. The 2.0T models should return at 20/27/23 mpg with front drive, 20/26/22 with AWD. All models will continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe features?

2020 Santa Fe 8-inch screen with imbedded navigation

Probably not. Hyundai for 2020 eliminated the midrange SEL Plus grade and the previous flagship Ultimate, redistributing their features among surviving models. That rendered the SE unavailable with blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, or with Hyundai’s Safe Exit Assist, which warns occupants to not open a side door if traffic’s approaching from the rear.

Expect those safety features to remain standard on the other ’21 Santa Fes. All, including the SE, should again come with autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection and with lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction. Adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, even in stop-and-go driving, should also be standard across the board.

2020 Santa Fe Blind-View Monitor

Optional for the SEL and standard on the Limited and 2.0Ts should again be a reminder to check for rear-seat occupants before exiting the vehicle. Exclusive to Limiteds should again be Hyundai’s Blind-View Monitor, which displays in the main gauge cluster live video of left or right blind spots with activation of a turn signal.   

Standard on all but the ’21 SE should again be keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, heated front seats, a power driver’s seat with power lumbar, and exterior courtesy lighting. All but the SE should also return with Hyundai’s Blue Link Connected Car System with navigation-by-voice and apps for remote start, climate control, door locks, and parked-car finder.

2020 Santa Fe panoramic sunroof

Look for the 2.4-liter SEL to remain the sole Santa Fe available with options. Its Convenience Package should return at around $2,250 and again include the rear-occupant alert, 18-inch alloys, and hands-free liftgate, plus dual automatic climate control, rear seat sunshades, and wireless phone charging. Also back should be the $2,750 SEL Premium Package with a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights and foglamps, leather upholstery, turn-signal mirrors, and a power passenger seat.

The 2021 Santa Fe Limited should again include all the above – along with the previously noted infotainment and safety upgrades — plus a head-up windshield display of selected instrumentation and safety alerts, surround-view video monitor, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, and heated rear seats.

Expect the 2021 Santa Fe 2.0Ts to return with 19-inch wheels and a 3,500-pound trailering package (up from 1,650). Otherwise, the SEL 2.0T should mirror the 2.4-liter SEL with Convenience and Premium packages, the 2.0T Limited the content of the 2.4-liter Limited.

Will 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe prices be different?

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

Some increase is nearly certain. But Santa Fe sales fell 31 percent in first-quarter 2020, in a segment down 16 percent. And like all automakers, Hyundai faced the uncertainty of coronavirus disruptions. Don’t expect price hikes that leave the ’21 Santa Fe markedly more expensive than comparable five-seat midsize-crossovers.

For reference, here are 2020 Santa Fe base prices, including the manufacturer’s $1,120 destination fee.

In the 2.4-liter line, the ’20 SE started at $27,245 with front-wheel drive and at $28,945 with AWD. Base prices for the SEL were $29,015 with front-drive and $30,695 with AWD and for the Limited, $36,995 and $38,695, respectively.

The 2020 Santa Fe SEL 2.0T started at $35,845 with front-drive and $27,545 with AWD, the ’20 Limited 2.0T at $38,845 and $40,545, respectively.  

When does the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe come out?

2020 Santa Fe Limited 2.0T

Barring delays associated with the pandemic, expect a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe release date in fall 2020.

Best 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe competitors

Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]