In the past six weeks, I’ve helped hustle a hydrogen-powered Hyundai Nexo to Vegas, sat in the Lotus position mediating on the far-out Byton EV, and relentlessly drove up and down the 405 freeway with a brainwave device on my head while testing Cadillac’s Super Cruise automated highway driving system (yep, really did). Crazy? In my little nerd world, all of this is freaking heaven.
Which must make where I am now “Earth.” Well, Earth, one whole Pacific Ocean to the east. I’m standing in the cavernous lobby of Hyundai’s Motorstudio in Goyang, South Korea—sort of an Exploratorium of Hyundai car-making—as families with kids mill around gaping at the simulations of sheetmetal stamping and robotic painting. And nearby, I’m staring at the all-new 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe. I walk around it. A normal, steady-as-she-goes, everything-better-but-familiar crossover from what I can tell. Hmmm. So far, nothing here, although that relates to my normal beat. I’m starting to feel queasily out of place, like a CDC Ebola reporter sent to cover flu-shot day at the Walmart pharmacy.
I walk around to its stern. Ah, there’s its new nameplate, reminding me of what Hyundai said about its rebranding strategy: Although this really is the fourth-generation Santa Fe Sport, the word “Sport” has been axed from the badge. It’s just the Santa Fe now. Simultaneously, this car’s current big-brother three-row “Santa Fe” will motor along for another year rebadged as the Santa Fe XL, whereupon it’ll get totally renewed, too. Modified names and hopscotching replacements. Got it?
An engineer on hand introduces himself and guides me over to the car’s nose. It’s way more expressive, and Hyundai is proud to describe it as representing their own new, authentically original style (though I’m unclear what its predecessor was mimicking). Those super-slim headlights … aren’t, actually; they’re DLRs. The actual headlights are down where you’d expect foglights. The result’s an intense, hungry look, a coiled cobra with an open mouth and half-closed eyes before the fatal strike. Stand back.
Behind it is either of its familiar pair of carryover gas engines: a naturally aspirated 185-hp, 178-lb-ft 2.4-liter and a 235-hp, 260-lb-ft, 2.0-liter turbo (with twin continuously variable valve timing). Familiar mills, though both now twirl all-new eight-speed transmissions (which are somehow lighter than their six-speed predecessors) before dispensing their power to either the front wheels or, optionally, all four (via Hyundai’s highly flexible HTRAC system). And then there’s the diesel. Whaa? A diesel?
It’s a turbocharged 2.2-liter that’s exclusive to the third-row option, Hyundai figuring that family trips (which checks the box for the third row) might entail a third row and a hitch for a boat, too, so diesel torque expands its whole usability envelope. This is a cheaper-than-a-hybrid tactic for better EPA numbers—and a smart one if you view the problem through a straw. But in a Panavision world-view, well, as I write this, the Germany Court has greenlit the banning of older diesel cars in the cities of Dusseldorf and Mercedes’ hometown, Stuttgart. A move that basically aims a stake at the very heart of all compression ignition engines.
I’m led along the car’s flanks, which the engineer says is designed to communicate a less masculine and more family-friendly message. I disagree. The bodywork expresses noticeably taut tendons underneath, and its heavily sculpted wheel arches and overall boxier shape sure message “dude” to me. But a psychological pivot happens with the side glass. The claustrophobic, sky-bound trajectory of the third generation’s window base might as well be a keep-out sign for second-row passengers because you could hardly see out. Although there’s a remaining familial hint of that hockey stick character line, the side glass is now a picture window for Yosemite and Yellowstone Instagrams, and not just from the second row. Even—if you lean forward—from the optional third row, too.
That glass stretches farther back because the whole Santa Fe is seriously stretched. Length grows by 2.8 inches, wheelbase by 2.6, and this manifests in an extra 2.8 inches of front legroom and an added inch for the second. Interior volume (comparing two-row to two-row) grows 3.9 cubic feet, with the third-row’s headroom benefiting from the boxier aft roofline. I climbed back there (I’m 6-foot-1) and … it’s survivable if you don’t mind sitting raised knees. (The bottom cushion is close to the floor.)
That’s the first half of the Santa Fe’s family-friendly message. The rest is said with features: a button on the inboard edge of the front passenger seat so the driver can tilt it forward for onboarding second-row passengers, buttons on the second row to collapse them for third-row access. Ultrasonic sensors in the rear headliner detect motion in the rear seats and alert you, by app, that you forgot little Conrad back there in your rush to the Starbucks door. And a neat trick that ought to win the Bicycling Safety Feature of the Year Award (if it existed) is what Hyundai calls Safe Exit Assist. If, say, you’re parallel parked along a busy street, the detection of an approaching car (or bike) from the rear locks that side’s doors so they can’t swing straight into the approaching peloton. (Or the likes of associate road test editor Erick Ayapana, one-time bike messenger in San Francisco who got knocked-out by a taxi passenger pulling exactly this stunt).
Suddenly, Hyundai’s media herders cattle-prod us into the Motorstudio’s elevators and down into the subterranean parking structure where a row of Santa Fes—all with a non-U.S. diesel (a 2.4-liter)—await our test drive. Oh well. I pair up with Chris Paukert of CNET’s Roadshow, and we head out on an approximately 4,000-mile afternoon drive that at one point took us past what appeared to be camoed bunkers along the coastline. Let’s get out of here, Chris. The good news (bad news to Chris) is that it gave me plenty of time to talk to him at length about the Hyundai Nexo, the Byton, and brainwave-measuring in Cadillac’s Super Cruise mode. The bad is that, at long last, the route began to unavoidably thread into 5 p.m. Seoul traffic. I shrugged my shoulders. What are we going to learn in this mess?
Most of what really matters, actually: time to absorb this car it in its natural setting. The new Santa Fe’s interior seems two grades up from the current car’s, at least on par with anything at this price; the seat’s deeply pleated inserts are richly fashionable, its texture synchronizing with other accents around the cabin. The instrument display alters depending on drive mode. There’s twin front and rear USBs and a button to switch on the rear-facing camera to view what’s going on back there. Although the dash and center stack are attractive and easy to use, they’re … contemporary; I’m already spoiled by the slick, futuristic surfaces in the Nexo, and I really wish Hyundai would apply it to every interior they design.
Seoul traffic is thick but moves along because everybody’s a lot more accommodating. Sort of like L.A. traffic without the lanes of short-tempered drivers who came this-close to snagging the same reality show part. The Santa Fe’s throttle response, quick shifts, and smooth brake action make it a cinch to glide into gaps. It’s easy to see out of when the nav route requests a quick turn; the steering is noticeably natural and refined. The 235/55R19 tires complement the suspension for a quiet and supple ride. But mainly, this is a solid-feeling crossover, mature, richly finished, and blanketed in interesting features that’ll make your life—your real life—easier. It doesn’t exactly upend our perception of the category, but it executes it so darn well that I’d be nervously tapping my fingers on the boardroom table over at Toyota and Nissan. It took 13 hours and 40 minutes of flying in an A380 to be reminded that automotive advancement isn’t always all about electrified drivetrains and Level 2 autonomy.