The verdict: Hyundai’s new 2021 Santa Fe Hybrid feels softer than the updated gas-only version — particularly compared with that vehicle’s new turbocharged powertrain — but it’s a welcome, fuel-efficient addition to the Santa Fe lineup.
Versus the competition: The Santa Fe Hybrid is a compelling choice in a growing field of larger fuel-efficient SUVs, but its lack of a third row or a more luxurious Calligraphy trim level may hold it back.
In its previous incarnation, the Hyundai Santa Fe won our mid-size SUV comparison despite its lackluster powertrain. When the South Korean automaker announced updates to the Santa Fe for the 2021 model year, we were excited to see a new turbocharged four-cylinder option that brought significantly more power and torque. But we were perhaps just as excited by the promise of new hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions for shoppers looking for a reasonably priced, fuel-efficient SUV.
I already reviewed the new conventional Santa Fe in its also-new-for-2021 Calligraphy trim level complete with that new turbo four-pot; now it’s time to do the same for the new 2021 Santa Fe Hybrid. (We’re still waiting on the plug-in hybrid version, which should make its debut as a 2022 model.)
Related: 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Review: The Rich Get Richer
The Santa Fe Hybrid faces competition from its Kia Sorento Hybrid cousin and two Toyota hybrid SUVs: the Highlander Hybrid and the Venza, which has been resurrected in hybrid-only form. The Venza may be the Santa Fe Hybrid’s closest competitor given both it and the Santa Fe are exclusively two-row vehicles; the Sorento and Highlander hybrids have three rows of seats. See them compared.
You can read my review of the updated Santa Fe in the link above; this review will focus mostly on what differs about the Santa Fe Hybrid’s driving experience.
Well Then, How Does It Drive?
The 2021 Santa Fe Calligraphy I drove was equipped with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 277 horsepower and 311 pounds-feet of torque. That Santa Fe impressed with its sharpness and near-sportiness, but the Santa Fe Hybrid … well, it’s hard to be impressed by placidity, isn’t it? And that’s what you get: a no-fuss, no-frills driving experience.
Instead of making nearly 300 hp, the Santa Fe Hybrid makes 226 system hp with its 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 59-hp electric motor and 1.49-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Where the gas-only Santa Fe uses either an eight-speed automatic transmission or an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, the Hybrid uses a six-speed automatic. The Hybrid also comes standard with all-wheel drive, while the gas version gets front-wheel drive standard.
The Hybrid won’t produce any impressive feats of acceleration, but it won’t frustrate, either. Acceleration is brisk enough, and unlike the smaller Tucson Hybrid, there’s not much hesitation when you step firmly on the gas. It doesn’t have a lot of power to give, but what the Santa Fe Hybrid has, it gives willingly.
Some hybrids have issues with awkward braking response, but I didn’t notice a significant difference between the Santa Fe Hybrid and the gas-only version. There’s a bit more sponginess to the pedal feel in the Hybrid, but its regenerative brakes didn’t dampen my driving experience.
Neither did the lack of an electric-only driving mode. Those modes are usually very limited in traditional hybrids anyway, providing minimal gas-free driving. The Santa Fe Hybrid has more traditional driving modes, though they mostly just adjust accelerator response: Eco makes things more sluggish and Sport sharpens things up slightly, but neither makes a big difference.
I didn’t get to take the Santa Fe Hybrid on a lengthy family road trip like I did the Sorento Hybrid, but in my time driving in and around Chicago, I saw fuel-economy readings in the low 30s — impressive for an SUV the Santa Fe’s size. The EPA rated the Santa Fe Hybrid at 36/31/34 mpg city/highway/combined in its less-equipped Blue version, 33/30/32 mpg in better-equipped (and, thus, heavier) trims. That trails the Venza’s 40/37/39 mpg rating, but the Santa Fe is larger, more powerful and significantly roomier than that car — and a few hundred pounds heavier. The gas-only Santa Fe only managed a maximum rating of 25/28/26 mpg.