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We Have a Winner: Why the 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe Is the Best Mid-Size SUV

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

The 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe topped a selection of SUV rivals in a Cars.com comparison test. Sound familiar? It isn’t the first time it’s happened. Five years ago, Hyundai’s then-new SUV topped six competitors when the Santa Fe was a three-row SUV. Today, Hyundai has redesigned the Santa Fe as a mid-size SUV with two rows of seats — a mantle the Santa Fe Sport once held. The 2019 Santa Fe and 2014 are quite different SUVs, yet they had one thing in common: outstanding value.

2019 Mid-Size SUV Challenge
Results | Winner | How We Tested | Mileage Drive | Video

That’s a driving force behind the 2019 Santa Fe’s ascent up the mid-size mountain. The SUV eked out the No. 1 spot over the new Honda Passport in a photo finish, topping its Honda rival by just one point in a 540-point matchup. Four other model-year 2019 SUVs (the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Murano) ranked further behind.

Why did the Santa Fe win? How does it compare to the nearly tied Passport? Read on.

Value Honcho

Amid a group otherwise priced from the mid-$40,000s to the low $50,000s, our Santa Fe’s as-tested price — $39,905 including destination — made it the low-cost special. But that doesn’t signal bare-bones features: The Santa Fe Ultimate 2.0T with all-wheel drive came as well-equipped as its five peers, and then some. It was one of only three SUVs in the comparison with a sliding backseat, one of three with wireless smartphone charging, one of just two with second-row window shades and the only one with a head-up display. Most other features matched up, too.

For all that, an as-tested price 15 percent below the group average was none too shabby — and that’s before you consider Hyundai’s best-in-class warranty.

Cabin materials are competitive enough, with fewer of the grainy finishes that stung the outgoing Santa Fe Sport in our previous comparison of the mid-size class. For 2019, our Ultimate 2.0T AWD example even had some upscale touches: leather upholstery with few obvious stretches of vinyl, for example, and fabric-wrapped roof pillars all around.

Cabin storage and backseat space drew few complaints, but the front seats earned criticism for lumpy cushions and limited knee clearance. That’s among the biggest differences with the Passport, whose accommodating chairs and ubiquitous cubbies garnered strong marks in front-seat comfort and cabin storage.

Cargo, Controls Champ

The Santa Fe trumped all comers in two other scores: cargo space and ease of use for controls. By our measurements, luggage volume behind the backseat came a stone’s throw from the best-in-group Ford Edge (20.3 cubic feet for the Edge, 19.9 cubic feet for the Santa Fe), while maximum depth with the seats folded was 78 inches from the front-center console to the liftgate opening. That’s 5 inches more than in the Edge and tied with the Passport for deepest. The Santa Fe also had the most-upright liftgate angle in the group — better for cargo than a more-raked liftgate, like in the Edge or Blazer — plus a full slate of cargo-friendly features: substantial underfloor storage, a sliding second row and a powered liftgate with hands-free access.

Judges lauded Hyundai’s no-nonsense controls, an aspect we’ve praised in myriad cars from the automaker and its affiliates, Kia and Genesis. As-tested, three of the Santa Fe’s peers (the Blazer, Edge and Passport) lacked a stereo tuning knob, one (the Passport) threw in distracting touch-sensitive controls, and two (the Edge and Passport) had electronic gear selectors instead of tried-and-true shifters. The Santa Fe has physical knobs and buttons and a conventional gearshift, all in locations you’d expect. It’s a study in sensibility and a far cry from the Passport, whose user interface is more of a user facepalm.

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Winning Despite …

If the Santa Fe felt complete from a static standpoint, the other shoe dropped on drivability. Our test car’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder — an optional powertrain, slotting above the standard 2.4-liter non-turbo four-cylinder — drew complaints for uneven, peaky acceleration. Combined with an eight-speed automatic transmission prone to occasional kickdown hesitation, the drivetrain exhibits too much lag both from a stop and during passing maneuvers. And there’s no efficiency payoff to show for it: After taking all six SUVs on some 210 miles of mixed city and highway driving, our observed gas mileage in the Santa Fe (25.1 mpg) ranked just third.

The Passport’s V-6, by contrast, earned far better marks for drivetrain performance, with comparable observed mileage (24.9 mpg) to boot. That, plus strong scores for visibility, in-cabin storage scores and backseat comfort, brought the Passport into a virtual tie with the Hyundai. The scores are so close that shoppers could interpret them as a matter of preference. Want something roomy, quick and easy to see out of? Pick the Passport. Want value, cargo space and straightforward controls? Select a Santa Fe.

Ultimately, Hyundai eked out the top spot because the shoe only dropped on drivetrain and front-seat comfort. In other driving scores — braking, handling, ride quality and noise insulation — the Santa Fe fared acceptably, and its showing in other static categories were average or better.

Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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