The Hyundai Santa Fe has a new look for 2021, and with it, a revised diesel drivetrain that feels more athletic and responsive. Is that enough to put it right at the top of its class?

What is it?

Sat between the Tucson and Palisade, the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is the smaller of Hyundai’s two three-row SUVs, and after three years on sale has been treated to a new look both inside and out, along with some drivetrain updates for diesel-powered versions.

Although pricing starts at $44,700 for the base Santa Fe 3.5 Petrol, the Highlander 2.2 Diesel on test here is the most expensive in the range at $65,200.

Why are we testing it?

Having last looked at the pre-facelift Santa Fe only a year ago, it was an opportune time to see just how big a difference this update has made to the Santa Fe. With some really good rivals in this class as well, such as the closely-related Kia Sorento GT-Line, it needs to be good to stand out as well.

What’s different on the outside?

The front is where the most drastic work has been done on the Santa Fe, with it looking far more modern and particularly more classy than the old fascia design. The daytime running light signature that links between the two divided lighting elements helps tie it together more than before, while the wider but shorter grille helps it look more imposing. It perhaps looks better in person than in pictures, but nonetheless, I certainly like it a lot.

The new wheel designs look great as well, particularly the 20-inch rims on the Highlander model tested here. They look intricate yet not too busy, and the go-faster appearance adds a splash of sportiness into the mix as well.

At the back, it hops onto the lightbar trend – seen on cars like the Kia Stinger, Audi S8, and some Porsches – in a big way, not only adding a full-width lightbar under the rear window but also a matching reflector strip along the bottom as well. One thing that has been lost at the back, though, is a proper exhaust outlet, with a downturned hidden-away pipe behind the bumper now instead. All around, though, it’s an attractive redesign in my eyes, certainly managing to look premium enough to match its price tag.

What’s the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe like inside?

Hyundai has really been on a roll when it comes to interior quality at the moment, particularly in models that bear a more expensive price tag, and that is most certainly the case with the Santa Fe Highlander. Full perforated and quilted Nappa leather upholstery throughout, a suede headliner, and aluminium trim on the centre console certainly give it a properly luxe feel throughout, and small details like using leather on sections of the dashboard only go to amplify that.

Two big displays reside on the dashboard – a 12.3-inch one in the gauge cluster, and a 10.0-inch one for the infotainment system perched atop the dashboard. They’re both the same fare you’ll find in a host of other Hyundai models, but that’s no bad thing – the screen resolution is great, and both displays offer a decent level of configurability when it comes to colours and layout.

The infotainment system offers integrated satellite navigation as standard in the Highlander, and while all models feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s wireless but very glitchy in the base and Active grades, but wired and more reliable in the Elite and Highlander. All models do offer wireless phone charging as standard, though.

The Highlander does offer a few things not found on other models, such as a 360-degree surround-view camera system and ‘Remote Smart Park’ which effective turns your Santa Fe into a big RC car, with controls on the key fob to move it forwards or backwards remotely. What’s perhaps more useful than that admittedly somewhat gimmicky feature, though, is the fact it features Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability as part of it’s fully-fledged active safety tech suite, and unlike some overly-sensitive systems of its kind, Hyundai’s manages to handle gradual bends with relative confidence and ease, and isn’t too annoying when it comes to telling you to put your hands back on the wheel either.

There are additional comfort features to be found as well for the extra spend, such as heated and ventilated 14-way power-adjustable front seats, heated rear seats, and a heated steering wheel. As notated under the infotainment screen, Elite and Highlander grades both receive a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, along with some conveniences that family buyers will truly appreciate – namely, a power-operated tailgate and second-row sunshades integrated into the doors, plus some third-row USB ports to keep the kids’ iPads charged. Chances are you’ll want to keep those third-row seats for kids though, as they’ll only really be suitable for shorter journeys if you’re putting adults back there, although it’s certainly doable. The second row being on sliding rails does offer good configurability, though, and there’s more than enough room for first and second-row occupants.

While it might command a hefty sum for a Hyundai in the eyes of many, you’re getting more than enough to justify the spend in my mind, especially when you look at how much the ageing Mazda CX-9 Azami costs, along with how much the step up to a Palisade will set you back.

What’s the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe like to drive?

Although the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine carries over identically to the facelift Santa Fe, diesel-powered models have been given a bit of a reworking. While the same basic 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine remains, it’s been given a number of revisions and improvements, although power is only up 1kW to 148kW, with torque remaining the same at a healthy 440Nm.

More importantly, the old eight-speed torque converter auto that remains with the V6 has been swapped out for a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. All-wheel drive does remain standard still, with the system able to operate both part-time with a front bias, or locked to a 50:50 split.

While the numbers remain much the same as before, the difference can clearly be felt with this revised diesel donk. It feels far less laboured than before, instead feeling surprisingly athletic and responsive for a diesel – something which is enabled and complemented by the dual-clutch auto.

It doesn’t bang gears like a Volkswagen DSG – really, it’s here for economy’s sake over performance – but it does shift fairly crisply and most importantly smoothly, rarely ever displaying the low-speed shudder some transmissions of its type are prone to. The base V6 might be a strong performer, if hindered by being front-wheel drive only in Australia, but this diesel is really where it’s at for the Santa Fe – more so now than ever.

Not only is the drivetrain right on the money, but the chassis tuning is as well. The ride quality is superbly smooth even on big rims; the steering feels weighty, substantial, and responsive; and it maintains decent composure for meandering around twisty backroads to find wineries and hidden lunch spots.

The CX-9 may perhaps feel more light-footed than the Santa Fe in this regard, but both are pretty close – and pretty damn good. All around, the Santa Fe ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to how it performs in the real world, and when taken out of its comfort zone.

How do the numbers add up?

To put the $65,200 list price of the Highlander into context, its twin under the skin, the Kia Sorento GT-Line, costs only fractionally less at $64,070 although the Santa Fe feels more substantial in a qualitative sense, while a Mazda CX-9 Akera will cost a whopping $70,625 with all-wheel drive, and the even-nicer Azami LE is an eye-watering $73,875. As such, I reckon it feels pretty fairly priced in this company.

As with all Hyundai models, it’s covered by an industry-standard five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, and the first five services are capped to $459 each for the diesel – the V6 petrol is less costly at $399 per visit.

Those numbers switch around when it comes to fuel consumption, unsurprisingly, with the diesel using 9.2L/100km during my 485km of testing – which, admittedly, is still a lot more than the optimistic 6.1L/100km claim, down from 7.5L/100km in the pre-facelift model. Last time we tested the V6 model in 2020, it used 10.8L/100km against a 10.6L/100km claim, although minor changes have seen that claim drop slightly to 10.5L/100km for 2021.

So, what’s the verdict?

My complaints with the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe are few and far between because, simply, this is a brilliant vehicle that’s only been made more brilliant with this update. It looks and feels premium, it’s unbelievably well specified, it’s great to drive, and it makes sense as a family car for larger families with younger children.

Sure, it’s pricey for a Hyundai, but this isn’t your average Hyundai – at least as the majority of people who’ve not paid close attention to, or had first-hand experience with the company’s current lineup, might think. If a family car is on the cards, make sure this has a spot on your shortlist, and might I suggest it should be right at the top of it.

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Highander 2.2 Diesel AWD List Price: $65,200
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 9/10
    Tech & Features - 9/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Bags of features and all of it is standard, much improved diesel drivetrain that’s more responsive and athletic, looks and feels premium enough to justify the price tag
Cons: Thirstier than promised, most costly to service than the petrol version, wireless Apple CarPlay limited to lower-tier versions

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Motor Company Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
Latest posts by Patrick Jackson (see all)
Share this article: