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The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It poured with rain for most of the two days I drove Hyundai’s new Santa Fe Hybrid. Cold, dirty water splashed everywhere, which made me grateful for the clean, dry cabin and warm heater. The SUV scarcely seemed to notice the slippery roads or the dim light.

This hybrid is an all-new vehicle for Hyundai, though the Santa Fe itself is only “refreshed” from the redesign that debuted a couple of years ago. Conventional versions are powered by either a regular or a turbocharged 2.5-litre engine, but the hybrid has a 1.6-litre turbocharged inline-four under the hood that’s hooked up to an electric motor and a six-speed automatic transmission.

This is unusual; almost every other hybrid engine uses the belts and pulleys of a continuously variable transmission to send power to the wheels, because that’s more fuel-efficient. The Santa Fe, however, as well as the new Tucson Hybrid, which uses the same mechanicals, prefers the better response of the automatic gears for a more satisfying drive.

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This means the Santa Fe Hybrid really doesn’t drive like a hybrid but more like a conventional SUV. It has gear paddles on the steering wheel for shifting cogs, and when you remember they’re there, they’re engaging to use. There’s an electronic Sport setting that makes the throttle and transmission a little more responsive and sends more torque to the rear wheels, but this is not a sporty vehicle, and nobody’s going to confuse you on the road for a performance car. Probably, nobody will notice you on the road at all.

The Santa Fe Hybrid uses a six-speed transmission instead of a CVT, which is found in most other hybrids.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

In theory, the Santa Fe will run on just electricity for short periods, shutting off the gas engine if it’s not needed, but in practice, it rarely does so. Even with gentle acceleration, the SUV’s engine will help power things along. It will shut off at standstill and while braking or just slowing down, which does help save some fuel, but there is no button to force it to use only electric power. Not that you would really notice without looking for the little “EV” light to illuminate between the gauges.

Overall, the hybrid Santa Fe uses an average of 2.6 litres less fuel to cover 100 kilometres than its AWD gas equivalent. I got the impression the Hyundai engineers could have saved even more fuel but wanted to keep the all-wheel-drive vehicle responsive and satisfying to drive. The 44 kW electric motor adds an extra 48 hp to the overall power, creating 226 hp and 258 lbs-ft of torque, and that’s enough to tow a 2,000-lb trailer.

The gear shifter has been replaced by shift-by-wire buttons, which allow for a small storage space under the centre console.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There are two trim levels available for the hybrid. The less costly is a $2,900 upgrade from the mid-level Preferred trim, and then there’s a stand-alone Luxury Hybrid trim that throws in some more comfort options and the large centre display screen as standard.

If you’re interested in a new Santa Fe Hybrid, you would do well to compare it to the just released 2022 Tucson Hybrid. The Tucson is a little smaller and between $500 to $2,300 less expensive, depending on which trim packages you consider. It has a bit less space inside for its passengers, but it does have slightly more cargo space thanks to clever interior design.

Tech specs

2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid

The Santa Fe Hybrid is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine and a 44-kW electric motor.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

  • Base price/As tested: $39,299 / $43,799 plus $1,925 Freight and PDI
  • Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder and 44-kW electric motor
  • Transmission/Drive: six-speed / AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 City, 7.9 Hwy., 7.4 comb.
  • Alternatives: Ford Escape Hybrid, Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, Hyundai Tucson Hybrid

Looks

Despite a widened grille and redesigned lights, the Santa Fe doesn't look much different from last year's model.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The front grille is wider than before, and the lights have been redesigned both front and back to update the new vehicle, but otherwise there’s not much changed from last year. This isn’t a bad thing; there wasn’t anything wrong with the previous design. There are some extra creases in the panels now, but otherwise, you’ll still have to honk the horn in the mall parking lot for the Santa Fe to stand out from all the other SUVs.

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Interior

A panoramic sunroof makes the cabin feel open and airy.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Even less has changed inside, though the gear shifter is now gone. It’s replaced with simple shift-by-wire buttons that allow for a small storage space beneath the centre console, which is crowned by a larger 10.25-inch touch-screen display in the Luxury trim level. The interior feels open and airy, helped by a panoramic two-piece sunroof over both rows of seats that is part of a $2,100 options package in the lower-priced hybrid.

Performance

The power output of the 226 hp hybrid is comfortably in the middle of the other two engine options for the Santa Fe, which makes 191 hp for the regular 2.5-litre engine and 277 hp for the turbocharged edition. This means it’s not too fast and not too slow, and over all, it feels very well balanced. The all-wheel-drive system has electronic settings for handling mud, snow and sand. The non-hybrids have eight-speed gearboxes to help reduce their fuel consumption, but better mileage for its own sake was clearly not the priority for this hybrid; you’ll forget it’s not a more conventional SUV. If you like driving, this is a good thing.

Technology

The Santa Fe Hybrid's tech suite includes the latest version of Hyundai's SmartSense safety systems.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Much of the reason for refreshing any vehicle midway through its model cycle is to update the available technology, which improves so fast these days it’s a challenge to keep up. The Santa Fe is no exception. It’s now available with Hyundai’s very latest SmartSense system, which includes smart cruise control, blind-spot collision and rear-cross-traffic collision assistance, and all those other things unheard of at this price just five years ago.

Not everything, however, is available with the hybrid in either of its two Preferred or Luxury trims. You need to buy the turbocharged Ultimate Calligraphy edition to get the blind view monitor, for example, which is one of Hyundai’s neater tricks. Flip on the indicator and it displays a camera image of the appropriate rear-side view in place of the digital speedometer or tachometer. This is available with the new Tucson Hybrid, so it will surely be coming soon to the Santa Fe Hybrid.

Cargo

The Santa Fe actually has slightly less cargo space behind the seats than its Tuscon stablemate.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

As mentioned, there’s more passenger space in the Santa Fe Hybrid than in the 2022 Tucson Hybrid, but the Tucson actually has more cargo space – 1,095 litres behind the rear seats, compared to 1,032 litres for the Santa Fe. There is, at least, no shortage of storage cubbies for passengers up front to lose pens and coins and paperwork.

The verdict

If you want a mid-sized SUV that saves you the most money on gas, you should consider the comparable Ford Escape Hybrid and the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Both have better fuel-consumption numbers, and both have basic versions that are several thousand dollars cheaper. If you want a vehicle that drives like a reasonably-powerful conventional SUV but uses less fuel than its equivalents and salves your environmental conscience, then the Santa Fe might be your choice. Just be sure to consider the new Tucson, too.

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Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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