2021 Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy Review: Premium Without The Premium
The 2021 Kia Sorento is one of our favorite new crossovers. It’s stylish, nice to drive, and super comfy. So it only makes sense that we love the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe equally given that the two vehicles share so many of the same basic parts and features.
This particular model is the high-end Calligraphy trim. As in the larger Palisade, the Calligraphy model represents luxury, offering standard Nappa leather, a distinctive exterior design – including trim-specific wheels – and a few features inside that you won’t find elsewhere in the range. But even with all those extras, this Santa Fe costs just $43,990 as tested, which makes it a bargain compared to what some of the alternatives deliver at the same price.
A vehicle’s ratings are relative only to its own segment and not the new-vehicle market as a whole. For more on how Motor1.com rates cars, click here.
Hyundai has been on a roll with some of its more recent designs – the Ioniq 5, Tucson, and Santa Cruz are all great. So we’re not entirely sure why the Santa Fe turned out like this. The front grille looks funky, highlighted by a garish chrome treatment and embedded headlights on each corner that are nearly imperceptible at first glance. There’s lots of chrome around the lower intake, and it looks rather chintzy. Plus the ultra-slim daytime LEDs sit high up on the bumper, practically bordering the hood line. The entire front fascia just feels like a jumbled mess.
But beyond that questionable front end, the rest of the Santa Fe’s styling is clean and inoffensive. The multi-spoke 19-inch wheels look handsome within the non-cladded wheel arches (a rarity these days), the taillights cleanly extend out and over the rear fender, and the subtle silvery detailing on the back of the Santa Fe actually adds a premium feel, as opposed to the same treatment on the front end. You can get 20-inch wheels on the standard Calligraphy model, but we actually prefer the slightly smaller shoes.
While the exterior may not be to everyone’s liking, at least the inside of the Santa Fe Calligraphy looks and feels luxurious, on par with proper luxury brands like Cadillac and Infiniti. A 12.3-inch digital cluster lives behind the steering wheel, joined by a 10.3-inch touchscreen atop the dash, with a bank of shiny buttons and dials just below that. Calligraphy-exclusive beige Nappa leather surrounds those fixtures, covering the seats, dash, and portions of the door panels. And it’s all high-quality stuff. Plus the seats wear a quilted accenting on the side and shoulder bolsters that further enhances the look and feel.
Upgrading to the Calligraphy trim affords you levels of comfort that you won’t find anywhere else in the Santa Fe range – or most other places in this segment for that matter. Quilted Nappa leather comes standard on the seats, door trim, and portions of the dash, and the high-quality cowhide has a nice supple feel. The seats are comfortable and cushy with great support, offering eight-way power adjustability, four-way power lumbar support, and even extendable thigh support, which means you’ll have no trouble getting comfy in these chairs over long distances. They’re also heated and ventilated at no extra cost.
As in the standard Santa Fe, passenger space is plentiful – including a class-leading 44.1 inches of front legroom and a roomy back seat that rivals its nearest competitors. Plus, heating functionality now comes standard in the rear. The Calligraphy model doesn’t include special sound deadening, nor a softer suspension, but the Santa Fe is already a quiet and comfortable crossover.
If you want a third row, the Santa Fe has a sibling in the Kia Sorento that offers it. Otherwise, the two-row-only Hyundai has 36.4 cubic feet of room behind the back seat and 72.1 cubes with that bench folded flat. Unfortunately, those are some of the lowest figures in the class.
The base Santa Fe SE and the next-up SEL models both get a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen with analog gauge clusters. But the Limited and Calligraphy trims don a sleeker 10.3-inch central screen with a corresponding 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. The touchscreen is crisp and responsive, while Hyundai’s latest user interface is undoubtedly its best yet. The home screen layout is clear and concise, and the selectable options are easy to use while driving.
Like many modern Hyundai and Kia products though, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are reserved for the base SE and SEL models. Those two trims get a smaller screen and the old UI. The Limited and Calligraphy models get a larger screen and the new UI, but they only offer wired connections for Android Auto and CarPlay. On top of that, the non-removable split-screen function shrinks Android Auto and CarPlay to a smaller left-hand partition on the screen.
The Calligraphy model, though, does get a standard Harman Kardon premium audio system with 12 speakers that sound crystal clear, a model-exclusive head-up display, as well automatic windows for both front and rear passengers. Plus, the digital gauge cluster is a cool option to have as it’s highly configurable and offers custom graphics depending on the drive mode.
Powering both the Santa Fe Limited and Calligraphy is a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 281 horsepower and 311 pound-feet. Those figures are best-in-class – not counting the performance-oriented Edge ST – and a huge improvement over the base SE and SEL models. Those trims use a non-turbocharged four-banger that only pumps out 191 hp and 181 lb-ft.
That turbocharged engine gives the Santa Fe Calligraphy lots of pep off the line and great passing power on the highway. The turbo does take a second to spool up, but the standard eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission makes up for some of that hesitation when the Santa Fe gets moving. This is a quick gearbox with concise shifts – it’s markedly better than most automatic or continuously variable transmissions in other mid-size crossovers. Our only complaint is that the DCT can be clunky in low-speed situations, like when tooling around looking for a parking spot at the mall.
Handling isn’t necessarily a strong point of the Santa Fe’s performance portfolio either, with noticeable body movements in corners. But the steering is well-weighted and responsive, and the suspension setup is just taut enough to tell you what the SUV is doing at all times. Plus, all-wheel drive comes standard on this particular model (the Calligraphy with 19-inch wheels) and includes a selectable “Snow” mode for when the going gets tough.
Even the base Santa Fe SE is well-equipped with standard active safety features like automatic emergency braking, a forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keep assist. The next-up SEL adds rear automatic emergency braking as well as a blind-spot collision avoidance system. But it’s the Limited and Calligraphy models that offer the Santa Fe’s advanced active safety suite as standard.
The Calligraphy gets a 360-degree overhead camera and a blind-spot camera within the gauge cluster (activated via the indicator stalk), as well as the Highway Driving Assist (HDA) feature, which remains one of our favorites.
Simply tick the HDA button on the steering wheel while the adaptive cruise control is active and the crossover will stay perfectly centered in the lane. Constant automatic steering inputs minimize the driver’s workload, even around some turns, but this is still a fully hands-on driver aid. Braking and acceleration happen smoothly with HDA engaged, so there’s little issue with how the Santa Fe responds to surrounding traffic.
With returns of 21 miles per gallon city, 28 highway, and 24 combined, the Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy with all-wheel drive is the most efficient option in the class. The next-best Nissan Murano with AWD achieves 23 combined, while the Honda Passport, Ford Edge, and Jeep Grand Cherokee all achieve 21 combined at their most efficient. Although, we only saw 22 mpg combined mpg during our week with the Hyundai Santa Fe in a mix of city and highway driving.
The base Hyundai Santa Fe starts at $28,185, including the $1,185 destination charge, which makes it the only option in the class that asks under $30,000 to start. The top-of-the-line Calligraphy model costs $41,935 with front-wheel drive and $43,435 with all-wheel drive and 19-inch wheels. This particular model – the latter option the two – asks $43,990 as tested.
Hyundai doesn’t offer many options on the Calligraphy model, as nearly everything comes standard. But the Calypso Red paint is $400 and carpeted floor mats are a $155 accessory option. If you’re feeling especially thrifty, the Calligraphy has six no-cost color options, including Stormy Sea blue.
But for the money, the Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy represents a supremely good value. The range-topping Honda Passport Elite costs $44,180 to start, while the top Nissan Murano Platinum asks $45,910. And the only alternative that even offers Nappa leather in this segment is the Jeep Grand Cherokee High Altitude, which costs $50,680 out of the box. Pair that with some of the best active safety equipment in the segment, a premium cabin, and solid dynamics, and the Hyundai Santa Fe Calligraphy is a great choice.