An early taste of the new look Santa Fe portends quite the SUV competitor.

– Seoul, South Korea

With the distractions of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and my first-ever time driving a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle, you’d think that testing a new compact SUV would be the least interesting part of my recent trip to South Korea. But after a day spent cracking along seaside roads with occasional pitstops for exotic dried fish snacks, it was abundantly clear that with the 2019 Santa Fe, Hyundai has an exciting entry.

For starters, you didn’t misread that “compact” bit. Hyundai is dropping the slightly confusing Santa Fe Sport name, moving the Santa Fe down a size to compete with the likes of the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, and Honda CR-V. Even still, the MY19 Santa Fe is larger than the outgoing SUV in just about every direction: 3.1 inches up in overall length, 2.6 up in wheelbase, and plus 0.4 inches in width.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

Just to muddy the waters a bit more, while the Santa Fe will launch as a two-row, five-seat vehicle, it will offer a long-wheelbase, seven-seat “Santa Fe XL” variant in 2019. At least in the U.S., that seven-seater will only come equipped with a 2.2-liter turbodiesel engine. Does all of that make sense to anyone outside Hyundai product planning? I’m not sure, but let’s roll with it for now.

Unfortunately, my drive didn’t reveal anything about the powertrain experience as North American readers will know it. That’s because all of the test vehicles were equipped with a 2.0-liter turbodiesel, making 180 horsepower and 292 pound-feet of torque, that is not slated for U.S. shores. Instead we’ll get a 2.4-liter gas engine with 185 hp and 178 lb-ft as the base engine, or a turbocharged 2.0-liter with 232 hp and 260 lb-ft for the top gas-powered offering, or that 2.2 diesel making 200 hp and 320 lb-ft. All three of the powertrains offered here will use an eight-speed automatic transmission.

The turbodiesel that I did drive may be forbidden fruit for Americans, but my sense is the Santa Fe will have more appeal with the bigger diesel or the turbo gasoline motor. The lower-output diesel, though torquey and well-willing to execute my passing commands around slower traffic, was rough to listen to, with its clatter coming through to the cabin on medium and hard accelerations.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

Thankfully, the ride and handling proposition was a lot more refined. The drive route included a lot of two-lane roads mixed in with plenty of highway driving, and the Santa Fe’s underpinnings kept badly surfaced roadways in check. Response to requests for quick changes of direction still called out a slowish reaction time, but it wasn’t balky enough to be concerned about for run-of-the mill driving situations. In fact, there was less bodyroll than I’d anticipated when curvy sections of seaside road opened up.

There weren’t any wet or icy road surfaces on which to test the HTRAC all-wheel-drive system, but experience in other Hyundai products tells us that it’s effective. Electronic torque distribution can see up to 50-percent of available power delivered to the rear wheels in Sport mode, allowing for tidy and quick corner exits, should you so desire.

Again, all of the above deserves an asterisk: the vehicles we drove were tuned for the Korean market. Final impressions on all of this will have to wait until the North American launch of the Santa Fe… still, I have hope for good things.

What won’t change for the U.S. market – and arguably far more important for SUV shoppers – is the work done to dramatically improve interior and exterior styling for the ’19 Santa Fe.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

Like so many manufacturers, Hyundai has developed a face for the vehicle that features an imposing grille and creative lighting signature. That wavy, honeycomb-esque grille will be available in chrome and matte black, and to my eyes looks modern without falling into the overworked category. The very slim LEDs at the top corners of the grille are daytime running lamps, while the more chunky and purposeful units below are the high and low beam headlamps.  

From the profile view, I really dig the extended glass (the day light opening or “DLO” for you car nerds), especially the neatly kinked terminus at the rearmost pillar. The glasshouse lightens the extravagantly curved bodywork and rear haunch, which reminds me of a scaled down and slightly better realized Infiniti QX80.

The interior design is more conventional looking than the exterior, though Hyundai has jammed the slightly conservative space with tons of technology. Looks and response of the top-spec, eight-inch infotainment screen were both impressive. As was the ability of Hyundai’s baked-in navigation software to shepherd me from the Korean countryside, into and through dense Seoul traffic. At least for the Korean market, the voice prompts were slightly more frequent and urgent than I would like on a daily basis, but the system got me back to my hotel with only one questionable turn amongst hundreds. A big, bright, heads up display also helped in this effort, and for highway driving the rear-view camera – that pops up in the instrument cluster when you signal – was tremendous.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe
2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

What’s more, one of our friends at Hyundai North America confirmed an impressive list of standard safety tech for the new Santa Fe. Here’s the exhaustive list: forward collision avoidance; blind-spot avoidance and assist; safe exit assist (so you or a passenger can’t open the door into oncoming traffic); rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist; lane keeping assist; smart cruise control; driver attention warning (with the weirdly traditional coffee cup icon); and high-beam assist. Sorry for the list of specs, but it does illustrate what should be a fantastic safety story for potential Hyundai buyers.

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe

Thankfully, I didn’t get first-hand experience with most of those safety systems, however, I did find the lane keep assist – which moves the steering wheel whilst in your hands – to be more aggressive than I’d like. You can switch the assist off, and I did, but I think a subtler application of force would be more appropriate.

It’s going to take a U.S.-spec car for me to delver full and final impressions on this 2019 Santa Fe. Will the 2.0T be good or great? Does one-touch access to the third-row save effort, and is that rear seat worth a damn? How are the shocks, springs, and dampers differently adjusted for American roadways? But this extensive sneak peek does show how serious Hyundai is about vying for best-in-segment honors here. As always, the proof is in the pudding, but the test batch tastes delicious (not at all like dried fish).

Engine Turbodiesel 2.0-Liter I4
Output 180 Horsepower / 292 Pound-Feet
Transmission 8-Speed Automatic
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 36.6 / 71.3 Cubic Feet
On Sale Summer 2018
Base Price $23,000 (est)

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe: First Drive