by Roger Biermann
Hyundai hopes the game-changing Palisade will arrive towards the end of 2019 as a 2020 model, but until then it's rejigged the Santa Fe line-up and naming scheme for 2019. It seems a little strange, but what was the two-row Santa Fe Sport is now all-new and dubbed the Santa Fe and what was the three-row Santa Fe is now dubbed the Santa Fe XL, with a mild redesign to tide it over in its final year. In the midsize SUV class, numerous rivals offer three-row alternatives, and with the new Subaru Ascent joining the mix last year and models like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, the Santa Fe XL could well be a desperate attempt to retain market share until the Palisade launches. Both trim derivatives are powered by a 3.3-liter V6 generating 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque, driving either the front pair or all four wheels through a six-speed automatic gearbox. The Dodge Durango, Subaru Ascent, and Mazda CX-9 are chief rivals to the Santa Fe XL, but all start at a higher MSRP.
The Santa Fe XL continues into 2019, its final year, almost completely unchanged from the 2018 model. The major difference is the change in name, as the former Santa Fe Sport has dropped the 'Sport' suffix while the old Santa Fe is now the XL. A few minor updates have been made, such as the availability of the AVN 5.0 infotainment system with an eight-inch touchscreen, a faster processor, navigation, and HD Radio Traffic. Aside from those changes, this is the same as last year's Santa Fe in just about all aspects.
The Santa Fe XL is one of the last of Hyundai's previous-generation designs, but the design seems to be aging well and still looks good amongst its segment peers. Flanking the grille on either side are trapezoidal headlight clusters housing standard projector headlamps with LED accents and LED daytime running lights as standard. Optional on the Limited Ultimate model, buyers can upgrade the headlights to HID headlights with dynamic bending light functionality. The foglights are LED as standard on the higher of the two trims but can be optioned as such on the base SE trim.
The black-clad wheel arches house 18-inch alloy wheels on the SE model, and 19-inch alloy wheels for the Limited Ultimate model. Large taillight clusters are LED units on the Limited Ultimate, while both models feature a metallic-finish diffuser and dual trapezoidal exhaust tips.
Both the SE and Limited Ultimate boast identical dimensions in most regards, measuring 193.1-inches in length on a 110.2-inch wheelbase. The Santa Fe XL measures 74.2-inches wide and 66.9-inches tall including the standard side roof rails. Despite the SE featuring 18-inch alloys and the Limited Ultimate 19-inch alloys, both models feature the same track width of 64.1-inches in front and 64.5-inches at the rear. The only difference in size comes at the scales, where the SE is marginally heavier than the Limited Ultimate by nine lbs. The Lightest variant is the Limited Ultimate in front-wheel drive guise at 4,017 lbs, while the all-wheel drive SE bears a curb weight of 4,178 lbs.
For 2019, the Santa Fe XL maintains last years eight-strong color palette, with demure tones including Monaco White, Circuit Silver, Iron Frost, Java Espresso, Night Sky Pearl, and Becketts Black. Storm Blue and Regal Red Pearl add extra dashes of color and life to the otherwise plain palette, and all colors are available at no extra cost and on both available trim lines.
Performance across both Santa Fe XL trim lines is equal, with both drawing 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque from a 3.3-liter V6. While front-wheel drive is standard, all-wheel drive is optional, matching what most of the three-row crossover segment offers. Performance is decent with a sub-eight second 0-60 mph sprint, but other turbocharged competitors like the Mazda CX-9 manage the sprint a little quicker. However, where the Santa Fe XL fares well is its towing performance. Regardless of trim, the Santa Fe XL's maximum towing capacity is rated at 5,000 pounds, which is decent for the class but well below the maximum hauling ability of truck-based body on frame SUVs that offer the better towing ability and better off-road capabilities.
There's just a single engine and gearbox combination on offer in the Hyundai Santa Fe XL. A 3.3-liter gasoline V6 engine lies under the hood developing 290 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque, which are better figures than many competitors. The engine is actually relatively strong, but the throttle programming is poor and there's a massive delay between throttle application and an actual response accompanied by acceleration. That means accelerating into gaps or accelerating up to highway speeds takes some preempting. Mated to the V6 is a six-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox, with no manual option available. The six-speed shifts smoothly, slurring from one gear to the next quietly and comfortably, but it doesn't do much to aid the engine's poor responses.
From behind the wheel, there's a lot to like about the Santa Fe XL. Primarily it's the way in which it doesn't feel as large as its XL nomenclature suggests. Large crossovers often feel as such, making them ungainly and awkward to use, but out on the road the Santa Fe XL shrinks around the driver and there's a good sense of where its extremities are in relation to lane markings and road edges. This is great, and it makes maneuvering parking lots an easy affair.
The XL also offers a great deal of shielding from road and wind noise, though the same can't be said for its ability to shield the occupants from the bumps and poor road surfaces. The front end feels solid and tied down, but the rear end lacks this same composure. That's likely due to the stiffened suspension to accommodate an extra row of passengers back there, but the rear gets skittish and unsettled on bumpy surfaces and larger bumps send it bouncing. It compromises the levels of comfort for all occupants, as the vibrations picked up at the rear work through the chassis and unsettle all three rows of occupants.
The steering is decent but lacks feedback, and at mid-level speeds requires more input than we'd like to get the change of direction needed. But that's not exclusive to the XL.
There is however one glaring problem with the XL's drive, and it's the way it delivers its power. On paper, and in practice, the V6 motor has good power and torque. But try and accelerate through a briefly open gap in traffic, a foot jammed to the carpet, and there's a noticeable delay as you first wait, then hope and pray for a response. When it arrives, there's decent punch, but the responses need to be better than this.
The base Santa Fe XL SE in front-wheel drive offers fuel consumption estimates of 18/25/21 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles according to the EPA, with the Limited Ultimate averaging less on the highway and combined cycles at 23 and 20 mpg respectively. Equipping all-wheel drive comes with a slight decrease in economy, with EPA figures of 18/24/20 mpg for the SE, while the Limited Ultimate claims estimates of 17/22/19 mpg. These figures are below what rivals achieve, particularly those with turbocharged engines. All Santa Fe XLs are equipped with an 18.8-gallon fuel tank, with the SE FWD achieving a maximum range of 395 miles in mixed driving conditions.
The overall look and feel of the Santa Fe XL's cabin is generally premium, particularly with the SE's Premium Package or on the Limited Ultimate. High-quality materials are paired with a logical, well-arranged layout that falls to hand easily with buttons that respond well to the touch. The front seats are comfortable, with the driver's seat boasting standard power adjustment and lumbar support, and with both occupants given loads of room. Likewise in the second row, where you can spec either a bench seat or two captain's chairs, with sliding and reclining adjustment. The third-row doesn't share the same spaciousness and is cramped as far as adults are concerned. Cloth seating surfaces are standard on the SE, with optional leather, meanwhile, there are upgrades like heated seats, ventilated seats, and a heated steering wheel available. The second-row features two full sets of LATCH anchors.
Three rows of seating await occupants of the Santa Fe XL, with a standard 40/20/40 split second-row bench with sliding and reclining adjustment and a 50/50 split third-row bench seating up to seven occupants, while the Limited Ultimate swaps out the second row for two individual captain's chairs and a six-seater configuration. The front two rows are commodious and comfortable for short and long journeys alike, but the third row is lacking in legroom and not suited to adult passengers. A wide array of driver's seat adjustment, eight-way power adjustment with four-way power lumbar support, and optional power adjustment on the front passenger seat ensure comfortable seating, while visibility is decent for the most part.
Default seating finishes on the SE are cloth appointments, available in either beige or gray. The color choice is accompanied by color coordinated upper door panels, dash panels, and a matching headliner. Available as part of the SE Premium Package and standard on the Limited Ultimate, cloth surfaces are replaced by leather, with an additional hue added to the color chart. Buyers can opt between gray, beige, and black, with perforated leather on the main seating and backrest panels to accommodate heating and ventilation. Once again, matching dash and door panels are equipped based on the color of the leather chosen. The upgrade to Limited Premium also updates the dash inserts with wood-look inserts in place of the resin inserts on the base SE.
The Santa Fe XL compromises third-row seating for the sake of competitive cargo volumes but still falls short compared to class-leading rivals. Cargo volumes are 13.5/40.9/80 cubic feet behind the third-row/second-row/front-row seating respectively. That's more than the Mazda CX-9, but lags behind options like the Toyota Highlander. The tailgate opens high and the load sill is at a decent height for easy loading. Standard on the Limited Ultimate, and optional on the SE, is a hands-free liftgate that works in conjunction with the proximity key to open automatically when your hands are full without having to wave a leg underneath the rear bumper.
Interior storage options are decent but by no means the best in class, with numerous cupholders, a decently large bin beneath the center console armrest and an equally capacious bin fore of the gear selector. Door pockets are decently sized for the front and second row of seating. Storage options for the third row are limited though, with only small bins built into the rear wheel arches.
Though there are only two trims available, the Santa Fe XL is impressively equipped. Standard on both trims, you'll find dual-zone climate control, eight-way power driver's seat adjustment, tilt-and-telescoping steering, and cruise control. Optional features include heated front seats, front passenger seat power adjustment, a third row USB outlet, manual rear sunshades, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Added to the Limited Ultimate you'll find keyless entry with push-button start, a hands-free liftgate, a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, six-passenger seating with second-row captain's chairs, power seat adjustment with memory, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, a 115-volt power outlet in the cargo area, third-row USB outlet, heated steering wheel, rear park sensors, a multi-view camera system, and with optional access to smart cruise control, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and high-beam assist.
Standard infotainment on the XL SE is by means of a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with AM/FM/SiriusXM/HD Radio functionality and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The upgrade to Limited Ultimate comes with an upgraded eight-inch touchscreen navigation system. This larger infotainment setup is paired with a 12-speaker Infinity premium audio system with Quantum Logic surround sound and Clari-Fi music restoration technology. Standard on the top trim, and optional on the SE, there's an available third-row USB port for charging of mobile devices. The standard system comes equipped with three-years of complimentary Blue Link Connected Car Services, which adds to the technological cocktail with Amazon Alexa voice services. The Amazon Echo device can be used to remotely start the engine and set temperature controls before you even leave the house.
Most modern Hyundais are highly reliable, but the Santa Fe XL has suffered more problems than most of Hyundai's other offerings. J.D Power rated the XL at an overall reliability score of 79 out of 100. The Toyota Highlander scores marginally better at 80 out of 100 while Mazda's CX-9 scores worse at 76. A few issues have been reported like slipping gearboxes, stalling, and other potential drivetrain issues. There have been several recalls during the course of the XL's previous incarnation as a Santa Fe, but the 2019 model seems to have rectified many of the issues, and as the run-out model may well be the most reliable one yet, while Hyundai's extensive warranty guarantees peace of mind.
Safety scores for the Santa Fe XL are high from both government safety agencies, with the IIHS awarding it as a 2019 Top Safety Pick due to the strong forward collision avoidance systems optionally available. The NHTSA, meanwhile, scored the XL five out of five stars.
While there's the standard raft of stability controls, the Santa Fe XL's best safety features are those found on the Limited Ultimate model which include rear park sensors, and a multi-view reverse camera, with optional smart cruise control with start/stop, lane departure warning, high beam assist, and crucially, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. It's these features that make the Limited Ultimate worth the extra spend. Additionally, you'll find seven airbags as standard, including dual front airbags, front side airbags, side curtain airbags, and a driver's knee airbag.
The Santa Fe XL isn't the first seven-seater crossover to sprint to mind with options such as the Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9, and new Subaru Ascent on the market, but it does represent a huge value-for-money option against those rivals and many others. However, there are compromises, chief among which is cramped third-row seating and relatively small cargo volume, while we're also not fans of the troublesome throttle responses, sub-par consumption figures, and the jittery ride quality. We wouldn't rate the Santa Fe XL a class-leader, but if you're in the market looking for a left-field choice, you could do worse. Our tip would be to wait until Fall rolls around, by which time the Palisade will be along to replace the XL, meaning you should find some pretty good deal on this outgoing model.
With the same drivetrains, it's the specification that separates the two Santa Fe XL trims. The base SE starts off at $30,950 in FWD guise with cloth upholstery and limited features, excluding licensing, tax, registration, and a $1,045 destination charge. Moving up to the Limited Ultimate comes with a starting MSRP of $39,650, but adding a few options with all-wheel drive and the Optional Tech Package, will set you back in the region of $43,400, making it nearly $13,000 more expensive than the base model XL.
The Santa Fe XL is available in two trims, the SE and Limited Ultimate. Both models are powered by a 290-hp 3.3 liter V6 driving the front wheels as standard with all-wheel drive optional, with both drivetrains equipped to a six-speed automatic gearbox.
The base SE is equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels, projector headlights, cloth upholstery, dual zone climate control, seven-passenger seating, eight-way power driver's seat adjustment, tilt-and-telescoping steering, cruise control, and a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with six speakers, SiriusXM/HD Radio capabilities, and full Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.
The Limited Ultimate features 19-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights, LED foglights, a standard proximity key with push-button starts, and a hands-free liftgate - the latter an option on the SE. Inside, the Limited Ultimate gets a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, six-passenger seating with second-row captain's chairs, power seat adjustment with memory, heated and ventilated front seats, heated second-row seats, a 115-volt power outlet in the cargo area, third-row USB outlet, heated steering wheel, and an eight-inch navigation system with an Infinity premium sound system. Safety-wise, it includes rear park sensors, a multi-view camera system, and with optional access to smart cruise control, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and high-beam assist.
With just two trims available, Hyundai saw fit to include two options packages to further enhance the offering of both trim lines.
The Premium Package for the base-level SE equips a substantial amount of kit for a $3,650 asking price, upgrading seating surfaces to leather, equipping premium door sills, a third-row USB outlet, power adjustable passenger seat, heated front seats, rear window sunshades, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear selector, a proximity key with push-button start, hands-free liftgate, and an electroluminescent gauge cluster with color LCD multi-function display. The package also equips LED front foglights and dual power side mirrors with integrated turn signals, while on the safety front it adds blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane change assist. All of these features are standard on the Limited Ultimate.
Comparatively, the Tech Package for the Limited Ultimate adds substantially less equipment, but at $2,100 it also costs a lot less. For the money, Hyundai will equip the XL with smart cruise control with stop/start, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, an electronic parking brake with automatic vehicle hold, high-intensity discharge headlights, dynamic bending lights, and high beam assist.
It may seem an expensive step up from the base derivative, but the standard Limited Ultimate in front-wheel drive guise strikes the best value for money proposition. Additional exterior styling enhancements are more appealing, while the standard leather upholstery, larger infotainment system, and addition of a panoramic sunroof, second-row captain's chairs, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and standard navigation ensure it's got enough creature comforts to justify the price. But it also receives additional safety features in the form of a multi-view camera, rear park sensors, smart cruise control, lane departure warning, and auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, making the Limited Ultimate a safer family option even though it loses a single seat in the process.
In the three-row crossover category, the Honda Pilot stands out as one of the best. While both offer three-row seating, the Pilot has better accommodation in the third row for taller occupants, and ingress and egress are easier too. It boasts more cargo space as well, and its engine is more responsive, while also being more frugal. The Pilot is better to drive, with greater levels of composure on a wider array of surfaces. The Santa Fe XL, however, offers huge value for money with a high number of features at an impressive price, and with an infotainment system superior to that of the Pilot. But ultimately, the Pilot is better in most aspects and is a recommended pick in this segment.
The Santa Fe XL is one of the cheapest seven-seat SUVs around, and it packs in a fair amount of technology for the price. But while the Mazda CX-9 may be more expensive than the Santa Fe XL, it borders on premium in feel and specification levels. While the Mazda's third-row of seats may not offer much more than the Hyundai, the front two rows are spacious and luxurious, and all the details throughout the cabin ooze class. The Mazda offers high levels of safety and infotainment connectivity, matched by the Santa Fe XL, but the material quality is superior on the Mazda. The Mazda extends its superiority to its drive, with a driver-focused suspension and a potent turbocharged engine that performs vastly better than the Hyundai does. The Mazda may be more expensive, but it's superior in just about all aspects.