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The automobile market is now being dominated by SUVs more so than ever before. Automakers are competing to put their best foot - er, wheel - forward. Hyundai is one of those auto manufacturers that has stepped it up quite a bit in recent years. For 2021, both the Santa Fe and Tucson are viable options for those needing spacious and comfortable rides.
The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe slates between a compact and mid-size SUV, so it is sort of a strange size. It is more spacious than a compact crossover but has a more generous price tag than what you get on mid-size SUVs. In other words, expect the Santa Fe to be spacious enough for most small families and equipped with enough standard features to make it worth the cost.
New for 2021 is a major exterior and interior overhaul, which aids in that generous price point. A new hybrid powertrain comes on the revamped powertrain list, and there is now a line-topping Calligraphy trim level that offers ambient interior lighting, optional 20-inch wheels, imitation suede on the headliner, and quilted stitching on the premium leather upholstered seats. Fancy, right?
The Santa Fe really does give you a huge list of standard features for the cost. Some buyers will even be able to justify spending more on the Calligraphy trim level. Regardless of which trim level you buy, you get some top-notch, high-quality interior materials that make the Santa Fe look more expensive than it actually is. Then there is that ultra generous warranty coverage. With new hybrid and high-performance models available, the Santa Fe gives buyers a bounty of excellent choices.
There are some downsides, of course. But the one main qualm that we have with the Santa Fe is that the rear roof pillars are far too thick. This limits rear outward visibility and means that you will need to rely on the back-up camera to see what is behind your vehicle. It is not a deal-breaker, but this is something to be aware of as you go to test drive the Santa Fe.
Now, about the 2021 Hyundai Tucson. While it gets overlooked in favor of vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, the truth is that it is a strong competitor. Why? Well, it has a cabin that is packed with comfort and is spacious. The ride quality is geared toward comfort, and the infotainment system is user-friendly. And, quite honestly, there are not that many downsides to getting the Tucson. Sure, the base engine's acceleration is kind of slow, but we think people will be tempted to upgrade since it is such an affordable vehicle for its segment. We would just like to see some better fuel economy numbers and a little more room in the cargo area.
The highlights? Like the Santa Fe, the Tucson gives you a lot of bang for your buck. This feature-rich SUV gives you just about everything you could ask for. The higher trim levels are jam-packed with all sorts of goodies. All of them, coupled with the ride quality and spaciousness of the cabin, make the Tucson a delightful vehicle to drive around. But, in some ways, it does pale in comparison to the Santa Fe.
A good powertrain can create an enjoyable experience for the driver. And, of course, the opposite is also true. New for 2021 is a series of revamped powertrains on the Hyundai Santa Fe. The Santa Fe starts you off with a 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine that generates a power output of 191 hp and 182 lb-ft of torque. This engine gets matched up with an 8-speed automatic transmission. This powertrain comes standard on the SE and SEL trim levels. The Limited and Calligraphy get a more powerful 2.5-L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that generates 277 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque. An 8-speed dual clutch automatic transmission comes with this powertrain. The hybrid variant features a 1.6-L turbo 4-cylinder with an electric motor that together generate a combined 225 hp. A 6-speed automatic transmission comes along with it, as does all-wheel drive.
The 2021 Hyundai Tucson is powered by a standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out a power output of 161 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque. This comes on the SE and Value trim levels. Meanwhile, the SEL, Sport, and Limited all come with a 2.4-liter engine that puts out 181 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. A 6-speed automatic transmission comes with each engine, and front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard while all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional on all of the trim levels.
What makes a vehicle a joy to drive? A total pain? Drivability is a term that encompasses many factors, such as how well a vehicle accelerates, brakes, steers, handles, provides comfort, and the functionality of its tech features. The 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe is not exactly a speed demon, as the turbo engine gets the Santa Fe from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 8.1 seconds. It is not that responsive at lower rpms, so you will have to wait for that thrust of power to come. You might also notice that the 8-speed transmission is fast on the upshift, which can put it in too high of a gear for that initial thrust of power to come through.
The brakes modulate smoothly enough in regular city driving. However, when you get the Santa Fe up to 60 miles per hour, making an emergency stop takes a longer distance than average for this segment. The steering system does not offer much of a feel for the road, but the handling feels capable enough.
Comfort is decent inside of the Santa Fe. The ride quality is on the firmer side, which is not something you get much of in this segment. Still, it is a lot better than a floaty ride quality that you get in some of the Santa Fe's direct competitors. The cabin is pretty well muted from exterior sound, save for the tires occasionally getting loud over jagged road surfaces. You can hear the turbo engine at slower speeds, but after you hit 35 miles per hour, the noise disappears.
The highly adjustable, well padded seats are a highlight for the Santa Fe. They are padded for all-day comfort and support, and the climate control system offers rear HVAC vents for the rear seat occupants. Auto mode is sometimes a bit underwhelming with its air flow, so you might want to pick a different setting. The ventilated front seats - which are hard to find for this price - are definitely worth getting.
The Santa Fe's cabin is laid out in a logical manner that is easy for everyone to use. The touchscreen is nice enough, but you will not need to rely on it for operating every single control. Space is fairly abundant, but taller folks might wish for a bit more head space. The one issue with the interior is that drivers have limited view out of the rear due to the thick roof pillars. The seat itself is also mounted rather high with a steering wheel that is too low, thus making getting in and out something of a chore. At least the forward view is broad thanks to the low dashboard.
Hyundai knows how to craft user-friendly technology for their vehicles. The Santa Fe has a touchscreen that even newcomers to touchscreens can use with ease. Everything is laid out in an orderly fashion and is far from being a distraction. There are plenty of physical controls positioned around the touchscreen, but they do not make the surface area look cluttered. Device integration is superb, especially with the numerous USB ports, Bluetooth pairing, and smartphone app integration. The Limited trim level has a 115-volt outlet and a wireless charging pad. Voice commands respond to natural speech patterns, and you can customize the sensitivity settings for blind spot monitoring and lane keep assist.
So, how does the 2021 Hyundai Tucson stack up against its sibling? You will, quite naturally, find a lot of similarities between the two, but there are some key differences.
The Tucson drives pretty well aside from the underpowered engines. Just a little bit more horsepower would really make a difference on either engine. The braking performance is above average though, as is the Tucson's handling capabilities. The steering is pretty well balanced too, bulking up when you need it to on the highway. The transmission is calibrated appropriately to deliver power, but there just is not enough power to deliver.
Comfort is comparable to the Santa Fe's. The front seats are well padded and fit a wide array of body types. Ride comfort is paramount as the suspension smooths out any road imperfections the vehicle encounters. The rare inclusion of heated and ventilated front seats are totally worth the purchase since these functions work remarkably well. And the cabin itself remains nice and quiet even at highway speeds.
Head room is a little lacking if you are over 6 feet tall, but anyone shorter than that will not have a problem at all. You do get a lot of outward visibility with the naked eye, but the low-res back-up cam can be a bit blurry to look at while moving. That being said, the interface you get along the dash is user-friendly, so you will not spend much time trying to get acquainted with the Tucson.
Technology is similar to that found in the Santa Fe. Its graphics might not be the prettiest to look at, but they are clear, and the controls are easy to use. The voice controls nail your precise syntax, which is a rarity in almost any vehicle. Hyundai's technology is indeed quite refined without slapping you in the face with redundant and confusing controls and menus.
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As far as safety features go, Hyundai decks its vehicles out in the latest tech. In fact, every Hyundai comes with a bundle of standard driver aids. Forward collision mitigation will warn you if it detects a potential front-end collision and will try to apply the brakes for you. Lane keep assist will steer the Santa Fe back into its intended driving lane if it detects the vehicle going over, and the lane keep system will gently correct the steering to keep the vehicle centered. Trailer sway damping will adjust the vehicle's brakes in order to control the trailer's motions. Adaptive cruise control adjusts the speed to maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of the Santa Fe.
Upgrading to the SEL gets you a rear seat passenger safe exit system and blind spot monitoring. The Premium package includes the comprehensive lane keep system, and the Limited comes with its own automated parking system. A head-up display becomes standard on the new line-topping Calligraphy trim level and lets you see important vehicle information while you drive.
The Tucson is similarly equipped. The base SE comes with lane keep assist and forward collision mitigation. The Value tacks on a blind spot monitoring system and rear cross traffic alert. A surround-view camera system comes standard on the Limited, and the Ultimate has adaptive cruise control.
Which Has the Best Value?
Both the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe and the Tucson offer exquisite value, from their generous warranty coverage to their bevvy of standard features. While we would like to see more powerful engines in each vehicle, we think that they both give you a lot of bang for your buck. The Santa Fe just slightly edges out the Tucson with how many more standard driver aids it offers on the base trim level.
Which is Better?
You cannot go wrong with either the 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe or the Tucson. It really depends on how much space you need and how much you are able to pay. These are some of the most affordable vehicles in their segments though, so there is no denying their value. We just think the Santa Fe - with its revamped styling and new hybrid and high-performance variants - has slightly more appeal because of its diverse line-up. Either way, you are sure to get a vehicle that will bring you joy.