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Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

2023 Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV Limited AWD review

2023 Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV Limited AWD right side
Mark Savage
Savage On Wheels
2023 Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV Limited AWD right side

Nearly all automakers are now hybridizing their lineups, either with regular hybrid systems to extend gas mileage and mildly cut emissions or with plug-ins that do more of both.

It is no surprise then that Hyundai has dropped a plug-in hybrid system into its popular Santa Fe mid-size SUV, to great efficiency effect.

A quick comparison to the gas-only model — with that version more than a year ago, I got 22.6 mpg, and with the hybrid now, I managed 41.3 with three overnight plug-ins.

That’s right, just back it into the garage to get the right rear close to a plain old 110-volt outlet and plug it in for 30 miles of electric charge overnight. It was cold during my test, so the gas engine tended to fire up first to warm the vehicle each morning. But then, the Santa Fe was cruising on EV power much of the time, especially at city speeds, cutting my gas use. The most I saw on the trip computer was 70 mpg, but once the EV ran out, the figure quickly dropped to the mid-40 mpg range.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are perfect for city folks and those commuting less than 30 miles a day because most of the trip will be on electric power. Then, no need to sweat finding a charger, the gas engine, a 1.6-liter I4 here, kicks in seamlessly. For a week’s drive of more than 200 miles my fuel, the bill was less than $15. I’m sure the overnight electric charges pushed my electric bill up a bit, but likely a fraction of that.

All that said, the reason one buys a plug-in hybrid or electric-only vehicle is not for the financial savings, but for the accepted environmental impact. These emit fewer hydrocarbons that scientists have linked to global warming.

On the financial end, you’ll end up spending more for your plug-in or EV and would usually have to keep the vehicle for more than 10 years to come close to recouping the cost.

With the Santa Fe, a base gas-only model starts about $35,000 and the lowest level PHEV, the SEL Convenience trim lists at $43,745, plus a $1,335 delivery fee. The tested Limited starts at $48,705 with delivery and only added $210 worth of carpeted floor mats for a grand total of $48,915.

So, a big price difference.

But to be honest, this Limited is loaded with everything an average, or even an above average family would want and it’s roomy enough for five adults and their luggage. Cargo space, even in this PHEV is same as the gas-only version at 36.4 cubic feet, so more than double an old Ford Taurus’s trunk space. Fold down the split rear seats and that grows to a monstrous 72.1 cubic feet for large loads. The hatch is powered too and there’s even some storage under the cargo floor.

That’s the practical side to be sure.

But outside and inside the Santa Fe looks sharp with modern trim lines and cool slim headlights with dual round ones below those. Even the wheels here are two-tone for a sharper look.

Driving? Heck, the handling is fairly precise for an SUV, so sort of borders on sporty. The ride is well controlled and power is good too, plus AWD is standard for primo traction in winter.

Several drive modes are offered, Eco for normal driving, Sport for more power and steering precision, Snow for, well, better traction in snow, and Smart, which adjusts to the driver’s inputs. That means if you usually get on the accelerator a bit more aggressively the computer controlling acceleration learns that and responds more quickly.

Power here is a strong 261 horsepower compared with just 191 horses from the 2.5-liter I4 in the gas-only Santa Fe. It’s smooth and linear thanks to the SUV’s silky 6-speed automatic. While jumping on the freeway simply turn the drive mode dial on the console to Sport and boom you’re hitting 70 mph. Then dial back to Eco and cruise.

My only driving-related complaint is the push-button transmission on the console. It seems slow to shift sometimes, say from Reverse into Drive. There’s a lag. And I find myself looking at the buttons more often than I ever would an actual shift lever.

Otherwise, the dash and console are beautifully and clearly arranged. The digital driver’s instrument panel is simply arranged and easy to see. The 10.25-inch info screen mid-dash is a fine touchscreen and the perfect size. Large, but not overlarge.

It was easy to use and program and then Hyundai’s interior design engineers wisely line up all the climate controls together on the center stack under the screen along with screen selections such as Radio and Map. However, there is no labeled “Home” button there, so one must tap radio, for instance, and then press the Home button on that screen for all the screen’s inner categories. Not hard, but a “Home” button on the console would be appreciated.

Other interior highlights include a black leather interior with gray stitching and a nice herringbone grid trim on the console and doors. Plus, Santa Fe touts comfy supportive seats with the front ones being heated and cooled and the rear seats heated, as is the leather-clad steering wheel.

There’s also a vertical wireless phone charger in the console. It’s a tight fit, so a little snug when pulling the phone free. Luckily the Hyundai warns you if there’s a phone in the charger once the ignition is off, so you won’t leave it behind. Sadly though, the screen also pings and says to check the rear seat every time the ignition is switched off. Annoying!

For row two, there also are manual sun shades to pull up and overhead is a huge panoramic sunroof with power sun shade.

On the safety front the Hyundai is full of bells, whistles and lane departure warnings which all work fine. There’s smart cruise that watches the car in front, front collision avoidance assist, blind-spot collision avoidance assist, plus rear cross-traffic warning and parking sensors. Yes, there’s also a driver attention warning, but it wasn’t as touchy as many I’ve experienced.

There’s also smart high-beam assist so the high beams will turn on when driving a dark road, plus Android Auto and Apple Car Play are standard. Santa Fe even has tiny screens in the driver’s instrument panel that show what’s on either side of the SUV when a turn signal is engaged. Clever!

If you need room for more passengers one could move up to the Hyundai Palisade, reviewed earlier this year. It has a third-row seat. Other worthy competitors include the Toyota Highlander, Kia Sorento and Toyota Bz4X, all hybrids or electric.

As it is Santa Fe is tailor-made for a family of four or five that may be taking some long trips with plenty of gear. This PHEV packs enough power too while being efficient to run.

FAST STATS: 2023 Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV Limited AWD

Hits: Sharp looks, good ride, power, and handling, plus AWD. A power hatch, clear button arrangement on center stack, nice visuals on instrument cluster, heated/cooled front seats, heated steering wheel and rear seats, large cargo area w/underfloor storage, roomy interior, wireless charger, rear side window screens, and solid safety devices.

Misses: Push button transmission takes some getting used to, no home button below info screen, plug in on right rear.

Made in: Ulsan, So. Korea

Engine: 1.6-liter I4, hybrid, 261 hp

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Weight: 4,244 lbs.

Wheelbase: 108.9 in.

Length: 188.4 in.

Cargo: 36.4-72.1 cu.ft.

Tow: 2,000 lbs.

MPG: 76 mpge /33 mpg

MPG: 41.3 (tested)

Base Price: $48,705 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $46,765

Major Option: Carpeted floor mats, $210

Test vehicle: $48,915

Sources: Hyundai, www.kbb.com

Mark Savage writes the auto review column, Savage On Wheels, for WUWM (formerly for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and Savageonwheels.com. He is the former executive editor of American Snowmobiler magazine and FineScale Modeler magazine, both part of Kalmbach Media in Waukesha.
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