Conventional SUVs are all but dead, yet interest in sedans has not been surging. Instead, car-based SUVs with some promise of respectable fuel economy are currently hot. So a redesigned, four-cylinder-only Hyundai Tucson could not arrive at a better time. But it’s a crowded field. Why buy this one?
Along with the new Sonata, the redesigned 2010 Tucson expresses Hyundai’s intent to offer cars that appeal to the emotions and not just the pocketbook. With tall bodysides, creased fender bulges, and a complex angularity that resembles some recent designs from Ford of Europe, the new Tucson isn’t exactly beautiful, but does possess a upscale dynamism missing from previous Hyundais and is at least not forgettable or boring. The half-size-larger Santa Fe appears bland in comparison. The new Tucson’s grille might be a bit overdone, but it works with the rest of the design and is tasteful compared to some others in the segment (e.g. Honda).
Hyundai’s newfound emphasis on styling continues inside the 2010 Tucson, with complex surfaces, shapes, and color combinations successfully melding on the instrument and door panels. Though you’d never guess it from my photos, materials are perhaps the best in the segment. The plastics are hard, but those you’re most likely to touch are coated with soft-touch paint. The seats in the tested GLS are a combination of leatherette and sportily textured cloth and the armrests are comfortably padded. Hyundai seems to have finally figured out that slick leather has no place on a steering wheel; the leather wrapped around the Tuscon’s wheel actually enhances one’s grip (imagine that). Nothing looks cheap and everything feels unusually solid—almost European.
Alas, the IP’s functionality leaves much to be desired. First off, the center stack’s cap and satin-finished surround are both highly reflective, and proved hard on the eyes (and camera lens) on sunny days. The rear defrost button isn’t grouped with the other HVAC controls. Instead it’s located where a keyless start button would normally be found, and likely is found in Tucson’s so optioned. The console-mounted grab handles look nifty, but are too far away to actually be used. On the other hand, the mirror controls fall readily to hand. In too many cars one must lean to operate them, which makes proper mirror adjustment unnecessarily tricky.
One ergonomic sin could prove deadly. The slope to the center stack combines with the control layout to place the audio system’s tuning knob so far away that it cannot safely be turned while driving. Note to car makers, many of which now commit this sin, if usually to a lesser extent: do not place the tuning knob on the right edge of the head unit unless said head unit is located close to the driver. Adding insult to injury: the satellite radio tuner takes a few seconds to go from one channel to the next. I’ve noticed that some satellite radio tuners do this as quickly as a conventional radio tuners, others not. The Hyundai’s falls in the “not” column.
Typical of the segment, you sit high, but not so high as to feel tippy. The windshield is neither overly upright nor overly laid back—no A-pillar windowlettes needed. The front seats are comfortable and, between their bolsters and cloth center panels provide better-than-average lateral support. The Tucson might be Hyundai’s smallest crossover based on exterior dimensions, but it provides more rear legroom than the next-up Santa Fe. The rear seat could be a little higher for optimum thigh support, but comfort is generally good. Missing from the previous generation: a front passenger seat that folds forward to further extend the cargo floor—I’ve found this feature to be very handy in one of my cars—and a manual recline adjustment for the rear seat.
Why buy the Santa Fe if the Tucson has more distinctive styling and more rear legroom? Two possible reasons, now that a third-row seat is no longer offered in the larger SUV. The first: cargo volume. The Tucson is about ten inches shorter than the Santa Fe, and much of the dimensional difference is aft of the second row. There’s still a fair amount of cargo room in the Tucson, but some people will need more.
The second possible reason: the Tucson is only available with a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder, at least so far. While more powerful than the 2009 Tucson’s optional 2.7-liter V6, for 2010 the Santa offers a 276-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. If you want to race a Hyundai for pink slips in the SUV class, the Santa Fe V6 is clearly the better choice.
That said, the new four performs unexpectedly well in the new Tucson. It no doubt helps that, at 3,382 pounds even with all-wheel-drive, the Tucson weighs a quarter-ton less than the Santa Fe and Sorento. Even saddled with all-wheel-drive the four-cylinder engine never feels weak, and it can feel downright frisky on a curvy road when using the six-speed automatic transmission’s manual shift to keep the revs up. A six-speed manual transmission is also offered, but only with front-wheel-drive. The engine feels smooth throughout its range and is quiet up to 5,000 rpm. The noises it does make aren’t bad for a four. Unlike in the Kia Sorento (a close relative of the Santa Fe), I didn’t feel a strong need for a V6–though a turbocharged and/or direct-injected version of the four wouldn’t be unwelcome.
The automatic transmission was designed by Hyundai, offers a good choice of ratios (the four-cylinder engine would be less impressive otherwise), and avoids hunting among them. In other ways, it’s a typical fuel-economy-minded automatic. Shifts when using the manual shift aren’t immediate, and the transmission programming lugs the engine when driving in the 40-50 MPH range.
Fuel economy is better than I observed in the Sorento, again probably because of its relatively low curb weight. In typical around town driving, the trip computer reported 21.5 miles-per-gallon. Pressing the “eco” button added perhaps one MPG, with a minor impact on driveability. Aggressive driving reduces the reported miles-per-gallon to about 18.5. The EPA ratings suggest that a front-wheel-drive Tucson would do a couple MPG better.
An even bigger surprise than the performance of the four-cylinder engine: the new Tucson’s chassis tuning. Korea’s roads must not be the best, since Hyundai’s have traditionally been softly sprung. Not this one. The Tucson’s chassis tuning feels German more than anything else, with a very taut feel. A solid-feeling body structure assists. The downside of this tuning: in casual driving the ride can feel annoyingly nervous, and even modest bumps elicit thumps. The upside: driven aggressively on a curvy road, the Tucson is actually fun. Sure, with a high center of gravity and nose-heavy weight distribution it feels tall and understeers, but the chassis feels tight and precise. If only the somewhat heavy steering provided some feel of the road, the Tucson could well be the enthusiast’s choice in this segment.
Either because higher cost mean they must or simply because they can, Hyundai isn’t offering the Tucson at a bargain price. The 2010 starts at $19,790. Add the automatic, all-wheel-drive, the Popular Equipment Package (cruise, alloys, other things most buyers will want), and nav, as on the test vehicle, and you’re suddenly looking at $25,990. Which sounds high for a car without leather, sunroof, or power driver seat, but just about anything comparable is higher. Just not as much higher as it would have been in past years. Honda only offers nav with the CR-V on the EX-L. Lose the nav and compare the Tucson GLS to the CR-V EX, and the Korean SUV lists for $1,815 less. A good chunk of the difference is in dealer margins, though. Compare invoices, which more closely reflect what you’ll actually pay, and the difference is about $1,100. A Toyota RAV4 runs a few hundred higher than the CR-V. Like the Santa Fe, both the CR-V and the RAV4 offer substantially more cargo room than the Tucson. Otherwise they’re closely matched.
The Hyundai Tucson is surprisingly good in some key areas, especially styling, four-cylinder powertrain performance, interior materials, and handling. It’s already worth consideration by anyone shopping for a vehicle in this segment. But there are nevertheless some shortcomings. One of these, class-trailing cargo volume, cannot be fixed without a complete redesign, and unless the Santa Fe grows there’s little need to fix it. Others Hyundai could and should work to improve. Make the steering as good as the rest of the chassis and redesign the center stack, and the new Tucson would be a clear winner. Add the turbocharged four that’s been announced for the Sonata midsize sedan, and even driving enthusiasts who desire the packaging of an SUV (they’re alleged to exist) would flock to Hyundai showrooms.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto reliability and pricing data