Size-wise, the Santa Fe is at the top end of the compact SUV class, so the Tucson isn't dramatically smaller 7 inches from bumper to bumper. This would be a terrible move if it weren't for the Santa Fe's upcoming growth spurt. Undergoing a redesign for 2006, the Santa Fe is expected to make the leap into the midsize SUV class.
The Tucson comes in GL, GLS and LX trim levels with either front- or all-wheel drive. I tested the GLS with front-wheel drive.
Exterior & Styling
To give a better idea of the Tucson's size, here's a comparison against the Santa Fe and the popular Ford Escape:
|SUV Dimensions Compared|
Volume (cu. ft.)
|Minimum Cargo Volume|
|Maximum Cargo Volume|
The Tucson resembles its older brother, but without the front-end bulbousness that turns off some potential buyers. The bottom, GL, trim level has black door handles and side mirrors, and the body is one solid color. The GLS and LX have body-colored handles and mirrors and gray bumpers and side cladding. (Competitors usually go in the opposite direction gray to start and monochrome on the higher trims, but I suppose that doesn't make it right.)
The GL is the one trim level that lacks front fog lights. All trims get 16-inch alloy wheels; the GL's have five spokes where the other trims' have six.
Ride & Handling
The Tucson is a so-called car-based, unibody SUV. This makes for a more rigid structure and precise handling compared to a truck-based model. The Tucson has four-wheel-independent suspension, so the ride over pothole-ridden streets is reasonably comfortable and the tires stay in contact with the road. Despite the inclusion of stabilizer bars, front and rear, body roll is moderate. While I'd like to see this shored up some, I found that it caused no undue surprises when pushing the Tucson to its limits in hard cornering.
My test vehicle was equipped with BFGoodrich Traction T/A all-season tires rated P235/60R16 (see tire codes). The LX trim level has the same. The grip wasn't exceptional, but it's well matched to the vehicle's dynamics and a good choice for all seasons. The Tucson GL's tires are a bit narrower, rated P215/65R16. According to TireRack.com, direct replacements for both tires cost less than $70 apiece for the GL and less than $90 apiece for the others. Not bad. Because they're common sizes, more affordable tires are also available.
One of the features that makes the Tucson such a bargain is the standard Electronic Stability Program, Hyundai's name for its electronic stability system. It keeps the car headed in the right direction under low-traction situations. (More on this in the next section as it regards all-wheel drive.)
Going & Stopping
The Tucson comes with a choice of engines and drivelines. Standard is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and a 2.7-liter V-6 is optional. The latter is now the Santa Fe's standard engine. In the Tucson it comes in the GLS and LX trim levels. The GL gets the four-cylinder, with no option to upgrade to the V-6. The details are as such:
|Trim Levels||GL||GLS, LX|
|Engine Type||2.0-liter inline-4||2.7-liter V-6|
|Horsepower||140 @ 6,000 rpm||173 @ 6,000 rpm|
|Torque (lbs.-ft.)||136 @ 4,500 rpm||178 @ 4,000 rpm|
|Required Gasoline||regular unleaded|
I only tested the 2.7-liter in a front-drive Tucson, the best configuration for quick acceleration. It goes from zero to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds. It's no rocket, but it's not bad at all for an SUV, and, predictably, it's quicker than the Santa Fe equipped with the same engine. Tucsons with four-wheel drive will be a bit slower. Obviously, the four-cylinder will be slower still, but at least it's a relatively sophisticated engine with continuously variable valve timing, which tends to result in even power delivery. The GL's standard manual transmission can't hurt either.
GL buyers can option a four-speed-automatic transmission, which is standard on the GLS and LX, for a list price of $850. The automatic does the job without undue kickdown lag. It shifts smoothly but efficiently. The clutchless-manual mode also works fine, holding whatever gear you choose until you shift it. It's time for everyone to retire the notion that Korean brands suffer component deficiencies. Hyundai uses many of the same suppliers as the other automakers, and they work as well here as anywhere.
The same is true of the four-wheel drive, which comes from BorgWarner. BorgWarner is one of the premier four-wheel-drive suppliers, not an alert system on Captain Picard's U.S.S. Enterprise. (That may be the geekiest thing I've ever written in a review.) Technically this system is all-wheel drive, which means it requires no intervention from the driver and it automatically transfers power between the front and rear axles. Basically all the power goes to the front wheels until the electronically controlled system is called upon to route up to 50 percent to the rear wheels. A lock button on the dashboard holds this 50/50 split, ostensibly for the trickiest low-traction situations. Overall, the Tucson's all-wheel drive is meant for light-duty use, not serious off-roading, and it adds about $1,500 over the cost of front-wheel drive.
A word on four-wheel drive: In my opinion this is a feature that's being overhyped and oversold these days. In areas with harsh winters, it can be a godsend. It's especially useful in hilly or mountainous regions. However, in an urban or suburban center that provides decent snow removal, front-wheel drive should do the trick in almost all circumstances. The four-wheel-drive proliferation comes in part from the SUV craze. Truck-based SUVs were all rear-wheel drive, which proved to be trouble in snow. Here the four-wheel-drive option was necessary.
The same argument makes sense for the growing number of rear-drive cars on the market. But for a car like the Tucson, why carry around all the extra hardware? It adds complexity and more maintenance and decreases fuel economy between 1 and 2 mpg average. Combined with the standard traction control (an aspect of ESP), city dwellers should find the front-drive Tucson is more than enough to help them live long and prosper. (There I go again.)
Historically, fuel economy and emissions have been a shortcoming for the Korean makes. They seem to be closing the gap in some but not all cases. The Tucson four-cylinder's city ratings are an EPA-estimated 1 to 2 mpg better than the Ford Escape's when comparing the automatic, but an average 2 mpg worse when comparing the versions equipped with manual transmissions. It ranks a measly 2 out of 10 (best) in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide's air pollution ratings compared to the Escape four-cylinder's score of 6.
For the V-6 versions, the story is somewhat reversed: The Tucson's fuel economy is an average 1 to 2 mpg better than the Escape's, and its pollution score is 6 compared to the Escape's 3. The Honda CR-V earns a 6 across the board, and the Toyota RAV4 pulls down a 2. (Equipped only with four-cylinders, these two models have better overall fuel economy.) You can view any model's fuel-economy estimates in the Std. Equipment & Specs section.
The four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS do the job as advertised.
Before I get into the details, I must disclose a drawback that may be the model's most significant: noise. As the Tucson's speed increases, so does its noise level particularly tire and road noise. In some ways this is the worst type because it's almost always there. I also noticed a constant hum at around 60 to 70 mph. It's possible this was an anomaly in my test vehicle, so if you've had any experience with the Tucson, click on the link at the end of this page and email me.
Don't let the SUV title make you think the Tucson must be climbed into. It's actually easier to enter than the average car because the seats are at a better height. Inside are more of the reasons Hyundai is so competitive. Things like floormats are standard, and all the little touches, like bottle holders in the front door pockets, sun visor extenders that cover the side windows and a bi-level center storage console are all here.
The materials quality is consistently good and includes a very rare species: truly convincing faux metal trim. Seriously, makes and models of all prices have been incorporating plastic intended to look like metal. The problem is that it, well, doesn't. Automakers finally have gotten their plastics not to look too plastic, and now they're trying to turn it into something it's not. I don't know how Hyundai pulled it off, but this stuff is more than respectable.
The GL and GLS trim levels get different styles of cloth upholstery, and the LX has leather. Power seats aren't offered, but the driver's seat in all trims has adjustments for the cushion height and tilt. They come in the form of knobs, which aren't the easiest system to use when you're seated, but it's an important adjustment for comfort and safety. There's no lumbar adjustment, but the center armrest can be raised and moved forward and the seats are generally comfortable. Only the LX trim level has seat heaters.
Visibility is good in all directions except the rear, the usual SUV and minivan limitation. The liftgate blocks the view below a certain level. It's no worse than the trunk of a car, but because SUVs sit higher, the blind spot obscures more, such as a lower-slung car, which makes parallel parking more challenging. Currently the Tucson doesn't offer sonar park assist. The side mirrors are powered and heated and they fold against the body. Nice.
The backseat also is reasonably comfortable. At 6 feet tall, my knees just cleared the front seat's backrest. The floor was high enough to raise my knees, but it wasn't unduly uncomfortable, in part because the backrest angle is adjustable. (There needs to be a more accessible release, though.) Also, the floor is perfectly flat, which makes the center position more viable when the standard center armrest is raised.
In case you haven't caught on, the Tucson's story is more for less, and it's true in safety equipment as well. (Not having been crash-tested yet, the Tucson's safety report is merely an accounting of its features, which aren't the final word.)
The Tucson has six airbags: the usual frontal type, side-impact torso bags for the front occupants and side curtain-type airbags that cover all the side windows to protect heads and prevent ejection in the event of a rollover. The front passenger seat employs the Occupant Classification System to determine the passenger's size and deploy the two-stage airbag appropriately if at all in a frontal collision. Also standard, as mentioned, is ESP, one of the most significant safety features to come along in modern times.
With three-point (lap-and-shoulder) seat belts and head restraints for all seating positions, the Tucson doesn't seem to be lacking any of the basic safety provisions.
The Tucson doesn't leave much out. Air conditioning; power windows and door locks; remote keyless entry; an illuminated, locking glove box; and an illuminated ignition are all standard. Oddly, the vanity mirrors don't have lights. Optional premium stereos, complete with a dedicated subwoofer, are optional. All of the standard and optional features, and their prices, can be seen by clicking on the appropriate button on the upper-left of this page. I'll highlight an upscale one not mentioned elsewhere in this review:
The GLS and LX trim levels have a heated wiper park, or front wiper deicer. It's like a rear defogger element on the windshield glass underneath where the wipers rest. Hit the button and it heats up the glass, melting ice or snow that has fused the blades to the windshield. It's a great feature overall, but the Tucson's doesn't work as quickly as I needed it to one snowy day. It didn't warm the driver's-side blade enough to make it conform to the curve of the windshield. The temperature was only just below freezing.
Whether you consider it a feature or not, you can't ignore warranties when determining value. The Tucson gets Hyundai's generous 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage and 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty. Hyundai also recently extended its corrosion coverage from 5 years/100,000 miles to 7 years/unlimited miles.
Cargo & Towing
As shown earlier in the table, the Tucson's cargo volume is competitive, and its cargo hatch proves quite versatile. The rear window opens independently of the liftgate, which itself raises clear of most heads. There's no liftover lip at the rear of the cargo floor. A rubbery-plastic floormat is standard, as is a rigid cargo cover. I'm not wild about the cover; it's good to have, but it doesn't seem to know where to go when you raise it, despite the attached tether and hook. The retractable kind would be better but more expensive and more difficult to remove when folding the seats.
The 60/40-split backseat couldn't be easier to operate. You just lift the seatback handle and fold. Done. This when some manufacturers are introducing new models that require the head restraints to be removed and/or the cushion to be flipped forward initially. The front passenger seat also folds down to create a flat surface from the liftgate to the dashboard.
The Tucson four-cylinder has a towing capacity of 1,500 pounds for a trailer with its own brakes. The V-6 increases that maximum to 2,000 pounds. Roof rails are standard, and you can add the cross-members for less than $200. The rack's capacity is 160 pounds. Bear in mind that you can't necessarily fill the seats, the cargo area and the roof rack all at the same time. Hyundai cites a maximum of 860 pounds for all occupants and cargo.
Tucson in the Market
Knowing that some shoppers found the Santa Fe to be just a bit too large, I have no doubt that the Tucson will find buyers. Whether you buy a Tucson or not, you should appreciate what Hyundai is doing for you. By throwing in all these features, including some significant safety items, for a low overall price, Hyundai is squeezing its competitors, increasing the pressure for them to do the same. In the end, it's good for the consumer. If you're considering a small SUV, you owe it to yourself to test-drive this one. It's another strong entry from Hyundai.
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