EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Except for war with Iran (or North Korea, or France), trillion-dollar deficits, melting icecaps and drug-resistant syphilis, the future looks very promising. Buy a new Hyundai today and, a decade hence, the Korean automaker promises to honor your powertrain warranty.

I have grave doubts about even this afternoon, so in the face of such optimism, I’m a little flummoxed. A 10-year powertrain warranty? This is the sort of guarantee that comes with new roofs and prosthetic heart valves. Is this like those “lifetime warranty” pitches for steak knives sold on TV – has anyone ever returned a broken Ginsu?

When you think about it, a 10-year warranty on an automobile is an amazing thing, a statement of faith not just in the product but in the world it’s supposed to occupy. By inference and implication, the 10-year powertrain warranty suggests that nothing much, really, will change in the world of automobiles between now and 2015. A gas-burning, V-6-powered SUV will still be welcome on the roads. Isn’t that special?

And whether you buy a Hyundai or some other vehicle, the 10-year warranty provides a useful perspective on automotive life spans. A new vehicle purchased today will still be in service, statistically speaking, 16 years from now. Those who have traded in their gas-burning barn-on-wheels for a cleaner, more efficient vehicle – say, a Ford Expedition for an Escape Hybrid – will know the crestfallen moment when they realize their old SUV is not being taken out of service with a dignified coup de grĂ¢ce to the engine block, but being sent to the used-car lot, to be sold cheap, falling into the hands of consumers who – again, statistically speaking – will fail to maintain it as well.

Inevitably, the last owner will abandon that smoking shambles in front of my house.

How unpredictable is the future? Consider this: Planned obsolescence used to be a bad thing, so automakers spent decades learning to build more durable cars, double-galvanized for eternity. Now, at the very moment when we need to transition to dramatically different vehicles, we are buying millions of automobiles that will project today’s powertrain technology many years into the future. Planned obsolescence doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, after all.

If this seems more than a two-iron away from a review of the new Hyundai Tucson, maybe yes, maybe no. It’s always helpful to imagine what a vehicle will look like 10 years down the road. The Tucson – a new demi-ute in the same class as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4 and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute – is styled very much like a Vans sneaker, with thick composite body-cladding wrapped around the lower half of the vehicle, like the sneaker’s rubber sole. This cladding lends the Tucson a plausible look of off-road toughness, though the vehicle is aimed squarely at pavement- hemmed urbanites seeking all-weather traction.

Vans, meanwhile, never seem to go out of style.

The Tucson is a timely bit of product planning. The entry- level sport wagon segment grew at a healthy rate last year, totaling more than 713,000 units in the first 10 months of 2004, up 14% from 2003. Hyundai, meanwhile, has demonstrated comeback power that puts Marion Barry to shame. The company put its reputation for wretchedness well into the past and is looking for sales to climb to almost half a million in the American market, thanks in part to the success of the larger Santa Fe, which gets a restyle this year, as well. As an aside, I think the Hyundai Tiburon is the most overlooked sports compact out there, with its Pininfarina-esque styling and optional, overexerting V-6 engine.

The V-6 engine is also an option in the Tucson, whereas the more expensive Toyota and the Honda cute-utes make do with four cylinders (the American competition – Jeep Liberty and Ford Escape – offer V-6 powertrains).

On paper, the Tucson is a tiger. Our test vehicle, a mid-level GLS with the V-6 and optional four-wheel drive, was priced at $22,249. The entry-level, two-wheel-drive Tucson GL comes only with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder (base price: $17,499 with a manual transmission); the top-line XL ($22,799), meanwhile, comes with heated leather seats and an audio upgrade.

At any price point, the Tucson’s strategy is to overwhelm by sheer force of premium features. Chief among these are the vehicle’s standard safety gear, including: dual front, side and side-curtain air bags; anti-lock brakes; electronic brake-force distribution; traction control and stability control. A $1,500 upgrade, Hyundai’s quasi 4WD system is an all-wheel-drive layout with a differential lock feature, which distributes torque 50-50 front and rear to help push the vehicle up slippery hills and through snow.

Turning the cogs of our test vehicle was the 2.7-liter, 173-hp V6, with three-stage induction and valves going pitty-pat according to the variable-valve timing system. While this motor is no one’s idea of a Niagara of torque, the variable breathing and timing help spread the 178 pound-feet of torque around the tachometer so the Tucson never feels truly off the cam. The four-speed automatic transmission is adequate. In the power-to-weight derby, the 3,548-pound Tucson can make it to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. The EPA gives it a 19/24 miles-per-gallon city/highway rating.

This is a pleasant little trucklet that, being based on the Elantra platform, has car-like handling – not a great car, but a car nonetheless. The unit-body feels surprisingly well-welded and secure. On the undulating freeways, the body motions are closely chaperoned by the MacPherson strut suspension up front and the multi-link in back, both connected with stabilizer bars (them’s sway bars to NASCAR Nation).

Hyundai has taken the future-minded advice given to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” – “Plastics!” – to heart. The Tucson cabin has the material sincerity of Astroturf. Even so, it’s not a bad design, and the GLS’ leather-wrapped steering wheel helps the car’s tactility. The gauges are bright and simple. The interior is unusually quiet. For those hanging on to Tears for Fears and Bananarama cassettes, the Tucson GLS will oblige (cassette players are getting rare these days). The top-line audio unit includes a 6-disc in-dash CD player.

The coolest trick in the Tucson repertoire is its fold-flat rear seatback, which effortlessly forms a flat cargo floor – no yanking out the headrests and stowing them somewhere (there is a 60/40 split to accommodate cargo and passengers).

Even the basest of Tucsons come with 16-inch alloy wheels, power everything, cruise control, roof racks, a rear intermittent wiper – all good stuff. In fact, the inventory of features and options seems designed to cater to the Internet shopper, whose critical judgments will be formed by comparison charts instantly generated in the cyber-marketplace.

The tentative can be reassured that, as evidenced by its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, Hyundai will be around forever, like the Catholic Church or Social Security.

Well, at least the Catholic Church.

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2005 Hyundai Tucson 4WD GLS

Base price: $21,499

Price, as tested: $22,249 (including $750 power sunroof)

Powertrain: 2.7-liter, dual-overhead cam V6 with variable-valve timing and induction; four-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive with lockable differential.

Horsepower: 173 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 178 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,548 pounds

Wheelbase: 103.5 inches

Length: 170.3 inches

EPA mileage: 19 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Oh promise me …

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