EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

Hyundai has been on a roll of late, and its 2005 Tucson sport-utility vehicle represents the South Korean company’s latest smart move. On the heels of six consecutive years of steady sales growth, Hyundai introduced the all-new Tucson to get 2005 started off right. While other automakers were thinking bigger, Hyundai downsized … The Tucson is a smaller, more economical version of the already value-loaded Hyundai Santa Fe sport-ute.

What a concept! … A smaller SUV at a time when gasoline prices are going through the roof and giant SUVs are being looked upon by some as enemies of the state.

Is Hyundai doing things right? You bet it is. Just for the record, I don’t know why Hyundai is on this kick of naming vehicles for cities in the American Southwest. I recommended the name Sacramento for the new SUV but was brutally rebuffed.

As for the Tucson, it’s a decidedly positive addition to the Hyundai lineup – nicely priced, well-equipped and carrying the automaker’s superior 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The tested Tucson was the four-wheel-drive GLS with the 2.7-liter V-6 power plant, starting at $21,499. That makes it the fifth-most expensive of the six trim levels of Tucson on the market.

That’s OK. It’s still a sweet deal.

The only extra on the GLS was a $750 power/tilt sunroof. Everything else was standard, a lengthy list of features that included dual side-impact air bags, dual side curtain air bags, electronic stability control, traction control, a roof rack with side rails, fog lights, power/heated exterior mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a rear cargo cover and tray.

Remember when Americans thought Hyundai was a Korean word for “cheap vehicle with no power?”

Ancient history. Not only was the tester packed with amenities and attractive interior accents, the little V-6 was surprisingly peppy. The Tucson easily tackled surface street traffic and was an able performer on the freeways.

Only on the steepest inclines did the engine start to complain and throw some noise into the cockpit. But with a 2.7-liter V-6, I would not have expected anything else.

A fairly robust 173-horsepower rating certainly explains the stronger-than-expected performance … and the less-than-magnificent fuel economy ratings of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. Still, the power-for-fuel-mileage trade was just about right for this five-seat vehicle.

Tucson is not an off-road stump grinder, and it’s not big enough to haul a roomful of possessions in a single trip. But those traits are for folks who want to drop $35,000 and up on an SUV.

For the record, the tester performed just fine on a mild off-road course, and its cargo-hauling capabilities were actually better than anticipated when the rear seats folded flat. Hyundai said maximum cargo capacity is 65.5 cubic feet. Not too shabby.

Truth be told, the Tucson felt and drove like a big wagon. But stepping outside the cabin, it looked all-SUV to me. Exterior styling is pleasant, with a smoothly sculpted grille and classic SUV lines in profile.

Gripes with the new Tucson were comparatively few … and could be easily fixed with a few tweaks from Hyundai engineers.

I struggled mightily with the cargo tray at the back of the vehicle. I couldn’t get the hang of adjusting it, and the cargo I did put in always seemed to end up on the floor or behind the front seats after a hard stop.

I’m either cargo tray-challenged – quite possible, actually – or Hyundai could do my kind a favor by making the tray deeper and easier to maneuver.

Also, the six-speaker audio system lacked, well, oomph. It was just fine when the SUV was parked or idling at a traffic light. On the roll, the sound came across as tinny or far away.

Otherwise, Hyundai really has this just-the-right-size SUV deal figured out. The company all but challenges you: Why pay $30,000 or more for another SUV with only a tiny bit more power, not as much standard equipment and far less in warranties … when you could buy a Tucson?

When you have an answer other than, “I like to spend more than I need to,” give Hyundai a call. The automaker is on such a streak that it will probably come up with yet another vehicle to make things perfect for you.

2005 Hyundai Tucson at a glance Make/model: 2005 Hyundai Tucson 4WD GLS. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-wheel-drive, four-door, sport-utility vehicle.

Base price: $21,499 (as tested, $22,249).

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6 with 173 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 178 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city; 24 mpg highway.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic with electronic 4WD and clutchless manual shifting feature.

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion.

Brakes: Power four-wheel discs with anti-lock and traction control.

Suspension: Independent MacPherson strut-type on front; independent multi-link on rear (coil springs, hydraulic shocks and anti-roll bars front and rear).

Passenger volume: 102.6 cubic feet.

Cargo volume: 65.5 cubic feet (with rear seats folded).

Ground clearance: 7.7 inches.

Fuel tank: 17.2 gallons.

Curb weight: 3,548 pounds.

Track: 61 inches front and rear.

Height: 68.1 inches.

Length: 170.3 inches.

Wheelbase: 103.5 inches.

Width: 72.1 inches.

Tires: P235/60R16 radials.

Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (with trailer brake).

Port of entry: Portland, Ore.

About the writer: The Bee’s Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.

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