Smart Tucson gunning for high noon shoot-out

The third generation of Hyundai’s small sports utility has upsized … and presents a bigger threat to its foes than ever.


CALLING the latest edition of Hyundai’s smallest sports utility ‘second-best’ would outwardly seem an undeserved insult: On initial impression, this just-arrived model seems wholly well-sorted.

Yet it’s an accepted fact that the Tucson will have to beat almost impossible odds to maintain the class-leading status held by its iX35 predecessor.

It’s just a result of one of the salient changes arriving with the third generation. A fresh platform allows the new model to become bigger, mainly to deliver appreciably more extra interior room – though it remains a five-seater - and slightly improved luggage capacity, up to 488 litres with the seats in place and 1478L optimum.

Overall the dimensional changes are marginal; just a few centimetres to the length and width. Some have been trimmed from the height. Yet the sum total is enough to remove this smartie from the compact sector and into the next size medium category.

A reclassification that probably means little to buyers nonetheless represents a big speed bump for Hyundai; whereas the iX35 cruised happily as the ace model among the small fry, Tucson will now be measured against tougher rivals.

Hyundai is confident it can outsell the latest medium favourite, Mazda’s CX-5. But it’s not expecting to do so well against the RAV4. Nothing to do with respective qualities - Hyundai reckons they’ve got it beat on that score – but recognition RAV4 is a winner in the big business of fleet/rental sales, a tough terrain for Hyundai NZ mainly – it says - because Japan’s No.1 brand is so aggressive about securing deals, with unmatchable discounts and sweeteners. Says general manager Andy Sinclair: “If Toyota chooses to own a segment then it will own it.”  

This obviously irks. Sinclair contends that, when only counting purely private sales of each car, iX35 generally edges RAV4. He expects Tucson will do the same. It’s an interesting point that is … well, pointless, because to the data gatherers a registration is a registration, regardless its circumstance.  

More worthy of consideration is another pitch; that cars that don’t represent in rental action hold superior long-term residual value. Sinclair says a strategic reason for HNZ latterly diminishing its effort to attract that business was recognition that “six to nine-month-old product with higher mileage coming back into the market wrecks the residual value for the private buyer.” True? I found irony that the very model he cited as holding up well in used value is also the one still finding – judging by the count running with certain rural supplier brands – fleet work: The Santa Fe.

However Tucson buying patterns play out, HNZ is right to have confidence in its qualities; ‘No.2’ status within the market stats is a semantic this car easily shrugs off. It’s very much a top class effort.

Provisioning again in front wheel drive and all wheel drive configurations and three levels of specification  - Tucson, Tucson Elite, and Tucson Elite Limited – the latest car pitches positively in respect to its build, design, equipment level and dynamic quality. The only backward step is a return to a nameplate used with the first edition: Everything else is totally forward-looking.

Two days with the car presented impression of it having improved in its driveability, not least in ride quality.

Careful final selection by Hyundai Australia engineers of suspension sets best suited to transtasman road conditions has paid off. It feels more resolved than iX35, coping well with coarse chip and feeling more settled on bumpy roads.

Refinement also steps up massively; tyre (and engine noise) is much lower and there’s barely any wind noise. The four-wheel-drive models’ traction advantage is worth considering, yet while the front-drive cars are more likely to fall into understeer and tyre-chirping, they also have good balance and a failsafe feel. The electric steering is better, too; the light setting that allows for easy manoeuvrability diminishes more obviously at higher speed, which commensurate positive effect on turn-in feel and accuracy. Distance driving on a moon-less night raised thought that the Elite’s halogens could do with more reach. Or is that an age thing?

Drivetrain choices again include two 2.0-litre carryover units, the GDI petrol engine with six-speed manual or automatic transmission and the R-series turbodiesel engine with automatic-only, plus the new option of a turbocharged 1.6-litre GDI petrol engine with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission that has transited from the Veloster.

The latter is an intriguing glamour choice; the 9kW extra it delivers over the 2.0-litre is neither here nor there, but the 62Nm torque improvement is noticeable and it also runs more quietly and is zestier on the uptake, in part because the gearbox action is snappier than the trad auto’s. The diesel again makes its mark for easy driveability; you’re never in doubt that it is pushing out twice as much torque as the bigger petrol and it pleases for smoothness. The 2.0-litre petrol will again be the choice pick, HNZ feels, and it’ll do the job – just expect to have to rev it harder for longer to reach its peak power.

Tucson also makes a powerful impression for styling that delivers closer family association with Santa Fe plus improved roominess (especially for rear seat passengers) and storage, though a high boot lip is annoying.

The instrumentation is clearly and sensibly laid out; it’s not a cabin that requires a map to find every switch or button. However, it’s not totally remedied – it’s another Hyundai with curiously-shaped seats, some of minor switchgear has an old-school appearance and while soft-touch plastic across the top of the dash and on the door elbow pads are appreciated, the prevalence of hard surfaces elsewhere, all in slightly different textures and shades of black, is disappointing. Hard, knock-resistant surfaces certainly have a place in a ‘working’ SUV, but realistically more Tucsons will toil on the school run than around a work site or farm.

The slightly conservative ambience of the interior is deceptive, as Tucson truly stands tall for its technology.

One individual facet that will win much interest on its own merits is that this model is the first Hyundai product – and first car in NZ - with the Apple CarPlay (and, from early 2016, Google’s Android Auto) interface, designed to not only make calling simpler but also to work with specific car-oriented apps operating through the car’s integrated touch screen.

Demonstration of the Apple system was mesmerising. The opportunity to enable a device (preferably an iPhone 6, though the 5 also works) that has already become the epicentre of our lives as a hub device for plug and play operability of a diverse range of in-car systems is stunning in its easy interaction.

The primary usage is music sourcing and being able to use your phone’s mapping software to negate the need for a ‘proper’ satellite navigation system. However, because it also actively employs Apple’s Siri voice activation set-up, there’s also ability for the car to read out inbound messages and turn dictated outgoing communications into text format.

There’s going to be some data cost, but unlike some other setups there’s no need for special programmes or cables. Pairing merely requires plugging the phone in using its own lightning cable. The CarPlay icon and update compatible apps then automatically show on the in-car screen and, though there’s obvious data usage, that should be easily managed, and Siri’s natural language qualities seem an improvement over many current in-car voice recognition systems.

Intriguingly, CarPlay will be available in the base and Elite versions but not the Elite Limited, which instead continues with (suddenly old-hat) factory-fitted satellite navigation, apparently because there’s thought it will be preferred by the buyer set. Well, there’s nothing wrong with the standard media unit: The menus are logical, the screen is clear and it’s fast. But first impression is that CarPlay is easily as good. Also, no Hyundai doesn’t offer a value for the factory-integrated sat nav, it does agree it comes at a higher price than the CarPlay-ready platform.

Tucson also loads fully in other aspects. Standard safety kit includes six airbags, electronic stability control, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors, automatic headlights, LED daytime running lights and front foglights. Other equipment includes leather-appointed seats, ‘electric folding/heated wing mirrors, cruise control and roof rails.

Elite adds trailer stability technology, bending headlights and rain-sensing wipers and adds electric driver’s seat adjustment, dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning, smart key and push-button start, and hands-free electric tailgate and swaps 17-inch alloys for 18s.

The flagship goes further with advanced technology such as a lane-change assist, lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking and tyre-pressure monitoring. It also implements front parking sensors, heated and ventilated front seats and a panoramic sunroof. 

True, there’s impact on pricing. While Hyundai has done well to continue the same $39,990 entry pricing listed for iX35, in general the four entry models are up $3000, the three Elites by $4000 and the two Elite Limiteds also climb, by $5000 in respect to the diesel (which also has a $1000-$2000 premium over the petrols). This means the Tucson, in its most expensive form – the $63,990 diesel Elite Limited - is now for the first time above $60,000 and at price parity with less affluently-trimmed base editions of the dimensionally superior five-seater Santa Fe.