The Hyundai Tucson isn’t the most affordable sports utility, so does its quality and sophistication save the day?
For: Well-proportioned and smart styling, more cabin room, strong, improved quality feel.
Against: Firm ride, restricted view at rear corners, hard plastics in cabin.
NO more baby steps for Hyundai; these days it seems every forward moves it takes is a big stride.
That obviously includes the Tucson, even though this replacement for the iX35 and entrant into the evergreen medium sports utility sector did somewhat stumble onto the scene.
First, there’s been the whole name thing. Hyundai here put on a brave face about why the original name for this model was dusted off for re-use after they’d spent so much time – and potentially quite a lot of money – carefully cultivating customers to an alpha-numeric that really seemed a plus.
What better way to remind that the Hyundai we know now is a lot different from the one that once built only cheap, cheerful cars that were - well, just a bit crappy – that to start applying badge names that sounded a lot more sophisticated?
The return to Tucson was a decision foisted on the local office by Korea, which wanted one name for the car globally. Be that as it may, that whole saga just seemed a bit unnecessarily whiffy.
So, too, the other issue: The surprise safety setback after Australasia's major crash assessment body, ANCAP, awarded the model a crash test score of four stars out of five, a lower than anticipated result. This was because ANCAP reckoned on it having a design fault compromised structural integrity of the driver foot well.
The issue has been fixed now, and the score reset to five out of five, but it was an embarrassment for a brand that spends a higher percentage of its profits on research and development than most.
Anyway, those speed bumps notwithstanding, the Tucson seems set to achieve a sterling sales pace. Hyundai obviously knows how to make a winning SUV – their Santa Fe has been dominating as the top-selling diesel for several years now – and a lot of design and engineering tricks honed on that model have transferred to its little brother.
So extensive are the salient changes arriving with the third generation, not least 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, that it has stepped out of the the compact sector and into the next size medium category.
Provisioning again in front wheel drive and all wheel drive configurations and three levels of spec - Tucson, Tucson Elite, and Tucson Elite Limited – the latest car pitches positively in respect to its build, design, equipment level and dynamic quality. Even so, it is going up against a gang of high-quality cars, Mazda’s CX-5 and the Toyota RAV4 included.
While delivering closer family association with Santa Fe, Tucson is hardly a smaller-scale clone – Thomas Burkle, who earned his spurs as one of VW Group’s best designers before he headed to South Korea, oversaw this one, and it shows in the exacting proportions and detailing.
Hyundai’s design language demands a huge hexagonal grille that actually looks more dimensionally correct on this vehicle than on the brand’s smaller cars, but the directional wheel arches are unique to this model and the bold side lines that zig-zag above the rear are a new signature.
The bumpers, rear spoiler and door handles being body-coloured adds flair, likewise the family-wide roof rails and front and rear skid plates, while the Limited diesel here, as a flagship, adopts chrome and silver body mouldings plus LED headlights and daytime running lights and fog lights further add to the visual appeal. All in all, it’s a smart and ‘right’ looking car; the only snafu of consequence is a slightly high boot lip.
The interior is less inspirational, like a massive Hyundai part’s bin raid and a prevalence of hard surfaces, all in slightly different textures and shades of black is surely going to go on the list of things to improve upon come facelift time. Hard, knock-resistant surfaces certainly have a place in a ‘working’ SUV, but with Tucson far more likely to undertake its primary toil on the school run, it’s a pity the brand didn’t achieve more quality.
Even so, that’s not enough to ruin the feel-good; there’s still a premium familiarity and, while there’s nothing going on to truly inspire, the ergonomics and functionality are as solid as they come.
Every single item works brilliantly, the instrumentation is clearly and sensibly laid out; it’s not a cabin that requires a map to find an essential switch or button, even after dark because Hyundai does a neat line in chunky, illuminated buttons.
There’s enough adjustment on the driver’s seat and steering wheel for pretty much anyone to get comfortable and forward and side visibility is good though, while stylish, those small rear windows and wide rear do restrict the view. Little wonder rear parking sensors are standard.
Tucson’s elevation from the compact category is best demonstrated by the generosity afforded rear-seat occupants. Not only is head and leg room good, but the rear doors open nice and wide to give easy access. Only the fact that the centre seat is a little narrower than the outer spaces keeps it from being called a comfortable five-seater.
While the boot is high, the 513-litre capacity is more than you’ll find in a Nissan Qashaqi or Mazda CX-5, although that figure includes the space under the floor, taken up by a full size spare wheel. Folding down the 60/40 split rear seats provides an almost entirely flat load area.
Tucson is the first Hyundai product 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 and Apple’s Siri operating through the car’s integrated touch screen, but not on 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.
There’s nothing wrong with the standard media unit - the menus are logical, the screen is clear and it’s fast – but CarPlay is easily as good so this tailoring decisions seems curious for a brand that wants to be seen as a technology leader.
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; the Elite Limited diesel here is, at $63,500, $5000 dearer than its iX35 equal and places, for the first time above $60,000, on parity with less affluently-trimmed base editions of the dimensionally superior five-seater Santa Fe.
You think diesel rules this category? Think again. Around 70 percent of buyers of medium to small SUVs and crossovers chose petrol performance; quite a few are also happy to have them in front-drive, too. So, in a way, the version on test here, with all-wheel-drive and an R-Series turbodiesel, is out of step with conformity. Arguably it is being pushed aside by the turbocharged 1.6-litre GDI petrol edition with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission that has transited from the Veloster.
Yet it’s hard to suggest the diesel has had its day. If it’s effortless acceleration and immediate reactions that you’re after, then this 136kW/400Nm 2.0-litre doesn’t disappoint; mated to a six-speed auto, it generates industrial-strength action and smooth refinement, sweeping this 1700kg model along with an easy confidence.
While it’s all about easy performance rather than outright pace, the strong low-down muscularity pull is a perfect partner. You’re never in doubt that it is pushing out twice as much torque as the petrol. But it does demand a degree of patience. Rather than rev the engine hard – whereupon it gets quite noisy – things are much better if you stick to lower revs and take advantage of the peak torque that’s available from below 2000rpm.
Hyundai’s determination to recruit stylists with previous European car brand experience, from VW Group in particular, is well known. But the recruitment drive doesn’t stop there. Seoul has been just as active snaffling some chassis tuning specialists and engineers, too, the biggest scalp being a former head of BMW’s M-Division, Albert Biermann.
The dynamics experts’ touch has yet to be felt, however; their priority is with the N Division that is developing performance models and also the high-end Genesis cars.
What kind of effect a concerted ‘Euro’ approach will have on the Tucson is a matter of conjecture, then, but one could suppose it might not make it much different to how it is now: Quite firm. That’s how the X3 and Q5, respective like-sized (if not like-classed) cars from Audi and BMW (both targeted by the Koreans), feel and it’s also how the Tucson is.
Whether that’s the right way to go is open to interpretation. A firm ride certainly adds shine to the ‘sports’ part of the SUV tag, but there’s a valid counter-argument, too, in suggesting a comfortable ride being an even more important dynamic aspect for any car that’ll primarily be used for ferrying your family. I’d suggest a little more flexibility or refinement would enhance the appeal, though how that might be achieved is going to be a challenge. Potentially they could look to go to a smaller rim size; as is the 245/45R19 set for this model is the largest available; lesser cars have smaller wheels and taller tyres. So really, it comes down to spring and damper choice.
Potentially change there will deliver change, also, to the handling. It’s not bad but, again, could be better. Body control is okay and it holds the road with confidence, but there’s no sense that is a car that offers any surfeit of reward when put through the bends. In essence, it is highly capable but lacks lacks involvement. So much of the sense that it is going through the motions, and little more, comes simply from the steering feel – or lack thereof.
To be fair, though, it is an improvement over the iX35 and, given the way in which Hyundai continues to advance, there’s every chance the update will pick up on the areas that demand a bit more consideration. Like the Santa Fe, it is confident on gravel, with good traction, a steady feel and nicely sorted stability/traction control intervention.
But, overall, it has less refinement than some of its rivals; the Mazda CX-5, for instance, is generally quieter.
The issues outline above don’t hurt the Tucson too badly; so much about how a car rides and drives is subjective and, potentially, might not even be considered a flaw by some of the audience. Even though it does not fully challenge its major Japanese rivals on the road, the Tucson still delivers very well on styling, spaciousness and specification. And, for those who have a use for it, that diesel engine doesn’t disappoint, either.
The only backward step is the name.