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Car reviews - Hyundai - Tucson - Elite 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Standard equipment list, V6 performance promise, sequential-shift auto, ride quality, chunky styling, functional and roomy interior, cargo space versatility, seat comfort, safety systems, lockable (low-speed) four-wheel drive function, value for money, warranty
Room for improvement
Weight, fuel consumption, engine noise and character, lack of engine torque, lack of front suspension refinement, front-biased all-wheel drive system, slowish steering, softish handling, cheap interior materials, limited seat recline travel

3 Dec 2004

GoAuto 03/12/2004

HYUNDAI reckons this is the top dog in the light SUV segment, and a quick look at the specifications indicates why.

Consistent with the value-for-money theme that is at the core of all Hyundai products, the standard equipment list is impressive.

It’s not possible to buy any other light, four-door SUV equipped with six airbags, anti-lock braking, traction control, sunroof, alloy wheels, trip computer, air-conditioning, cruise control and MP3 player for as little as the $32,490 asked for the upper-level Elite version of the Hyundai Tucson.

And no other small SUV has a V6 engine.

That’s the way it shapes up on paper anyway. You’d think other small SUV makers should be quivering in their boots.

But is the all-new Hyundai the real deal?

It enters a highly competitive category at present dominated by the redoubtable Nissan X-Trail – itself a late entrant into the class – with others slugging it out including Toyota (Rav4), Honda (CR-V) and Mitsubishi (Outlander). Not exactly competition to be dismissed lightly.

The measuring-up of attributes continues with the Tucson’s physical dimensions: It’s not the longest in its class (the Outlander top-scores here) and the wheelbase is ballpark only – shorter than the CR-V and 5mm better than X-Trail or Outlander.

The big crunch comes when the Tucson is trundled onto the weighbridge. Here, it’s easily the heaviest in class, tipping the scales at 1625kg where a five-door Rav can weigh less than 1400kg.

The others creep a little closer, but the bottom line is that the Tucson is the heavyweight in a lightweight class, and this begins to show up in operating economies.

On test, our Tucson Elite drank regular unleaded at the rate of 13.1 litres per 100km – more than the 11L/100km official average, and thirstier than any of the competitors we’ve experienced.

But we’ll come back to that a little later.

In terms of on-road presence, the Korean-styled Tucson is a winner. It combines a suggestive stance with nice, clean detail work lacking the clumsiness found in certain elements of the bigger Santa Fe with which it shares its V6 engine.

Front and rear-ends are abruptly chopped off, suggesting the handy approach and departure angles that are an important part of the 4WD lexicon, and the interior is neat, clean and seemingly well put together.

But don’t expect cushy, slush-moulded vinyl on the dash. The touchy-feely impressions are of tasteful design, and apparently high quality, but there are plenty of unyielding plastic surfaces to encounter. And the brushed silver paint effect on the Elite’s shiny plastic centre console surround doesn’t make a classy statement either.

The dash is presented well enough though, with clearly-read instruments and no lurking anomalies in control layout. The hooded instrument binnacle features a dominant speedo flanked by smaller gauges for tachometer (on the left) and fuel and temperature gauges on the right.

Controls for the air-conditioning comprise three simple, round dials on the centre console and the CD/MP3 sound system uses a simple, minimalist design with a sensible rotary volume control. The sequential changer for the standard automatic transmission uses the simple, flick-to-the-left operation for manual mode.

The seats are adjustable for height and cushion tilt via two rotating knobs, but the backrest angle is set by a lever, which restricts the degree of adjustment. The seats are comfortable and reasonably-sized too.

In terms of space the Hyundai is entirely competitive, with excellent legroom in back and front, even for tall passengers, and quite good shoulder room. The impression is one of light and space, helped along by the pale beige tones of the test car.

The rear seat folds easily, flipping into fully-flat mode in one fluid motion without any need to first pivot the squab – it simply levers itself out of the way, Jeep-style, as the backrest is moved down.

The rear load area isn’t bad either, and is accessed via a split-fold tailgate that allows quick loading of small objects through the top-hinged rear glass. A roll-out cargo blind is standard, and there’s a restraining net on the floor as well, to help contain wayward luggage.

All this adds up to a useful, comfortable SUV wagon that is thoroughly competitive in terms of space utilisation, presentation and comfort items.

That’s probably enough to get it over the line with many potential buyers, but how does the Hyundai drive?

In general, the answer would have to be that it’s competitive here too. There are some areas of slight concern, but so there are with any other light SUV.

The Tucson’s biggest strength also turns out to be something of weakness as well, because while the V6 engine is a major point of difference with the competition, it also makes, as we said earlier, for a quite thirsty small SUV.

This is probably due to the fact that the Tucson is small, but not light - but there’s also the fact that a big engine is generally a big drinker.

And the Tucson might have a V6, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly quiet, or sweet-sounding, or even particularly powerful. The 2.5-litre Nissan X-Trail outpoints the 2.7-litre Hyundai on both power and torque and is way more economical.

And where the Nissan seems to have plenty of available torque from low rpm, the Tucson always feels as if it needs a few revs on board.

Sure, the Nissan four-cylinder isn’t as smooth but, surprisingly, it’s no noisier than the seemingly under-insulated Hyundai.

But just over ten seconds for the zero to 100km/h sprint is fair enough for a heavyish wagon, and the gearbox shifts smoothly and intuitively. Then there’s the bonus of sequential shifting.

The Tucson rides smoothly enough too. In fact, despite using the firmer suspension option available to Hyundai, it’s quite soft, which means it will heel over slightly – far from alarmingly - on corners.

At first the steering feels a tad slow, over-assisted and imprecise, but after familiarisation the Tucson feels agile enough, certainly with no handling quirks to worry about.

Hyundai says it has put a lot of work into making the Tucson a quiet vehicle, but the engine noise, plus a clunky-feeling front suspension, don’t do a lot for general impressions of refinement.

The part-time all-wheel drive system sends power to the front wheels under normal use (like the CR-V), progressively feeding the back wheels as slip is detected. This means that a quick uphill takeoff with a smattering of gravel on the road will result in some initial front wheelspin as the system decides what to do.

But with a traction control system, a Torsen-style limited-slip rear differential, plus four-channel anti-lock brakes, the Tucson is quite well-served in terms of grip-enhancing systems.

A good feature is that the driver can lock the system into full-time four-wheel drive when necessary, disabling the traction control at the same time. As speed rises, the system reverts to part-time all-wheel drive.

In all, it must be said the Hyundai Tucson does its job very competently. There are no flaws in any of its functions except that the V6 doesn’t do anything special for it in terms of power or refinement. What it does do is make the Tucson a quite thirsty small SUV.

But the Hyundai argument holds strong. If you get this much for this little, why would you want to go elsewhere? For some, the discussion begins and ends right there.

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