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Hyundai talks tough with Tucson

Put to the test: Hyundai is not afraid to submit the Tucson to a bit of severe battering.

Tucson leads Hyundai on the comeback trail as it talks up sales forecasts

Hyundai logo18 Aug 2004

HYUNDAI is talking tough these days, and with some justification.

Although Australian sales had dipped steadily from nearly 60,000 in 1997 to barely 30,000 in 2003 as the company floundered in search of new directions, the comeback trail is now clearly marked. Hyundai executives are talking about a top-five finish in the local market in a year or so.

That is quite conceivable, given that Hyundai is steaming ahead in 2004, way in front of what it managed in 2003 as an overwhelming percentage of its models score big year-to-date improvements.

Of the entire 10-vehicle model range, only the Santa Fe SUV and the Trajet wagon are dragging their heels – and even then Trajet’s July sales were ahead of the same month in 2003.

Hyundai Australia director of sales and marketing Theo van Doore said the top-five aim should be achieved if the current sales trends among the top players continued into next year.

At this point in 2004, the company is running seventh in new vehicle sales with just under 24,000 Hyundais sold so far, but Mr van Doore said the objective for 2005 to climb past 50,000 total sales had the potential to elevate the brand into top-four status.

That’s not unrealistic when you consider the company should achieve about 40,000 sales this year – which in itself is only a partial return to 1990s glory.

So omnipresent was the company at the time that in June 1998 the Hyundai Excel was actually the biggest-selling car on the local market.

It’s not difficult to imagine the Excel’s front subframe problems, and the clumsy handling of the issue, contributed substantially to a loss of public confidence and a fall from favour that was only arrested this year.

Mr Van Doore also said the company lost momentum as it tried to move away from its original identity as a bargain-basement car-maker.

Big management changes in 2003, when the local operation was taken over by Hyundai Motor Company in South Korea, a focus on customer satisfaction via its 137 national dealers and consistent pricing have all helped turn the company around.

Although Hyundai might have put recently aired upmarket plans onto the back burner for the moment, it’s clearly of no mind to cultivate an el-cheapo image. Rather, the new push is to position Hyundai as a future-driven company, with youthful images applying to much of its model range.

A swag of new models, or revisions of existing ones, is also on the way.

A turbo-diesel Terracan will arrive here in late October. Next year, a new Sonata will be followed by a new Accent, a new Grandeur and a facelifted Getz.

All will help establish a more dynamic image, along with a styling consistency that has so far been lacking. Hyundai does not write off suggestions of a soft-top Tiburon (which itself is just about to be facelifted) either.

But the car that most clearly represents what Hyundai is all about today is the all-new Tucson SUV – the most thoroughly researched new car to be introduced by the company.

Aimed directly at Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail and Honda CR-V, the Tucson could apply the afterburners to Hyundai’s so far impressive climb back to prominence.

Although it matches the small Japanese SUVs closely in body size, it does have a clear advantage in that it comes with the same all-alloy, 2.7-litre Delta V6 engine used in the bigger Santa Fe.

It might not represent exceptional gains in terms of power (it has less power and torque than the X-Trail’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder) or performance (it’s heavier than any of its opposition) but it earns the Tucson plenty of street credibility. This is important with the 25-30-year-olds Hyundai is targeting.

And the price, at just under $30,000 in basic, auto-only form and $32,490 in sunroof-equipped, six-airbag (dual front, dual side and full-length curtain airbags) Elite trim, is well below anything the four-door competition can throw at it.

Alloy wheels and air-conditioning are standard on both versions, as is a four-speaker sound system with MP3/CD player and cruise control. In addition, Elite gets a leather-trimmed steering wheel, trip computer and automatic headlights.

The profusion of airbags in the Elite version, plus five lap-sash belts, results in a Euro NCAP rating of four stars.

1 center image The Tucson looks pretty good, too. A product of Hyundai’s Korean styling studio (the company also has studios in Europe and the US), it has a clean, chunky profile and looks inoffensive from either front or rear. It’s a step ahead of the Santa Fe and generations in front of the Terracan.

The drive system is your basic 4WD on demand. It operates as a front-wheel drive in most conditions, bringing the back wheels into play when slip is detected via a multi-plate clutch located just in front of the torque-sensing Torsen limited slip rear differential. Traction control is also part of the package.

Hyundai says the Tucson is unique, with a platform not directly related to any other model, although there have been some suggestions it stemmed from the Elantra.

Suspension is all-independent with MacPherson struts used at both ends and the four-wheel disc brakes operate through four-channel ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution.

Fortunately for Australia, Hyundai decided to bring in the better-handling European version of the two suspension calibrations available for the Tucson.

The interior is quite thoughtfully designed with split-fold rear seats that are able to fold flat in a simple, single movement, neat instrumentation and a full-size alloy spare wheel.

The Tucson (to get the pronunciation right, the promotional material includes constant "Tu" references – designed tu impress, tu-morrow’s all-wheel drive) will initially add a supply-restricted 200 sales a month to Hyundai’s total, increasing to 500 per month by the end of this year.

And if there are any concerns Tucson may impact on the Santa Fe, Hyundai plans to address this by re-specifying and repositioning the larger vehicle with an imminent refreshment.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE roughly-rutted roads in the forests behind Bateman’s Bay on NSW’s south coast showed Hyundai is not afraid to submit the Tucson to a bit of severe battering.

Vicious corrugations, scrabbly downhill off-camber bends and a shallow water crossing were mixed with some beach driving and extended highway kilometres to prove the capabilities of what Hyundai marketing general manger Richard Whaite describes as Australia’s premier small SUV.

A big claim, but on first acquaintance the RAV4 challenger from South Korea did nothing to challenge its veracity.

Probably the first thing one looks for in a new vehicle from a car-maker more recognised for keen pricing than innate quality, is how well it’s put together.

The Tucson is, in three words, not too shabby.

The interior trim and detail finish were neat and seemingly free of rough edges, and even though it was unremittingly firm and unyielding, the dash had a general quality look to it. The controls were also pleasantly tactile.

The driver’s seat in the Elite version driven by GoAuto looked promising with manual tilt and height adjustment for the cushion as well as plenty of all-round legroom - although the driver would be better served if steering wheel reach adjustment was provided.

Sitting in the back seat behind a 185cm-tall driver, there is still plenty of knee space and there’s the usual array of cubbies small and not so small, as well as a height-adjustable centre armrest/oddments bin between the front seats.

The folding back seat is clever. Jeep Cherokee-style, it folds in one simple movement, with the cushion moving forward and down to provide an unbroken, flat load surface. The front passenger seat can be folded fully flat too, allowing either a sleeping space or enabling a full-size surfboard to be carried, and there’s a two-piece tailgate to facilitate easy loading of lighter, smaller items.


The Tucson strikes a reasonable balance between firmness and absorbency

The V6 engine feels much the same as in the Santa Fe. It’s not exactly quiet, but it’s smooth and possessed of a certain eagerness – once the tachometer climbs past 4000rpm.

It’s not big on mid-range, which means it feels a little less impressive than you might expect, causing the four-speed automatic transmission to search relentlessly for exactly the right ratio. The sequential facility (using the more logical forward upshift, backward downshift action) is called into use quite often.

Reports from experiences in softer-sprung versions driven in South Korea make us grateful that the tighter European settings were chosen for Australia. The Tucson strikes a reasonable balance between firmness and absorbency, and is quite effective in filtering out road and tyre noise.

The benefits extend to the steering too. Hovering between light and heavy, it makes for a reassuringly stable drive on open roads, while being responsive, sharp and decisive on tighter sections – as well as easy to park.

Speaking of open roads, the Elite model’s standard glass sunroof seemed to generate more noise when closed than when cracked slightly open at speed – although bringing into play the insulating qualities of the sliding cover all but shut down the noise.

Like its SUV peers, the Hyundai is not intended for anything more than light forays into the bush. It is quite effective on sand, however. With the 4WD system switched to full-time mode via the on-dash button to the right of the steering wheel, traction control switched off and tyre pressures lowered, the Tucson made light work of a short excursion onto a dry but soft-sanded beach.

On gravel roads the Tucson feels stable and quite absorbent of bumps – although a couple of the launch cars somehow managed to collect small twigs off the road and tuck them away near the rear half shafts. Stopping the vehicle, selecting reverse and backing up for a metre or so cleared things up quickly.

Overall impressions of the new Hyundai were decidedly positive.

There is really little to complain about with the new small SUV.

The official average fuel consumption figures of 11 litres per 100 kilometres are reasonable, the packaging is excellent and the dynamic qualities refreshingly competent - better than we may have expected for a first-time South Korean entrant into the Australian market.

The quality feels good too – and who could argue with a five-year, 130,000km warranty?

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