Hyundai is one of the best success stories in the automotive world. When the company debuted in the States in 1986 with the misnamed Excel model, it had massive initial sales success due chiefly to the car's low price. At $4,995, the base Excel four-door hatchback was the cheapest new car you could get back then. But when the "new car for $5 grand" novelty faded and folks realized that a used but better-built Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla was a smarter choice, the company was left with a reputation for mediocre cars that had little to offer other than their low initial cost. Somewhere along the line, Hyundai saw the light and realized that improving the product was key to improving its image. The result can be seen now in the 2005 Hyundai Tucson.
Today, Hyundai enjoys a reputation as a builder of sturdy vehicles that still undercut the competition by thousands of dollars, but no longer at the cost of refinement and dependability. In fact we had a 2001 Hyundai Elantra in our long-term fleet that took everything our team of leadfoots threw at it for over 16,000 miles and finished its tour of duty looking and driving as if it had been babied. Nothing rattled, nothing shook, and apart from tending to a minor recall notice, no unscheduled visits to the dealer's service department took place. In short, it proved to be a solid car in every important area: overall performance, comfort, refinement and dependability.
That new-for-2001 Elantra marked a turning point for Hyundai as it proved that the company was a legitimate competitor to its higher-priced rivals who enjoyed long-standing reputations for quality and reliability. When the company fleshed out its lineup with the feature-packed Hyundai Santa Fe SUV, the sales tsunami picked up intensity. Since 1998, Hyundai's sales have increased 344 percent and the company is currently fourth on the import charts, behind Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
In the vernacular of the corporate suits, Hyundai felt that now was a good time to "round out the portfolio" by offering a small SUV that, like its bigger brother, would meet its rivals in terms of quality, features and performance and beat them on price. Hence the vehicle you see before you, the 2005 Hyundai Tucson.
Thanks to its big-eye headlights and somewhat quirky character lines, the new Tucson is instantly recognizable as a Hyundai product. Even if you go with the base model (the GL), it won't look like you're driving a stripper, as deep-tinted windows and 16-inch alloy wheels are just a few of the many standard features.
In terms of raw numbers, the Tucson sits on a 103.5-inch wheelbase (about the same as a Ford Escape's or Honda CR-V's) and stretches 170.3 inches in overall length (about five inches less than the Escape and nearly 11 inches less than the CR-V). The Hyundai's weight (at 3,548 pounds for an all-wheel-drive model) is about 100 pounds heavier than those two rivals.
Settle in behind the wheel and the Tucson's impression of quality continues. Fit and finish on our test vehicle was very good, and apart from the use of hard plastic on the top of the door panels, the materials quality was likewise. The metallic trim adorning the center stack of our test car was better than what we typically see on more expensive midsize 'utes. Even my co-driver, who tugged and pulled at interior trim panels, was impressed by the solid-as-a-rock assembly of the Tucson's cabin.
In keeping with Hyundai's value philosophy, even the standard features list for the Tucson GL makes for a long read. Air conditioning, power everything (except the seats), a CD player, keyless entry and a removable cargo area mat are all included for the front-drive GL's modest sticker of just $17,499 (plus destination). Equally, if not more impressive is that even this entry-level model comes with the latest safety features, such as stability control, ABS and side curtain airbags, that just a few years ago were seen only on luxury-brand SUVs.
Step up to the midlevel Tucson GLS model, and a 173-horsepower V6 (which replaces the GL's 140-horse inline four) paired with a four-speed automatic becomes the powertrain. Additionally, the body is fitted with foglights, color-keyed mirrors and door handles, dark gray body cladding and different wheels. The cabin gets a few upgrades, too, including leather wrapping for the steering wheel and gearshifter, a luggage net and the metallic trim mentioned earlier, among others.
Pop for the top-'o-the-line Tucson LX and leather seating, heated front seats and a six-disc CD changer are added to the mix. The sticker for the LX? A mere $21,249 (plus destination). Opting for all-wheel drive adds about $1,500.
As far as cabin comfort, we found the well-shaped front seats supportive and generally accommodating. The rear seat (which offered a fold-down center armrest and split/reclining seat backs) is pretty good, too, though more thigh support would be nice.
As Hyundai feels that the bulk of Tucsons sold will be the midlevel GLS model, that's what the company had on hand for us to drive. Though the 2.7-liter V6's 173 horses won't set your pants afire, performance is peppy enough to effectively handle downtown traffic and cruise at an easy 75-80 once out on the open freeway. The V6's efforts are optimized by the responsive automatic gearbox that furnishes gear changes so smooth it would make Mercedes-Benz proud. Even the manual-shift feature of the automatic impressed us, as it didn't have a drawn-out, annoying lag that plagues so many of these "automanuals" when you bump the lever to shift up. On a deserted stretch of two-lane black top with nobody behind us, we put the brakes to the test and were pleased with the pedal feel and strong performance of the binders as they swiftly hauled down the SUV from 60 mph.
As the Hyundai Tucson is based on the Elantra platform, we expected agreeable driving dynamics. Indeed, the feel behind the Tucson's wheel was similar — pleasant and relatively responsive if not exactly sporting. Yes, on pavement, the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute twins have the edge when it comes to athletic handling, but most folks who are in the market for a small SUV probably aren't looking for sports car performance and should find the Tucson offers an amicable balance between a smooth ride and razor-sharp handling.
When we encountered the brief (under a mile), mildly rough off-road loop of our drive route, our AWD Tucson impressed us as it skedaddled over the rocky trail without faltering, shuddering or causing any ugly noises to emanate from the chassis or the cabin. As with most small SUVs, the AWD Tucson operates primarily in a front-drive mode until slippage is detected, at which point torque is sent to the wheels that have the best grip. Additionally, there is a switch on the left side of the dash that will lock the driveline in a 50/50 front/rear split should conditions require a little extra traction. Although we didn't have to use that feature, Hyundai officials openly admitted that the Tucson is not meant for serious boulder-bashing or mud-slinging. They realize most folks want the all-wheel drive for handling slippery road conditions or getting to the trailhead, not for entering the Baja 1000.
And that is perhaps the company's greatest asset — realizing what people want in a given vehicle segment. The 2005 Hyundai Tucson is a great example of their efforts. With a new plant set to open up in Alabama early next year (it will produce the 2006 Hyundai Sonata and a new-for-'06 midsize SUV), Hyundai is showing confidence in its American market. That's only fitting, now that the American market is showing confidence in Hyundai.