Now even middle-class sorority girls can shake enough pennies out of their bogus Louis Vuitton bags to make a mini sport-ute entrance. The new V6-powered 2005 Hyundai Tucson slots in just below the larger Hyundai Santa Fe SUV and has all the right stuff to take on its established compact 'ute competition. And it does so without name-brand overhead built into its cost.
Hyundai has spent the last several years molding its image, improving the quality of its products, and providing contemporary technology at an affordable price, and the Hyundai Tucson is another example of what's going right with the Korean automaker.
V6 Power at Bargain-Basement Price
The Tucson along with its Korean cousin, the 2005 Kia Sportage, sets a new standard of reference among the compact SUVs by providing V6 power for about $20,000. This kind of money gets you only an inline four-cylinder in a Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape XLS.
Power aside, the Tucson provides plenty of additional value with a long list of standard equipment including traction and stability control, dual side-impact and side curtain airbags and a six-speaker stereo system with cassette, CD and MP3 capabilities.
Fortunately, the Tucson doesn't follow the Hyundai family look too closely. It's less stylized than the Santa Fe, and like a classic Coach bag, it won't look outdated as new designs hit the streets.
Function also follows form resulting in a good-sized vehicle that drives more like a car than a truck. In fact, the Tucson and Sportage both ride on the sedan platform that underpins the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Spectra. Parking lot negotiation is a breeze. With a turning radius of 35.4 feet, the Tucson cuts an identical path to that of the RAV4 and Escape, and is only bettered by the Honda CR-V's tight 33.8-foot circle.
Measuring 170.3 inches, the Tucson's overall length is about the same as that of the Escape and RAV4, while the CR-V is substantially longer at 181 inches. Front legroom is nearly identical across the board, while rear legroom is again trumped only by the CR-V. This doesn't mean that rear passengers in the Tucson will suffer any worse fate than typically offered in today's compact sedans. If you can get comfortable in the backseat of the Elantra, you'll be just fine in the Tucson.
Honda uses up most of the CR-V's additional length in the cargo bay, offering nearly 9 cubic feet more than the 22.7 cubes behind the Tucson's rear seat. Still, the Tucson's wasn't a problem during day-to-day errands, and the addition of the 60/40-split rear bench allowed us to quickly specify our preferred configuration. Drop both sections and the Hyundai offers a 65.5-cubic-foot max, the same as the Escape.
Running the Numbers
We spent a week testing the Hyundai Tucson in midlevel GLS trim, driving both the front-drive- (2WD) and four-wheel-drive versions. Parked side-by-side in the garage, these two were distinguishable only by their exterior paint color. Both come standard with a 2.7-liter V6 engine paired with a four-speed automatic transmission. With 173 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, this engine is a worthwhile performer in either setup. For comparison, the CR-V and RAV4 get 160 and 161 hp, respectively, from their 2.4-liter inline fours, while the Escape draws just 153 hp from its 2.3-liter four-cylinder.
The four-wheel-drive Hyundai Tucson doesn't exactly tear your head from your neck, as it takes 10.2 seconds to reach 60 mph, but its V6 does move its 3,548-pound bulk without excessive noise. Because it packs nearly 200 additional pounds than the two-wheel-drive version, the four-wheel-drive Tucson accelerates more slowly, but handles better. It isn't more athletic, but it feels more stable, which gives less experienced drivers added confidence when taking on winding roads.
Although it powers its four tires, don't confuse the Tucson for a real off-roader. Its four-wheel-drive system is really set up as all-wheel drive with no low-range gearing, which is better suited for driving in the snow than climbing rocky terrain.
Acceleration is slightly compromised by the somewhat lazy shifting action of the Tucson's four-speed transmission. It hangs on too long before upshifting out of first gear. While a five-speed automatic would be preferred (the Honda CR-V has one), the Tucson is saved by the fact that its four-speed does offer a manual Shiftronic feature, allowing drivers to work their way through the gears manually at a quicker pace.
Fuel economy might also improve with the addition of a five-speed tranny. EPA figures claim 23 mpg with highway and city combined for the four-wheel Tucson, but we managed just 16 mpg during our test period.
Cruising through the slalom course at 59 mph, the Tucson started out easy to place through the cones, but one glaring deficiency quickly showed through: The power steering couldn't keep up with the driver who could feel it giving up on the second half of the 60-foot slalom run, hindering the Tucson from achieving better times. The steering felt fine, however, during regular day-to-day driving.
Bringing the Tucson to a stop was no cause for concern, neither on the straightaway of our testing facility or on public streets. Pedal pressure was good in both situations, and the Tucson closed the instrumented testing gap of 60-0 seconds in a short 120.5 feet, and braking was confident with minimal front-end dive.
Like some discount apparel, the Tucson's interior fabric suffers from the "sprinkle with glitter" method of dressing up on the cheap. Its discotheque pattern is bound to clash with every outfit you own. Hard plastics are present throughout the cabin, and a disappointing cargo cover that at first appears to be a rear shelf turns out to be useless for storing cargo. Since it can't be used as a shelf, we'd much prefer a retractable cover that didn't clunk down on your knuckles when you're loading groceries.
On the upside, there are no irregular gaps between panels or loose-fitting trim, and we have to say that Hyundai does a great job of injecting quality into the overall cabin. Even with the cheap materials, exceptional build quality still shines through.
Bottom Line: Value
With doors that close with a reassuring clunk, seats that latch securely into place, controls that are well placed and easy to use, the Hyundai Tucson is not a Korean car of the past, but a modern-day contender. If you still think you need to buy a Honda or Toyota for the reassurance of name-brand value, don't overlook the benefit of a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, a competitive distinction the Hyundai Tucson wears as proudly as a Prada label.
System Score: 7.5
Our Tucson GLS came equipped with a 140-watt, six-speaker audio system and includes not only a CD player but an MP3 CD player as well as a cassette player — a feature that is somewhat rare these days, especially on low-priced cars. This unit is an upgrade from the base GL which offers only a CD player. The CD player is a single-disc unit, but the fancier LX version of the Tucson offers an in-dash six-disc changer and subwoofer as standard equipment. The upgraded stereo is also available as an option on the GLS.
Based on sound quality alone, this stereo would probably get a 6.5 or maybe a 7. The bass isn't very deep, the highs are tinny and there is no midrange control. However, the overall sound quality is fair or slightly above average. Clarity is one of its strong points. Now add the fact that this system is standard on the GLS and offers MP3 capability and a cassette player, and the value part of the equation bumps the score up a little.
We like the large display screen, and it seems perfectly suited for radio station tuning and CDs, but once you pop an MP3-format CD in, it's hard for it to accommodate all the folders and subfolders in an easy-to-use manner. A bigger screen would be ideal for systems with the MP3 feature. The toggle button for navigating MP3 folders is useful and easy to figure out.
Best Feature: System includes MP3, CD and cassette player for no extra cost.
Worst Feature: Just average sound quality.
Conclusion: Like the car itself, the Tucson's stereo is an excellent value. It provides acceptable sound and lots of versatility. — Brian Moody
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I drove the Tucson's cousin, the Kia Sportage, not too long ago. It put together a nice combination of features, performance and affordability, but it was about a 1 on the personality scale.
The Tucson costs a little more than the Sportage, so I was expecting a little more, but from behind the wheel it was hard to detect any differences. The Tucson rides comfortably around town, soaks up bumps well and is easy to maneuver thanks to lightweight steering. With the same engine under the hood and roughly the same weight as the Sportage, the Tucson's performance is identical.
Hyundai and Kia do a better job than most when it comes to differentiating interiors between their respective cars. The Tucson is a good example as it sports its own unique cabin styling. I wouldn't call it better, just different. With its long standard features list, there's not much to complain about in that respect either.
Ultimately, the choice between the two really comes down to exterior styling, an area where I think the Tucson has the advantage. It actually has a recognizable style, whereas the Sportage is forgettable at best. Is the Tucson's more distinctive look enough to give it the nod over the slightly cheaper Sportage? It is in my book.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
What the Hyundai Tucson does well is fit in with the other compact SUVs without being totally outclassed. But it doesn't surpass the competition in very many ways. The cargo bay is small, the handling is numb and there's plenty of hard plastic inside. And the rear cargo cover is confounding and frustrating. Why is it molded to look like a package shelf but with an affixed sticker stating not to put anything on top of it?
About six years ago, pointing out that a certain new car or truck came with a V6 engine as standard equipment would have been interesting. Today, it's barely worth a mention.
OK, so the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CRV offer only four-cylinder engines, but the Tucson's V6 isn't nearly as smooth as those Japanese fours, and I'd be hard-pressed to call it fast or powerful.
The highlight of the Tucson is probably the stereo. It's not that it sounds so great but in GLS trim it does offer a cassette player along with CD/MP3 player. There's a small joystick-type button to help navigate files and folders so using the various features is quite simple.
Where Hyundai has the others beat is value. Even with a V6 and plenty of convenience features, the GLS version stickers for about $19,000. That is certainly not groundbreaking. Maybe it's worth mentioning, but just barely.
"I purchased this car on an impulse while I had my 2001 Santa Fe in the dealership having foglights installed on it. While I was waiting, I took a Tucson for a test-drive and fell in love with it. Even though I loved my Santa Fe, I obviously like the Tucson even better. I have nearly 2,000 miles on it now and I'm pleased with everything about it. It drives like a dream, is very comfortable, and has all the features I like. I'd heartily recommend this car to anyone looking for a smaller SUV. My favorite features: The 6-cylinder engine and ESP stability control system. The body style and the fact that the cargo area is "user-friendly" for my dog. The sunroof and foglights are great. The seats are comfortable, and the 6 airbags are good for safety. The 6-CD, cassette, AM/FM stereo system. Since I'm not a tall person and must sit fairly close to the wheel, I'd like an airbag for my left knee. I fear that in an accident my left knee would hit the panel under the steering wheel causing serious injury." — Sally, January 5, 2005
"After looking at every small and midsize SUV out there, I found the Tucson by accident. I went to look at the Santa Fe, and saw the Tucson. I didn't need to drive it off the parking lot — I knew it was the one I wanted. I have been ecstatic with this purchase. What a vehicle for the money. I would highly recommend it to anyone. Has great pickup, no outside noise when windows are up and driving 55 mph. Has best headroom I have come across, even better than the Explorer which I have also owned. Best purchase I have made. Very comfortable seats, controls for almost everything is right at the driver's fingertips. Low air noise while driving. Feel very protected in this vehicle. The only thing I wish it had that it doesn't at this point is a backup warning system and possible head-up speed indicator. Other than those mentioned I am extremely happy." — Mary Kay, December 14, 2004
"I just purchased a Tucson GLS V6 2WD. It is an amazing package for the price and it drove better than all the other small SUVs I tested. V6, traction control, stability control, 4-wheel discs, 4-channel ABS, mags, dual tailpipes and more convenience features than my Camry, all for $24K! And the best warranty to boot! Smart, smart choice. Quiet ride, gutsy, great safety features and hands down the best-looking small SUV out there. A little better gas mileage, glovebox should light without having the key in the ignition, moonroof should be a separate option and no side curtain airbags offered in Canadian models." — Laspalmas, December 6, 2004
"Having traded in my '02 Elantra GT Hatch for the Tucson, I was amazed at what Hyundai had done with their newest SUV! I love the additional performance I get from the 2.7 V6, as opposed to my previous 2.0 4-banger. The interior is laid out so user-friendly and pleasant to look at. Everything is right where you need it! I thoroughly enjoy the height increase that I get going from a sedan to an SUV. I can actually see the traffic ahead now. The ease of the seats folding down, including the front passenger seatback, was a big seller for me. The added bonus of 10 airbags, ABS/TCS/ESP, was the main reason I purchased. Not to mention that my insurance went down $25 from the Elantra. Airbags, ABS/TCS/ESP, automatic front windshield defroster, sun visor extenders, grocery bag hooks throughout the vehicle, the Alpine Frost color, the cargo mat and hidden tray in back, the 12V outlets, the front & rear armrest, cool cupholders with tabs, fresh body style, and the Hyundai warranty! The entire body should have been one color, instead of the black skirt cladding along the bottom. I have seen pictures of other countries' Tucsons, and the ones that are all one color look much sharper. Lumbar support! Better audio system. Bring the music off of the floor, and up to the driver!" — 4th-Hyundai Owner, November 27, 2004