We found the Tucson to be comfortable around town and on the highway, with light steering, adequate power from the V6, and a smooth four-speed automatic transmission.
The interior is nice: It doesn't look cheap, and the controls are easy to operate with big knobs. It's easy to get in and out of the front and back seats, and the rear seatbacks flip down easily. There's a decent amount of cargo space available.
We like its looks. It's nicely proportioned, with clean lines and short overhangs front and rear. Like Hyundai's slightly larger Santa Fe, the Tucson is a crossover rather than a truck-based SUV, built with unit-body construction, all-independent suspension, and a transversely mounted engine.
That said, we actually preferred the ride and handling of the four-wheel-drive Tucson models, even on dry pavement. On wet pavement, 4WD Tucsons don't spin their front tires the way the front-drive models do when accelerating from a stop. In snow, they benefit from an all-wheel-drive system that directs power to the rear wheels as road conditions change. A switch allows the driver to lock in a 50/50 torque split when creeping through drifting snow. Though not intended to be a highly capable off-road vehicle, the Tucson can certainly manage rocky dirt two-tracks and other light off-highway duties.
For the 2008 model year, Hyundai has made a six-disc CD changer standard with Limited trim, and replaced the gray leather interior with black. Late-production 2008 Tucson models come standard with XM Satellite Radio (including three months of free service), an auxiliary audio input jack, active front head restraints, and a tire-pressure monitor. A four-cylinder version of the top-trim Limited is also available.
Hyundais are becoming known for outstanding quality and safety. The J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study named Tucson the industry's highest quality all-new model when it was launched in 2005; and rated it highest in initial quality in the compact multi-activity vehicle segment in 2006.
A comprehensive list of active and passive safety features are standard equipment, including six airbags and electronic stability control. Tucson is aggressively priced and it comes with Hyundai's five-year/60,000-mile warranty. Tucson earned a five-star safety rating from the U.S. government (NHTSA) in front and side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts crash tests differently than the government, has rated the Tucson Acceptable in its frontal offset and side-impact crash tests. Their system rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor.
Hyundai Tucson GLS FWD manual ($17,235), GLS FWD automatic ($19,335), SE V6 FWD ($21,035), SE V6 4WD ($22,735); Limited V6 FWD ($22,885), Limited V6 4WD ($24,585)
Then, for 2007, Santa Fe went all sleek and sophisticated, chasing after the same up-level crossover look recently adopted by the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. That leaves Tucson, by default, more distinctive-looking; the last of the cute-utes.
The size difference between the two siblings has grown as well. Where before Tucson was just about 7 inches shorter overall than Santa Fe, on a wheelbase that was actually a half-inch longer; now Tucson is shorter by almost 3 inches in wheelbase and close to 14 inches overall. But remember that's because Santa Fe has grown, while Tucson remains the same size it always was.
The Tucson has clean lines with a relatively big grille up front and headlamps that blend in well with the hood line and edges of the fenders. The front bumper is a large one-piece molding that begins just below the grille, houses three large air openings and two fog lights (on models that have them) and then forms a spoiler at the bottom. Yet in profile this impressive piece of plastic barely protrudes in front of the grille opening. At the back, the outer edges of the rear bumper reaches up to the tail lights; this bumper sticks out a few inches, adding protection.
Tucson's rear tailgate slopes forward, avoiding the van-like vertical look of many other small SUVs. The rear window can be opened separately from the main tailgate, although it is not very big, making it ineffective for loading much more than small light stuff.
The SE comes with lower body cladding that runs from the front bumper, around the fenders and along the lower edges of the doors, to the rear bumper. Finished in gray, the cladding is not too obtrusive. Limited features a monochromatic look, with body-color cladding as well as the same body-color mirrors and door handles as the SE.
All models come with 16-inch alloy wheels; although the wheels on SE and Limited are more intricately styled. Roof rack side rails and tinted windows are also standard on all models.
Even though Tucson is not intended for serious off-road driving, it does have relatively short front and rear overhangs for clearance through gulleys and over obstacles. This is largely thanks to the Tucson's long wheelbase, fractionally longer than that of the Honda CR-V or Ford Escape, even though both of those vehicles are several inches longer overall. Tucson's longer wheelbase and shorter overhangs is a sign of superior design. The Tucson also has a relatively wide track, which helps improve its stability.
Tucson's new active front-seat head restraints help prevent whiplash by automatically reducing the space between itself and your head during certain rear-end collisions. This feature is highly recommended by safety organizations such as the IIHS.
Big radio and climate controls are mounted reasonably high for easy reach, as is the shift lever. The instrument pod contains three gauges with a decent-sized speedometer in the center and a smaller tachometer and fuel gauge off to the sides. The functions of the trip computer (standard in SE and Limited) have been expanded for 2008 to include drive time and average speed in addition to mpg and distance-to-empty.
Big storage pockets in each of the four doors contain an indent for a large cup, plus room for several maps or whatever. In addition there are a couple of cupholders in the center console. It's also nice to see a proper parking brake lever in the center instead of a pedal-operated parking brake. There are no fewer than three 12-volt power outlets; apart from the usual one at the front there is one in the rear cargo area and one at the back of the center console for use by the rear seat passengers. The rear armrest also includes a cupholder that can accommodate a juice box.
Thanks again to Tucson's long wheelbase, ingress to and egress from the rear seats is good. Once inside, rear-seat passengers will find adequate head and leg room for all but the tallest people. The rear seatback splits 60/40 to fold down with the push of single lever for more cargo space; you don't have to remove the headrests. The front passenger seat folds flat also, providing room for long objects or a convenient desk for a lone driver.
A reasonable amount of rear luggage space can be hidden by a solid rear cargo cover/parcel shelf. A large washable rubber mat covers a hidden under-floor storage area. The mat also helps protect the flooring, as well as providing a non-slip surface. There are six tie-downs at the side for securing cargo in addition to three grocery bag hooks.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. Those who want to be more in command can push the shift lever over to the Shiftronic semi-manual mode. Just a few years ago such an option was only offered on high-end sports cars.
The steering felt connected, though a tad light for our taste. Tucson's running gear is conventional, with MacPherson struts up front, and an independent rear suspension with separate struts and coil springs, plus tailing arms and multiple links to control wheel geometry. Over-40 readers will remember when gas-charged shocks were exotic equipment, but they are standard on Tucson, as well as front and rear anti-roll bars.
The brakes were smooth and stopped the vehicle efficiently. ABS keeps the wheels from locking up and sliding on slippery or uneven surfaces, so the driver can maintain steering control even in a panic stop. Electronic brake-force distribution adjusts the front-to-rear proportioning of braking force according to the load on the wheels, and continuously adjusts as the vehicle's weight shifts forward during a stop. This helps improve stability under braking, as well as making the most of available traction. Brake Assist, also included, senses panic braking and applies maximum braking force even if the driver does not.
A brief drive along a rocky dirt track showed us the Tucson can manage light off-highway duty.
We drove both four-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive models on pavement, and somewhat to our surprise found that we liked the ride and handling of the 4WD versions slightly better. This might seem counterintuitive, but it was probably because the 4WD models pack a little more weight over their rear wheels, making them better balanced overall, even though they are slightly heavier. What's more, the 4WD models didn't spin their front wheels on wet and slippery roads, as the front-drive models tended to do. Four-wheel-drive models also boast slightly larger rear brake discs, at 11.2 inches vs. 10.3 for front-drive models. All told, the 4WD option is worthwhile and we recommend getting it.
The four-wheel-drive system is a part-time setup, but once engaged it operates more like full-time all-wheel-drive, automatically routing power to the end of the vehicle that can use it best. (Unlike all-wheel drive, traditional part-time 4WD, the kind associated with older pickup trucks, does not alter the torque split according to conditions.) Most of the time the electronic brain sends most of the power (up to 99 percent) to the front wheels. If road conditions deteriorate, the system diverts up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. An additional mode allows the driver to lock in a 50/50 torque split for really slippery conditions, just the thing for big snowstorms. Called Electronic InterActive Torque Management, Tucson's Borg Warner system is essentially the same system Hyundai installs in the AWD Santa Fe. The lock automatically disengages above 20-25 mph, or when the ABS is activated.
The base Tucson comes with a modern four-cylinder engine, with four valves per cylinder and Hyundai's continuously variable valve timing. Still, it produces only 140 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 136 pound-feet of torque at 4500. Judging from the modest performance of the V6-powered Tucson, we would expect relatively poor acceleration performance from the four-cylinder. And at 20/25 mpg city/highway, its EPA ratings are not dramatically better than the FWD V6's 18/24. So the main advantage to the four-cylinder lies in the purchase price. We think the V6 is the better buy here.
The Hyundai Tucson is fully competitive with the established players in this segment and we've found the quality to be good. Tucson is no barnstormer as far as performance goes, but the V6 engine provides enough power to satisfy most people. Tucson costs hundreds of dollars less than its rivals yet it comes loaded with comfort and convenience features as well as a full complement of safety features.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara.