Hyundai continues to refine and upgrade the Tucson, its compact-crossover SUV. Improvements for 2012 include bigger brakes; faster-acting, more energy-efficient air conditioning; a smoother ride; a larger gas tank; and better fuel economy from the larger of two four-cylinder engines. Features such as turn-signal repeaters and sophisticated Sachs amplitude-selective shock absorbers, previously reserved for the top-end Limited model, are now standard on the mid-range GLS as well. And those are only the highlights.
The 2012 Hyundai Tucson lineup begins with the value-priced, front-wheel-drive Tucson GL. Powered by a 165-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the Tucson GL rates an EPA-estimated 20/27 City/Highway mpg with its standard 5-speed manual transmission, and 23/31 with its optional 6-speed automatic.
The Tucson GLS and Tucson Limited models are offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Power is provided by a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter engine. Hyundai’s superb 6-speed automatic is standard, and for 2012 comes with new Active Eco technology, which makes the response of the engine and transmission smoother to changes in throttle position over time. Hyundai says this can yield as much as a 7-percent gain in real-world fuel economy. EPA ratings for the 2.4-liter Tucson with Active Eco are 22/32 mpg with front-wheel drive and 21/28 mpg with all-wheel drive. New low-rolling-resistance silica tires contribute to those numbers.
Inside, the cabin is a model of straightforwardness and simplicity. It's excellent ergonomically, meaning everything is easy to reach and operate. The materials are nice. The seats are supportive and comfortable. There's plenty of room in both the front and rear seats, with comfortable seating for four, capability for five.
Though Korean, the Tucson design is decidedly European in flavor, sporty and aggressive, capturing the crisp, agile look for which German styling studios are famous. Tucson skillfully tricks the eye, to its benefit. Just as the huge Audi Q7 manages to appear smaller and more athletic than it is, the Tucson does just the opposite. Its high beltline and squinty side-window configuration make the Tucson appear larger and more capacious than it really is. This may give the buyer a feeling of getting more for the money.
In short, the Hyundai Tucson is a well calculated vehicle that delivers roomy interior space, crisp performance and very good fuel efficiency.
The Hyundai Tucson takes advantage of the current European taste for dynamic thrusting forms and aggressive angularities. It has swoopy lines darting to and fro along its flanks, nose and tail. The side windows have not the slightest hint of being rectangular, with the little triangular windows behind the C-pillar almost squinted shut.
Tucson has an athletic, muscular look, the four wheels barely contained by their swollen, stuffed-tight wheel arches. A huge, deeply slanted windshield provides excellent forward perspective for the driver, but for rear seat passengers, looking out of the Tucson's narrow side windows is a little like peering out the gun slit of an armored car.
There will be those who find the Tucson's exterior a little busy looking, while others will find that standing next to the Tucson and looking down its door sides, it looks oddly slab-sided, bigger and heavier than it really is.
As always, there is ample room for debate about the Tucson's styling. The one point that is not debatable is this crossover's high expectations. Its styling is up to the minute, as aggressive as any crossover in the world market. For those youngish families with a taste of sportiness, Hyundai has opened the door wide.
Inside, the Hyundai Tucson is roomy and comfortable. The front seats are excellent both in terms of firm support and quality leather. The one-touch up/down driver's power window is one of those conveniences that once you've gotten used to it, you'll never be satisfied with less.
Back seat room is lavish for two, adequate for three. If you're looking for a third row, forget it. This is a compact crossover.
The first thing that strikes you climbing into the Tucson is its reassuring feeling of harmony and simplicity. This car's chief designers and stylists may have been German, but in the Tucson there is no hint of the German tendency towards self-indulgent complexity, of making you learn all over again how to do something you already know perfectly well how to do. To the contrary, the Tucson offers excellent ergonomics, that all but lost discipline of making a car's controls self-explanatory and intuitive. This Hyundai gets an A-plus in the avoiding annoyances category.
The dashboard's black pebble-grain covering is handsome and anything but econo class. The dashboard instruments are straightforward and dignified, with a water temperature and fuel gauge delivered in electronic readouts. To the left of the steering column are controls for hill assist, a stability-control off switch and the differential locker control. Cruise control and audio switches are provided on the steering wheel, with phone controls partially hidden inside the wheel rim.
The center console is simply laid out, offering audio controls, a navigation system and Bluetooth MP3 capability. Here we encountered one weakness in the Tucson, its forward-slanting navigation screen was all but blinded by glare on sunny days. On the other hand, it is blessedly straightforward to use, with a proper radial knob provided for tuning the audio. Defrost front and rear and individual seat-heater controls are easily selected, while XM is the satellite server of choice, and it should be. Life should always be this easy. But in too many other cars, it isn't. The Tucson interior deserves an A.
The Hyundai Tucson is reasonably agile and responsive, competitive with the other small utilities in its class, such as the CR-V and Escape.
Hyundai's 2.4-liter engine is smooth and quiet in normal driving, but accelerating hard onto a freeway to join the flow of traffic, its thrust is only adequate and the yowl it makes reminds you that it has a small, four-cylinder engine. The 2.4-liter engine is rated 176 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 168 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It's comparable to the other four-cylinder engines in this class, which do not offer the thrust of a more powerful but more expensive V6. Although Hyundai claims larger real-world gains for the new Active Eco function, EPA-estimated fuel economy for the 2012 2.4-liter Tucson engine is up only slightly over last year’s model, from 22/31 to 22/32 mpg City/Highway with front-wheel drive.
The Hyundai-designed 6-speed automatic transmission is smooth-shifting and excellent, giving the Tucson a big advantage in efficiency over other vehicles in its class. Additionally, its manual shifting capability is particularly good. In all but the most dramatically ill-advised shift requests, it gives you the gear you command.
The Tucson GL 2.0-liter engine features dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, continuously variable valve timing and a variable intake system. The 2.0-liter produces 165 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 146 pound-feet at 4600. We haven't driven the Tucson GL with the 2.0-liter engine. As the GL is not significantly lighter than the GLS, we have to suspect that performance suffers accordingly. The automatic 2.0-liter is also equipped with the new Active Eco system, but its EPA ratings remain the same as last year’s, at 23/31 mpg City/Highway. EPA mileage estimates for the 2.0-liter with manual transmission are only 20/27 mpg.
In states that follow California regulations, the GLS and Limited are Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV), with horsepower reduced to 170 hp and torque to 163 pound-feet. Pricing and equipment remain the same, so you can satisfy your environmental good intentions with little or no sacrifice.
The motor-driven electric power steering is one of the Tucson's greatest strengths. We found it perfectly calibrated, giving firm steering response and flawless road feel, leaving us no excuse to become uninterested in the driving experience. Absolutely first class. And of course it’s integrated into the vehicle's Electronic Stability Control.
Ride and handling are good. In corners, the chassis had only mild roll, as would be expected of a vehicle engineered and tuned in Germany.
However, we noted a significant difference between the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions. Ride quality with the all-wheel-drive models was noticeably harsher than that of the front-drive versions. This proved particularly true when driving the top-of-the-line Limited AWD with 18-inch wheels and therefore tires with shorter sidewalls. This is not to say that the AWD chassis is terrible, and if your planned use for your vehicle dictates all-wheel drive for climatic reasons, then the AWD Tucson will serve your purpose admirably. But if you have no particular need of all-wheel drive, save some money, and get a gentler front-wheel-drive package.
We found the brakes felt good with firm pedal feel and exemplary modulation, meaning nice, smooth, precise stops. All in all as utilities go, a satisfying driving package.
The Hyundai Tucson is a compelling choice among compact SUVs. Tucson offers a lavishly equipped package, with all the engineering, comfort, and over-the-road advantages demanded of a contemporary crossover utility. Far from being just Korean, this vehicle is nothing less than world class, at a price slightly below world class.
Ted West filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Tucson upstate New York. John F. Katz contributed to this report from Pennsylvania.