Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2005   by David Booth

Small, Curvy and More Than Peppy

Competent, roomy and powerful, the Tuscon still plays Hyundai's trump card -- value.

You have to admire Hyundai’s ambitions. Despite being down in sales this year (like just about every other car company), it still maintains its ambitious goal of becoming the world’s fifth largest automaker by the year 2010 (up from seventh), a goal that will require the company to increase its total sales from a merely incredible 3.1 million units to an astronomical 5.5 million.

Part and parcel of that unrestrained ambition is the need to release an unrelenting supply of new models, just the latest of which is yet another sport-cute. Small, curvy and more than a mite peppy, the Tucson is aimed directly at the core of the cute-ute segment: Honda’s CR-V, Toyota’s RAV4 and the new Nissan X-Trail.

What does this Hyundai offer that its previous entry, the Santa Fe, does not? Well, for one thing, a starting price tag of less than $20,000. In fact, for the base $19,995, Hyundai says it can equip a 2.0-litre four-cylinder Tucson with anti-lock brakes, traction control and its electronic stability control program, not to mention a six-speaker audio system. Unfortunately, Tucsons so equipped aren’t yet available, so for this initial test at least, we poor auto scribes were reduced to driving the top-of-the-line V6 version.

Still affordably priced at $24,865 for the front driver and $27,145 for the four-wheel-drive model, the 2.7-litre Tucson is still very much a bargain. The same 172-hp, double-cam, 24-valve unit that powers the sporty Tiburon, the V6 is adequately powered and quite smooth.

Even more worthy of significant praise is the Tucson’s chassis. Unlike the Santa Fe, whose superstructure can feel a little like a flexi-flyer when subjected to the rough stuff, the Tucson on the other hand feels much more like a German-engineered product with a unibody frame, seemingly oblivious to anything but the harshest sharp-edged bumps.

It doesn’t hurt that, despite the Tucson’s bargain-basement price, it still rides on four-wheel independent suspension, MacPherson struts in the front and trailing arms with multi-links in the rear. The only downside is that the suspension is set up a bit firm to offset the traditionally higher centre of gravity of a sport-cute. The upside is that the Tucson handles better than, or at least as well as, its more expensive competition.

Size-wise, the Tucson is obviously down from the Santa Fe, but there’s room for four adults and enough cargo space to haul more than a weekend of belongings. The cargo space is also made handier by the inclusion of tie-down anchors (six) and cargo net holders (also six), not to mention three hooks on which to hang plastic grocery bags.

Interior decor — at least in the topline GL and GLS models that we drove — was also quite surprisingly up to the competitor’s challenges. Though there are no stylistic breakthroughs inside, it’s tastefully decorated. Nothing highly exciting or dramatic, to be sure, but again very much in keeping with the competition.

In fact, that sums up the new Tucson quite nicely. Its V6 is a little more powerful and smoother than its four-cylinder competition. It does not handle any livelier than the mainstream Japanese sport-cutes, but neither is it a floundering whale. The interior sets no new standards, but it is the equal of any.

But then there’s Hyundai’s traditional trump card, price. Whatever guise you choose — the base model at $19,995 or the full-bore, leather-equipped V6 with all-wheel drive at $28,725 — it undercuts the segment’s traditional leaders by quite some margin.

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