2016 Hyundai Tucson

ANN ARBOR, Mich.  — In the past year, car registrations have dropped 3.9 percent while light truck registrations have increased by 10.7 percent. Why then have Hyundai’s crossover utility vehicle sales fallen 14.5 percent over that same period? “The U.S. market is currently 56 percent truck and CUV,” says Dave Zuchowski president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, “and this has made it hard for us to keep our sales momentum. It’s not that we don’t have the capacity to build these vehicles. It’s that we have to reallocate our current production from cars to light trucks.”

Especially now that, after some delays to convince the home office of the need, the Santa Cruz concept shown in Detroit earlier this year is up for review and viability studies, and could be approved for production as early as this November. It wouldn’t put Hyundai in the middle of the pickup market, but it would expand its crossover offerings, and siphon off those buyers who need occasional open carrying capacity, but don’t necessarily want a full-on pickup truck.

Where the Santa Cruz will fit in the lineup is anyone’s guess, but Hyundai’s current roster has the Tucson at the bottom, the approximately 8.5-in. longer Santa Fe Sport in the middle, and the 8.5-in. longer than that Santa Fe at the top. It’s enough to make you think that, should the company build an edgier version of the B-segment CUV it just introduced in India for sale here, it will be about 8.5-in. shorter than the Tucson.

Until that happens, the Tucson will be the smallest CUV in the Hyundai garage, but one that puts a more upmarket spin on Hyundai’s value for the money formula.

Fully independent suspension is standard on FWD, AWD models, but the real news is the direct-injected 1.6-liter mated to a seven-speed DCT.A key to that upmarket feel is ride and handling. Readers of this site know that — until the Lotus-tuned Genesis Sedan — I have been no fan of Hyundai’s chassis tuning. To put it bluntly, it has been the work of amateurs. Stiff springs and soft dampers, soft springs and stiff dampers, and just about every combination in-between has been tried and rejected.

And the switchable steering feel used to this point has been nothing short of comical, and a case of doing something because it’s possible, not because it’s right for the vehicle. Development of the current Genesis Sedan finally convinced Hyundai that allowing the suspension to “breathe” and getting the springs, dampers and bushings to work together was the right way to go. However, rather than retain Lotus to do more work, it did as it always does and cast about for someone to copy. That company was Volkswagen.

VW does a fine job of controlling wheel and body movement without making things too harsh. They change direction with authority, ride acceptably, and combine wheel travel, spring and damper settings, and tuning of the bushings to make it work. Asking a company that has been in the U.S. market for little more than 30 years, and one without a strong dynamics portfolio or experience, to replicate the nuances of VW’s tuning could be asking for trouble.

Get it wrong, and Hyundai would have to continue to rely on its ever-improving fit and finish, high content for the dollar, and sharp styling to keep buyers interested. That’s fine if you want to to nothing more than satisfy current customers or entice those new to the market, but it will never seduce those conquest buyers that are important to the brand’s future growth. Through their experience with other makes, they have higher expectations for ride and handling by osmosis.

Though the materials are nice and the fit and finish good, the all-black interior looks a bit dreary. Better to order one of the two two-tone color combinations to break the monotony. Rather than keep you in suspense, let me state it outright: Our test drive around southeast lower Michigan showed Hyundai hasn’t quite reached the level of refinement or dynamic capability of VW, but it’s close. The 2016 Tucson is the first Hyundai in memory (other than the aforementioned Genesis Sedan) to have a coherent feel, ride and response to inputs.

MacPherson struts are retained up front, but every Tucson, not just the all-wheel drive versions, get a multi-link independent rear suspension with longer arms to reduce camber and toe changes as the suspension moves through its range of travel. Premium Sachs dampers are used front and rear, and every Tucson — from the base SE through to the top of the line Limited — have front and rear anti-roll bars. Even more amazing — and a sign of growing maturity — the Drive Mode Select settings (Normal, Eco and Sport) alter steering feel and powertrain response together for a more consistent, unified feel. It works in conjunction with an electric power steering unit with 20% less friction that is mated to an aluminum steering rack

Adding to the new-found sophistication is a stiffer chassis, and a number of measures taken to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. Things like larger engine mounts; adding bushings to the rear cross members; additional sound insulation material in the roof pillars, transmission tunnel, instrument panel and inner fenders; 335 feet of structural adhesive to increase body rigidity while quelling road noise; and lowering the drag coefficient from 0.35 to 0.33 Cd for reduced wind noise and better fuel economy.

What’s more important than the recitation of tasks accomplished, is the result of the work. In our day-long drive, both my co-driver and I were impressed by how quiet the new Tucson was over a variety of roads, including an improved dirt road we discovered that wasn’t part of the drive route. Combined with the rich and tasteful two-tone interior of our Limited tester, it made the Tucson an inviting place to be as we wound our way through the rich farmland just outside of Ann Arbor.

Buyers of the SE model are powered by a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline four mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It produces 164 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 151 lb.-ft. at 4,000, and is available with either front- or all-wheel wheel drive. EPA rated at 23 city/31 highway/26 combined, the latter number is a one mpg improvement over the 2015 FWD model. Moving up to all-wheel drive reduces these numbers to 21 city/26 highway/23 combined, a substantial hit.

Cargo space has increased, and the floor can be lowered two inches to carry taller items, or placed in its top slot to create a flat floor when the rear seats are folded. Eco, Sport and Limited models replace the previous Tucson’s 2.4-liter inline four with a turbocharged, direct injected 1.6-liter four mated to the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission used in the Sonata Eco.

This engine produces 175 hp at 5,500 rpm and 195 lb.-ft. at 4,500. In the front-drive Eco model which, like the SE runs on 17-in. wheels and tires, it’s EPA rated at 26 city/33 highway/29 combined, a five mpg increase in combined driving. All-wheel drive reduces this to 25 city/31 highway/27 combined; a big improvement over the SE. Both the Sport and Limited FWD models are rated at 25 city/30 highway/27 combined, a three mpg increase. Driving all four wheels has a relatively minor effect, with ratings of 24 city/28 highway/26 combined. Both the Sport and Limited come standard with 19-in. wheels and tires.

A short run in the Sport model after lunch showed that it’s best to order one of the two-tone interiors (black/gray or black/beige), as the lack of contrast in the all-black interior makes the interior feel dark, foreboding and a bit dreary.

Fit and finish have improved yet again, vaulting the Tucson to the top of the current class of small CUVs, and it’s possible to carry four average-size adults without anyone threatening mutiny. Cargo space has increased by 5.3 ft3 to 31 ft3, and the rear seats have a greater recline capability. Hyundai’s hands-free liftgate is available as an option, and automatically opens the hatch when the key fob is behind the hatch and within three feet for three or more seconds.

On the safety front, blind spot detection, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert are standard on the Sport and Limited, while lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and backup warning sensors are optional on the Limited. None of these technologies are offered on either the SE or Eco models. Projector beam headlights are standard across the board, and the Limited can be ordered with LED headlights or HID headlamps that follow the road.

Pricing is fully competitive, especially when you take into account the equipment that is either standard or optionally available on the Tucson that aren’t found on the competition.

Based on our time the Limited, the 2016 Tucson appears to be a strong competitor in the small CUV market. Following Hyundai tradition, it offers a lot of features for the money, an industry leading warranty, and competitive fuel economy. Added to this is handsome styling; a quiet, spacious and comfortable interior; powerful yet reasonably frugal turbocharged engine; smooth seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; handsome styling; and surprisingly good ride and handling.

It looks like Hyundai may need the extra capacity it’s creating by shifting around car production in order to meet demand.

— Christopher A. Sawyer (The Virtual Driver)