Hyundai Tucson — A 21st Century station wagon

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

South Korean automaker Hyundai has accomplished much over the past couple of years including the creation of the new mid-sized Sonata sedan that has become a benchmark for its segment.

Another rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick is the creation of a small crossover that has taken center stage in the extremely competitive segment. The all-new 2010 Tucson can unapologetically stand toe-to-toe with such industry stalwarts as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Nissan Rogue.

The new second-generation Tucson has the ingredients to please shoppers — an attractive thinking-out-of-the-box head-turning design, a fuel-efficient but willing 4-cylinder engine, available all-wheel drive that has a full four-corner locking feature, a confident on-road demeanor, a stylish dashboard and interior, and room for five people including four adults.

We believe that the modern crossover is the 21st Century station wagon, and the new Tucson may be the — all things considered — cream of the small station wagon crop.

The original Tucson, which came to market for the 2005 model year, was a competent but nondescript vehicle that got its work done in unexciting fashion. There was nothing about the Tucson that would give pause to the traditional RAV4 or CR-V buyer.

The sophisticated design, which came from Hyundai’s Frankfort studio, gives the Tucson an air of luxury. Three inches longer and an inch wider than the previous vehicle, may not appeal to everyone, but we found the styling, which incorporates an incredible number of creases and curves, very appealing. At the least we think it’s more attractive than the traditional SUV box.

The interior is equally attractive offering shapely lines using high-quality appearing materials. And it’s not just all about form over function. Hyundai has kept swtichgear simple and easy to use. Most of it is very intuitive making searching for the owner’s manual unnecessary.

The Tucson provides decent passenger room, especially when it comes to leg room for second-row passengers, but the small crossover falls short in cargo capacity when compared to competitors. If 25.7 cubic feet of luggage space is enough for your needs and a maximum of 56 cubic feet with the second row folded is adequate for your lifestyle, than space will not be an issue. For comparison, the Honda CR-V has 35 and 73, the RAV4 sports 36 and 73 and the Escape 28 and 66.

While interior room in total is a question mark, interior comfort is another thing. The Tucson seats are narrow in width and the surfaces are nothing short of hard. Getting into a good driving position is not difficult, but you’ll find you won’t want to sit there for an extended period.

The most important aspect of any vehicle is the driving experience. And in this regard the Hyundai does well. It has very adequate power from a new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque.

As it did with the Sonata, Hyundai dropped the V-6 engine option. But the smallish V-6 in the previous vehicle was never much of a choice and we found the new 4-cylinder, mated to a six-speed automatic, up to the task of pulling the 3,516-pound vehicle. A six-speed manual transmission is also available — a rarity in these ranks — if you opt for the base trim level.

Even when a lot of engine is requested for such events as merging into fast-moving traffic, the engine responds with enough forward momentum to accomplish the task. As is the case with many four-bangers, however, the engine becomes a bit raspy under hard acceleration. A small 34.7-ft. turning circle makes Tucson agile in tight quarters.

We drove the Tucson on some steep grades in the mountains and hundreds of miles over two weeks on both the east and west coasts. We encountered very little gear hunting, and if need be the Tucson can be shifted manually.

We were pleasantly surprised at the vehicle's road-holding ability on the curves. On the downside you’ll find a rather stiff suspension that may be on the harsh side for some people.

Also noteworthy is gas mileage measured at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway with front-wheel drive and 21/28 with all-wheel.

We carried a third passenger much of the time, and she seemed satisfied with the rear leg room. The rear seats do not, however, move fore or aft or recline as is the case in many competing vehicles. This might be a concern for comfort if long-distance driving is the rule rather than the exception.

Our passenger’s biggest complaint during a spate of 90-plus-degree weather was the lack of rear air vents even in the top line Limited edition. Hyundai might put center console-mounted vents on a list of equipment to be added to future vehicles.

The Hyundai comes in just two trim levels — GLS and Limited — starting at $19,790 for a manual-shifting front-wheel drive GLS. The least expensive all-wheel drive vehicle comes in at $22,290 including destination charge.

The GLS offers a wide assortment of standard features including a couple of driving aids not found as standard equipment on many vehicles in this segment — hill-holding (prevents rolling  back on inclined stops) and hill descent control (automatically brakes the vehicle on steep off-road hills when activated). Standard safety items include four-wheel antilock brakes, electronic stability control and a full range of airbags.

Other items include 17-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, air conditioning, full power accessories, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker audio with satellite radio and CD player.

There are few options, the biggest of which is a navigation system with backup camera, upgraded audio system and panoramic sunroof. It runs $3,700 in the GLS trim and $2,850 in the Limited edition.

Our top Limited trim test vehicle with all-wheel drive and navigation came in at $29,490.

Base price: $19,790; as driven, $29,490
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 176 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 168 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 173.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,516 pounds
Turning circle: 34.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 25.7 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 56 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 28 mpg highway, 21 mpg city
0-60: 9.6 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape

The Good:
• Stylish exterior
• Attractive, well-appointed cabin
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad:
• Lacks rear air vents, reclining seats
• Narrow, hard seating surfaces

The Ugly:
• Below-average cargo space