Hyundai Tucson answers the call

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We get on average about two winter events a season in eastern North Carolina. As luck would have it, there’s been some type of vehicle in the driveway that delivers torque to all four wheels during most of these foul-weather occurrences.

We could just as easily be in possession of a sports car.

In fact, just a couple days before the first wintry blast of the season arrived, they took away a Mercedes SLK AMG 55. The hotrod SLK is one of our all-time favorites, but it would have remained parked for a couple of days had it been here for the post-Christmas ice and snow show. It is not a snow buggy by any stretch of the imagination.

This time around we were reviewing the all-new Hyundai Tucson compact sport utility vehicle with 4-wheel drive capability. And it proved to be a little champ.

Our test vehicle was a mid-level GLS model with a 2.7-liter V-6 and all-wheel drive.  Hyundai uses a Borg Warner Electronic Inter-Active Torque Management 4-wheel drive system in the Tucson that routes up to 99 percent of the available power to the front wheels under normal driving conditions.

As road conditions warrant, the system automatically diverts up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. The system constantly monitors throttle position, front wheel angle and slippage.

Snow-packed roads faced us early in the day and we felt it was more expedient just to push a dashboard button to the left of the steering wheel locking in 4-wheel drive in a full-time 50-50 torque split.

Later in the afternoon and early in the evening after the sun was gone, when snow had turned to sleet and then to rain and the roads became slicker with areas of black ice, we let the Borg Warner system determine the torque split.
The Tucson was warm and conformable - a safe haven.

The day the Tucson arrived, after we had it out for a couple of spins around the block, one of our passengers wondered why Hyundai had produced another sport utility virtually the same size as the Santa Fe, the company’s very successful car-based SUV introduced in 2001.

The answer according to Hyundai was to create a more direct competitor to the popular Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander and Ford Escape.

The Santa Fe, based on the mid-sized Sonata sedan, will be pushed upscale and increased in size (perhaps even gaining a third-row seat) for the 2006 model year, leaving the Tucson to do battle in the compact ranks.

The Tucson is another well-built and well-equipped vehicle from the South Korean company that is earning a reputation not only for prodigious warranties, but for quality as well.

In fact, the Tucson, based on the compact Elantra sedan, has more pleasing lines to our eyes than the Santa Fe while retaining the Hyundai look through its large sweptback headlights, big fenders and side profile.

The Tucson is seven inches shorter than the Santa Fe but keeps the same 103-inch wheelbase giving it a more solid stance with the wheels pushed out, closer to the corners.

The Tucson drives as big as the Santa Fe and it seemed to have as much passenger room as its slightly larger sibling. The published specifications show that it actually has slightly more legroom both front and back than the Santa Fe. Where it loses some space is behind the second-row seats. But a neat split-folding rear seat creates a flat load floor that can accept 65 cubic feet of cargo, on a par with the competition. The Santa Fe has 78 cubic feet.

We have not driven the base 4-cylinder engine, which generates 140 horsepower, but we think we’d be disappointed in its performance. We usually are with these types of 4-bangers. This one can be mated to a 5-speed manual in the base GS, and if base price ($18,094) and gas mileage (22 miles per gallon city/27 highway) are of importance, than this combination might be worth checking out.

The engine found in both the mid-level GLS and the top-level LS is a 2.7-liter V-6 making 173 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 is mated to a 4-speed automatic.

The rather small 6-cylinder won’t win many races among its competitors, but it felt lively in low-speed start and stop situations, and never let us down in merging and passing maneuvers, even with four adults on board.

The 4-speed shifts smoothly and has a quick kick-down when called upon for instant power.

The independent suspension setup is soft providing a sedan-like ride. This may not translate into boulder climbing ability, but Hyundai makes no claims to the Tucson’s abilities as a mountain goat. We were impressed, however, at the small SUV’s composure over a couple of snow-rutted parking lots.

The Tucson is comfortable inside with well-formed front seats. Rear passengers find adequate legroom and seatbacks that recline. Very impressive is the fit and finish of the interior. Seams fit exactly and the materials seemingly are of good quality.

One quibble we had was with our cloth interior. The fabric seemed to be okay, but the color scheme of patterned beige on beige did not fall into our realm of tasteful. We would probably opt for the leather package.

The dashboard gauges are clear and easy to read. But again there’s an exception. The stereo controls are small and when we tried to tune the radio while driving, we got lost trying to find the right switch. Stereo controls need to be more intuitive. What happened to the good, old fashioned tuning wheel? Sometimes the old tried and true method is the still the best.

Hyundai has made safety a top priority. For instance, all Tucson’s come with such standard equipment as four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, a stability control system, full-length side curtain airbags and seat-mounted side airbags.

This seems incredible considering many, if not all of these features are options on comparably equipped vehicles for nearly every other manufacturer.
Other standard equipment on all models includes air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, cruise control and a stereo system with CD player.

Most people will probably opt for the mid-level GLS with the V-6 engine starting at $20,594. Our 4-wheel drive model had a base price of $21,499. With Hyundai’s generous standard equipment package, options were not needed.

The upscale LX begins at $21,844 in 2-wheel drive mode.

Add in Hyundai¹s 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and there isn’t a better small sport utility buy on the planet.