Driven: 2010 Hyundai Tucson

July 15, 2010
From the inside, it’s quite possible to mistake the new 2010 Hyunda Tucson for a Lexus.

That’s certainly what Hyundai would like to hear, and it’s true. Over the course of a week with the Tucson, I noticed that its interior elicits a lot more oohs and ahs—especially from those who don’t consider themselves gearheads or enthusiasts—than you might expect for a vehicle that totaled less than $30k.

A look and feel that’s just right

It’s a vehicle that, looking at materials, trim, and interior appointments, does everything right. Keep taking a closer look at interior details, and you won’t be disappointed. The plastic surfaces aren’t too shiny and have a consistent look throughout, and the bright trim pieces accent the interior in an understated, classy way. The cool blue backlighting for the dash and instruments also adds elegance.

From the outside, the Tucson carries a silhouette that’s much like that of its predecessor, though simultaneously more flamboyant and more fluid. The sheetmetal has been sculpted with flowing creases that create a curvy, aerodynamic, and elegant effect. Overall, the Tucson looks sport-wagon aggressive, and a little more like a wagon on stilts than other compact crossovers; that’s not at all a bad thing.

Everything’s not quite as delightful with respect to the driving experience, but your passengers again probably won’t be disappointed. With 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, the Tucson’s new so-called Theta II four-cylinder engine, though not a new direct-injection design, actually feels stronger than the step-up 2.7-liter V-6 that's been offered in the past. It works great with the new six-speed automatic transmission, but especially when cold its sound quality is a little crude. Compared to GM’s 2.4-liter, in the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox that we also posted a review of this week, it sounds coarser driving gently at the low revs but keeps its cool when pressed, sounding much more civilized into the higher revs when pulling off full-throttle passes.

Smooth, economical powertrain; disappointing steering

The single greatest point of dissatisfaction in the Tucson—at least through our finicky driving tastes—is the steering. For this reviewer, who’s already not a fan of the way electric power steering systems are tuned in many models, the Tucson’s new Motor Driven Power Steering system would be a deal-breaker. The system is light at low speeds, as it should be, but it all deteriorates from there. At intermediate speeds, on backroads, the steering assist seems to change in very noticeable ways from corner to corner, and by the time you get to 50 or 55 mph, it seems to be punching you back toward center, with a heavy rubbery feel that’s nothing even like any manual steering gear we’ve felt before. Make a quick maneuver at lower speeds, and there’s a sort of binding-loosening feel as the steering quickly changes its assist level. And on a stretch of roadway that has deep tramlines, the system seemed to surrender completely, becoming limp yet heavy as it was apparently auto-correcting for the road surface.

In contrast, the Tucson’s brakes feel great—like those of a small, sporty car, and surprisingly (for a tall vehicle) there’s not much nosedive.

Ride quality in the Tucson is good, though we noticed a bit more choppiness than in the Equinox we drove the previous week. Impact harshness over bumps was a little harder than many would like—especially from the back seat—yet the Tucson has an underlying softness that allows it to bound over railroad tracks and larger heaves. That said, the interior is a very quiet place, soaking up most road and wind noise.

When we were asked to park in a field for an event, and the only space remaining was in a particularly loose, muddy portion, the Tucson’s all-wheel drive system moved smartly, letting the front wheels spin a bit before sending more power to the rears. Likewise, the system should prove useful for snow or sand.

With AWD, as we tested the Tucson, EPA ratings stand at 21 mpg city, 28 highway, and over a week of mostly around-town driving we averaged 23.

First-class for features, with a few niggles

You sit quite high up in the Tucson and have a great forward view of the road, with a driving position that’s a little more perched than in other crossovers, though just as in most vehicles of this type rearward vision isn’t the best. The back seats felt roomy enough for two lanky adults, yet the cushions remain a bit on the short side.

One other niggle in our test vehicle was with connectivity of the premium audio system, which comes with a panoramic sunroof, nav system, and rearview camera as part of the Premium Package. The system sounded great, but we tried to bring along some MP3 music stored on a USB stick and it would only stream ten-second bursts of music interspersed with five-second pauses—as if a streaming connection couldn’t keep up. We tried the same thing with two other USB sticks and had the same issue.

Our test vehicle, an all-wheel-drive Limited model, came priced just short of $30k with that package. Standard equipment on the Limited is very generous, with leather upholstery, heated front seats, Bluetooth, keyless entry, fog lamps, and steering-wheel audio controls all among the included features. Oddly, telescopic steering adjustment still doesn’t come in all Tucsons, but our test Limited (as well as GLS models with a $1,700 Popular Equipment Package).

Overall, the 2010 Hyundai Tucson might not provide a driving experience that’s anything special, but just sitting inside, it can feel like a more expensive vehicle. And first impressions count.

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