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Hyundai launches compact Tucson SUV

November 19, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

Lots of people still think of Hyundai as a small player in the U.S. market, but the facts tell a different story. With a five-car, one-SUV lineup, the Korean manufacturer sold over 400,000 vehicles stateside last year - good enough to rank fourth in import sales, behind Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Now, riding on the strong sales of its Santa Fe, Hyundai is launching a second, slightly smaller SUV, named after another southwestern city. The company recently rolled out its new, compact sport-utility vehicle called Tucson.

Tucson is a car-based SUV, built on a heavily modified version of the Elantra's platform. Three trim levels are offered: GL ($18,094), GLS ($20,594) and LX ($21,844). Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive can be added to any model for an additional $1,500.

Like most such systems, Tucson's Borg Warner electronic 4WD has a heavy, front-wheel-drive bias. In normal conditions, up to 99 percent of the power is channeled through the front tread. The system monitors throttle control, front-wheel slippage and the angle of the front wheels, shifting up to 50 percent of the engine's torque rearward as needed to maintain traction. A dash-mounted button also allows the driver to lock the power split at 50/50 front/back, when driving in winter weather or other poor traction situations.

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My test-drive time was divided between front- and all-wheel-drive GLS

models. The Borg Warner 4WD system is really geared more toward all-season driving as opposed to all-terrain. But, even on standard street tires, I found that Tucson is capable of handling all of the light off-road that most drivers would ever encounter.

Tucson has 7.7 inches of ground clearance below, with angles of approach/breakover/departure of 28.2/19.0/31.9 degrees, respectively, so there's decent clearance below. Driving over muddy, rutted dirt roads, I found that both front- and four-wheel-drive models had no problems negotiating their way. To bring the differences into sharper focus, I locked in the 50/50 traction split and turned off the beaten path, to a section where the dirt road had been heavily gouged into uneven trenches. Here, the advantage of having four wheels pulling for you was readily apparent.

Back out on the pavement, Tucson has a comfortable road ride and, with four-wheel independent suspension, good-for-the-breed handling. All models carry a full complement of traction enhancements and safety equipment on board as standard issue. Brakes are four-wheel disc with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution. Traction Control and an Electronic Stability Program are also part of the standard package, as are front and side air bags for driver and passenger, and side curtain air bags for both front and back rows.

LX and GLS models like the one that I drove get Hyundai's 2.7-liter, 173-horsepower V-6 engine, with a four-speed automatic transmission. Base, GL models have a 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower four-cylinder with five-speed stick or optional automatic. Gas mileage ranges from an EPA-rated 22 city/27 highway for a four-cylinder manual, to 19/24, for a V-6 automatic with four-wheel drive. The V-6/automatic combination has a smooth and refined feeling. It cruises easily at highway speeds, with power on tap for passing. The V-6 Tucson will tow up to 1,000 pounds and 2,000 pounds with trailer brakes.

The interior on the GLS is functional, versatile and comfortable. Tucsons are well equipped and offer adult-size room front and back. About the only beef I had was with the center console cover. It doubles as an inside arm rest and is height adjustable, but could stand to come forward slightly more than it does.

In back, storage capacity ranges from 22.7 to 65.5 cubic feet, and the 60/40 split, rear seat folds flat with one button. The front passenger seat folds flat, too, so long loads fit, or you could use the seatback as a rolling desk for the back-seat passengers. The rear floor in the cargo hold is made of a composite material that's easy to wash off, and tie-down hooks are sprinkled about to secure your gear.

Tucson marks the first wave of what will be an ambitious period for Hyundai, with seven new products launching in the next 24 months. The new SUV is entering a market stacked with strong competition, with segment-leading Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 among them. What Tucson brings to the table is versatility at a value price, backed by a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.

Copyright Motor Matters, 2004

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