A Tale of Two Hyundais

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2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring.

2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring.

In the twenty-plus years Hyundai has been selling cars in the United States, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds. By the time many early examples of the 1980’s Excel compact had a few years and mid-five-digit mileage under their belts, they were looking pretty ratty and spewing oil smoke.
But today, Hyundai is making some really nice automobiles, all the way up to their first truly upscale car, the Genesis sedan. That plush 4-door has gotten raves from far and wide, and is now joined by a very sporty coupe version that will also challenge its competitors in performance, and beat them on price.
While it’s innovative for the Korean-based company to come up with these hallmark models, the bread-and-butter vehicles are where most people are shopping, especially in a tight economy. Here too, Hyundai is making some very nice products, for the most part.
One of their best new models is the Elantra Touring, a slick, trim wagon with a ton of standard features and a great driving dynamic. Just about everything is a delight with this car, from the way the seats are positioned, to the layout of the controls, to even its exterior design. It’s not always easy to make a wagon look sleek, but Hyundai’s designers did a nice job.
Prices for the Elantra Touring are pretty reasonable, especially considering the level of standard equipment. Base price for a 5-speed manual version is $18,495, and even the top-of-the-line variant with automatic transmission and the Premium-Sport package is $20,795. Keep in mind that those are sticker prices. In today’s sales climate, a smart shopper should be able to buy any Elantra Touring for under $20,000 before fees and taxes.
This car is really a delight to drive, especially with the standard manual gearbox. Plenty of power from the 2.0 liter four cylinder engine, which is nearly up to the smoothness standards of legendary engines from Honda and Toyota. Handling is crisp and sharp, and you could almost think of the Elantra as a bargain alternative to the vaunted Volkswagen Jetta wagon.
The Elantra Touring was still fresh in my mind when I had a turn in another Hyundai product: a 2009 Tucson Limited. It had been a few years since I had driven the compact crossover SUV that slots below Hyundai’s Santa Cruz and Veracruz in the company’s model lineup.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that the Tucson came from a different car company (or perhaps from a different decade) than the Elantra Touring. For every point where the Elantra shined, the Tucson sort of fell on its face. From the interior, to the design, to the driving experience, I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would choose the clumsy Tucson over the graceful Elantra Touring.
First off, the looks. Why I don’t remember this thing looking so awful, I have no idea. Hyundai has updated some of the trim around the body, and for whatever reason the Tucson kind of looks like it was already in some sort of chain-reaction collision, smashed in at the front and rear. The wheels also seem too small for the fender openings, even though Hyundai recently upgraded them to standard 16 inchers.
Inside, there’s more to dislike. The angle of the driver’s seat to the steering wheel doesn’t feel right. Yes, they’re both adjustable, but I couldn’t find a combination of positions that worked for my tall frame. The view from behind the wheel is also a miss, with small-ish instruments that are hard to read. I will give good marks for the radio, which is perfectly located in the dash and easy to see and use.
Once underway, there’s more awfulness to the Tucson. The Limited’s standard 2.7 liter V6 seems weak and coarse trying to haul the chunky SUV around. Further, the automatic transmission has only four gears, which is at least one too few. Most of the automotive world has gone to 5-speed or 6-speed automatics, and they make a huge difference in the driving experience. (Unfortunately, the Elantra’s optional automatic is a 4-speed as well.)
If someone were looking for a reasonably-sized, reasonably-priced vehicle with some cargo-carrying utility, the Elantra wins the comparison hands down. Yes, the Tucson is available with four wheel drive, but very few people really need four wheel drive. For probably 99% of drivers, the front wheel drive system in the Elantra would do them just fine.
The Tucson Limited 4WD model I drove carried a sticker price of $26,345. Unless you feel the need to “sit up high and feel sporty” (those sentiments became a lot less popular with car buyers last year when gas hit $4 a gallon), the Elantra Touring is a far better choice.
I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.

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