Hyundai has definitely come a long way in the past ten years or so. From a kind of laughing stock of the automotive industry, to a major player in the business, Hyundai has now gained the respect of the press, consumers, and even other car companies.
The key has been major strides in quality, backed up by a very strong warranty that gives buyers the confidence to give the maker’s cars a try. Recent years have also seen an upscale push, with Hyundai debuting a true luxury car called the Genesis. They also now have a performance coupe bearing the same name, and soon we’ll see a large premium sedan called the Equus.
Now that they’ve taken care of quality and added some brand cachet to the italicized “H” on their grills, Hyundai is putting some much-needed style onto its mainstream cars. It’s also in the midst of a new model blitz that will see nearly all its vehicles revamped within a short time span. Just now in showrooms is a sleek new Sonata sedan as well as a redesigned Tucson compact cross-over SUV.
The Tucson is part of a growing segment that’s an important one for auto makers these days. Compact SUVs give car shoppers a choice of something that can carry more than a small sedan, but can still get reasonable fuel economy and doesn’t feel big and wasteful for a single person or young couple. The sales leaders in the segment are the Honda CR-V, the Ford Escape and the Toyota RAV4.
This is the second generation of Tucson we’ve seen from Hyundai, and to put it bluntly, the previous one was a little hard on the eyes. Functionally it was fine, but there was just something so un-svelte about the overall shape. Slab sides, weird angles, and a blunt tail section all contributed to a design that had an “I want to be a truck when I grow up” look that never quite worked to my eyes.
For 2010, the Tucson gets a new suit of clothes, and they’re Savile Row or Milano all the way. As part of its growth as a worldwide player in the auto industry, Hyundai has a design studio in Europe, and that’s where the Tucson was styled. Known as the ix35 across the Atlantic, the new small Hyundai definitely moves the looks meter up the scale quite a bit. A bold split grill up front, sculpted side panels, and even a backside that’s not too unattractive considering there’s not much you can do with a large hatch.
Under its new skin, the Tucson is quite competitive in the segment, with a standard four cylinder engine making an impressive 176 horsepower. The power is delivered with smoothness – another trait of the Hyundai of today – through either a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission. (I can’t imagine they’re going to sell many of the manuals.) The 6-speed automatic is really a premium feature in the small crossover segment, with only the Ford Escape also offering it. The other competitors are a gear or two behind.
The combination of the smooth engine and advanced transmission make for swift acceleration and an easy time for the engine as it moves you around in traffic. The number of gear ratios means that the power can almost always be in the “sweet spot” which not only helps drivability, but fuel economy as well. The two-wheel drive Tucson with automatic transmission is rated at 23/31 mpg city/highway. Choosing all-wheel drive and navigating the concrete jungle of L.A. will lower those numbers, but the Hyundai beats all its competitors in the gas mileage comparison chart.
The interior is not quite as much of an improvement as the exterior, but it’s very nice nonetheless. The seats are comfortable and provide that “up high” perch that a lot of smaller drivers seem to like. One nice touch is the available navigation system that even includes the color-coded traffic map, a feature that has now trickled down from much more expensive cars. If you’re a regular user of our freeway system, the traffic feature alone will make the $2,000 price of the Navigation Package easier to justify (the package also includes a rear-view camera and an upgrade to the audio system).
Base price for the well-equipped Tucson GLS is $19,995 with two wheel drive, though you can save $1,000 if you’re one of the few who want the manual gearbox. Moving up the price scale, the GLS with the “Popular Equipment Package” (more goodies like 17” alloy wheels, steering wheel controls, Bluetooth, etc.) runs $21,695 and you can go all the way to the Limited model with its leather interior and all the frills available for $27,195. If you’d like to add all-wheel drive to any except the base models, you’ll be coughing up another $1,500.
There once was a time when Hyundai’s cars were referred to as “nice… for a Hyundai.” Today, they can pretty much all be referred to simply as “nice” without the addendum. Moving forward with models like the 2010 Tucson, lots of people may be calling Hyundais “nice looking” too.
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