No new ground is broken by the new Hyundai Tucson sport-utility vehicle, but it looks sporty, offers lots of utility and is well-equipped.
Aggressive Hyundai is expanding its lineup with the Tucson, which enjoys Hyundai's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. However, fast-selling Hyundai's quality has improved so much it no longer needs that warranty to draw lots of buyers to showrooms -- not that it hurts.
Selling decent -- but hardly outstanding -- cars and sport-utilities with low prices and lots of equipment primarily attracts customers to this South Korean automaker, which is widely accepted as offering sound budget alternative to costlier vehicles.
The Tucson is well-equipped in entry GL, mid-range GLS and top-line LX trim levels. The GL has air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD audio system and power windows, locks and heated outside power mirrors. It even has heated windshield wiper rests.
Key mechanical features include anti-lock all-disc brakes and traction and electronic stability control systems. The Tucson has fairly large 16-inch wheels, and 60- 65-series tires that aren't skinny.
Standard safety items include front side impact air bags and side curtain air bags for outboard seat occupants.
Options include a power sunroof, and upgraded sound systems are available in the GLS and LX. Heated front seats and leather upholstery also are offered, although it's hard to imagine a small, bargain sport-utility with such items.
The Tucson has a spacious, well-configured interior with a 60-40 split-folding rear seat and a folding front passenger seatback.
Then there is the Tucson's engine advantage: the GLS and LX offer a 173-horsepower V-6 engine, while the rival Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V sport-utes only have a lower-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
The Tucson GL is available with a 2-liter, 140-horsepower four-cylinder, which is outpowered by the 160- 161-horsepower engines in the RAV4 and CR-V. But the Toyota and Honda entry prices start at approximately $1,000 higher.
The four-cylinder comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, whereas the V-6 is sold only with the automatic.
All Tucsons are offered with front- or four-wheel drive. Base four-cylinder prices range from $17,499 to $18,999 and V-6 prices go from $19,999 to $22,749. Four-wheel-drive versions cost the most.
The four-wheel-drive system routes up to 99 percent of power to the front wheels, but automatically diverts up to 50 percent of power to the rear tires if road conditions change. Power is automatically sent to the wheels with the best traction, and the driver can lock the driveline into four-wheel drive for a 50-50 torque split for snow, sand and off-road treks.
The Tucson is 170.3 inches long and is based on Hyundai's Elantra small sedan. Despite that, it's got the same 103-inch wheelbase but is nearly seven inches shorter and two inches narrower than Hyundai's Santa Fe sport-ute, which is based on the larger Hyundai Sonata sedan.
The four-cylinder engine works best with the manual gearbox; it provides decent acceleration in town, but is lazy on highways. The V-6 delivers smoother, stronger acceleration, at least to 65 mph. Above that, acceleration becomes average, even with only a driver and no cargo aboard.
The V-6 registers a high 2,900 rpm on the tachometer during 70 mph cruising because of the high final drive ratio, which enhances acceleration at lower speeds -- at the expense of more relaxed highway cruising and fuel economy.
The Tucson should deliver about 21 mpg in the city, partly because it's fairly heavy at 3,240 to 3,548 pounds, and approximately 26 on highways.
My test GLS had the automatic transmission, which is generally responsive. Steering is reasonably fast, but the Tucson has average handling and isn't as much fun to drive as its Japanese rivals. However, it has a nice ride and good brake pedal feel.
It's easy to get in and out of the quiet interior because of a low floor. Large outside door handles are easily gripped, but the small plastic inside handles look and feel cheap.
There's good room for four occupants, who sit high. The middle of the roomy rear seat is soft enough to accommodate a third rear passenger, at least on short trips. Doors have storage pockets, and the glove compartment is spacious.
Major controls are easy to reach and use, as are cupholders. The speedometer is large, but other gauges are a bit too small. Radio controls also are small, but climate controls are moderately large.
Cargo room is decent with the rear seatbacks in their normal position; they easily flip forward and sit flat to enlarge the cargo area, which is reached by a hatch that opens smoothly to reveal a low load floor.
The Tucson generally is a bargain, although it won't have the resale value of more-established, better-known rivals.
2005 HYUNDAI TUCSON
Sporty look. Roomy. Utilitarian. Well-equipped. Nice ride. Long warranty.
Average handling and highway acceleration. Marginal inside door handles.