For most manufacturers, 2009 was a wretched year they'd like to forget, but Hyundai has been able to capitalize on the economic misery and grab a big chunk of market share. Where will additional gains come from in 2010? One place is likely to be the small SUV arena, where Hyundai's Tucson has been an underachiever, selling fewer than one-tenth as many as the segment-leading Honda CR-V.
The redesigned, 2010 Tucson should do much better. First of all, it has shed the stubby, front-heavy look of its predecessor. While the new sheetmetal isn't exactly an Audi-style standout, it falls somewhere in the range between inoffensive and blandly attractive, in a modern-crossover kind of a way. The car is lower, wider, and longer but, commendably, is less than 100 pounds heavier.
The interior is pleasant-looking as well. Yes, there's lots of hard plastic, but it's very nicely finished, with an attractive dash and well-laid-out switchgear. The base GLS ($19,790, $900 more than before) has some typically cheap cloth, but the popular equipment package ($1700) includes a very nice leatherette and cloth upgrade. The Limited ($25,140) includes leather, which has two different textures and is better than what is typically found at this price point. The front seats are comfortable and so, too, is the rear, where adults will find decent headroom and plenty of legroom.
A big change has taken place under the hood. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder and optional small V-6 have been broomed in favor of a new 2.4-liter four. Previously, half of Tucson buyers chose the V-6, but the new engine equals the six's power output (with 176 hp) and delivers better fuel economy than the old four-cylinder, so it's pretty easy to support the move.
Aided by a new six-speed automatic -- unusual in the class -- the Tucson's mpg figures put it up with the Chevrolet Equinox at the front of the class. The front-wheel-drive version is rated at 23/31 mpg and the all-wheel-drive model checks in with 21/28 mpg (with its four-cylinder engine, both the front-wheel-drive and the four-wheel-drive Equinox are 1 mpg better on the highway and 1 mpg worse in the city). Hyundai also offers a six-speed manual, a rarity among compact crossovers. The stick shift extracts a 1 mpg penalty in both city and highway driving, but it's $1000 cheaper than the automatic; it's available in the front-wheel-drive, base car only. Speaking of which, if you lean that way you might want to act before the next model year, because for 2011, Hyundai will be swapping in a new 2.0-liter base engine in place of the current 2.4, in the base car only.
We're not sure we'd want to give up any of the 2.4-liter's 176 ponies. The large four-banger is noisy under hard acceleration, but when cruising, the Tucson is surprisingly quiet. The automatic's six gears are welcome, although the top two seem very close together while the gap between second and third is large. The shift lever has a manual gate, but there are no paddles.
That's okay, since a small crossover rarely inspires F1 fantasies, and the Tucson is no different. However, under CEO John Krafcik (a former Ford development engineer), Hyundai is on a quest to shed the soggy chassis tuning that long characterized Korean cars, and the Tucson is a case in point. Runs up and down Malibu's canyon roads revealed a pleasantly firm suspension that provides nearly flat cornering attitudes and also resists dive and squat. Electric power steering is tuned better than most, if still a bit overboosted at parking-lot speeds. Our GLS also rode well on its seventeen-inch wheels (the Limited has eighteens), not that Los Angeles serves up much of a challenge in terms of bad pavement. L.A.'s big driving challenge, of course, is traffic, and the Tucson's obstructed rear-quarter visibility -- depressingly common among crossovers -- demands careful adjustment of sideview mirrors when merging across five-lane freeways. (To aid in backing up, the optional navigation package includes a rearview camera.)
With this new model, the Tucson itself is ready to merge into the small crossover main stream, where it likely will help Hyundai rack up yet another market share gain in 2010 -- even if the economy isn't quite so miserable.
2010 HYUNDAI TUCSON
Base price: $19,790
As tested: $24,490
Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 176 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 173.2 x 71.7 x 66.3 in
Cargo capacity (rear seats up/down): 25.7/55.8 cubic feet
Curb weight: 3382 lbs
EPA rating: 21/28 mpg