MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — If the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Ford Escape are the cool kids in compact crossover school, then the outgoing Hyundai Tucson was the kid with braces who gets picked last for the kickball team. Hyundai sold only 47,000 Tucsons in 2014, in a segment where six-figure volume is now the norm. Although Hyundai says production limitations — now being addressed — have been a major factor in slow sales, the Tucson itself simply didn’t have what it took to keep up in this hotly contested segment.
So, it’s no surprise that the redesigned 2016 Hyundai Tucson comes out swinging with an advanced new powertrain, sharp looks, and enhanced tech options. To see if it has the goods to keep up with its impressive peers, we drove the ambitious new Tucson on a variety of roads in Minnesota and Wisconsin along the Mississippi River.
Into the big leagues
The 2016 Hyundai Tucson’s sharp exterior makes it immediately clear that Hyundai wants to erase all memories of past Tucsons. The previous-generation car’s awkward, bulbous curves give way to a sleeker, more sharply creased shape that makes this crossover look fresh and even a bit sporty. Among the competitive set, only the Mazda CX-5 looks more attractive to our eyes, and the Hyundai makes an especially good first impression with its standout exterior color options such as Caribbean Blue and its Volkswagen GTI-like 19-inch alloy wheels.
The new Tucson’s available powertrain is a leap forward as well. The 1.6-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder makes 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, and it brings a dual-clutch transmission to this segment for the first time. This impressive drivetrain first appeared in the Sonata Eco sedan, and Hyundai is now confident enough in this engine to offer it as standard on Eco, Sport, and Limited versions of the Tucson. (The base SE carries over with an adequate, 164-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder and is only expected to make up around 25 percent of Tucson sales.)
The turbo-four helps Hyundai put up big numbers, both in terms of fuel economy — up to 29 mpg combined in the Eco — and grunt — the torque number is higher than all of its main competitors. And unlike some small turbo engines with impressive stats, it’s no paper tiger. It has a nice, flat torque curve, pulling hard from about 2,000 to 4,000 rpm. That grunt, along with the dual-clutch transmission’s quick shifts and a relatively low base curb weight of 3,369 pounds, makes for sprightly acceleration. It is possible to catch the transmission flat-footed in certain scenarios, such as sudden, hard acceleration from a 3 to 5 mph creep, but low-speed behavior is mostly seamless, and most owners probably won’t notice the difference from a standard torque-converter automatic. A later stint in a heavier, all-wheel-drive Tucson 1.6T Limited didn’t reveal much of a difference in character, though midrange acceleration was a bit less punchy.
The 1.6-liter is also nice and refined, with a quiet idle, and even a relatively pleasing growl when you step on it. This is an important advantage in a segment where many entries lack sophistication; we’re thinking about the Jeep Cherokee and its unsorted nine-speed automatic, and the Nissan Rogue and its coarse four-cylinder and droning CVT. The Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5’s direct-injection four-cylinders come closer to the Tucson’s refinement levels but can’t match the Hyundai’s turbo punch and midrange torque.
The chassis, traditionally a sore point for Hyundai, doesn’t let down the Tucson’s potent engine. It isn’t as fun and responsive as the Mazda CX-5, but it is effortless to drive, with light steering, a composed ride, a natural seating position, and clear visibility out the large windshield. We would have appreciated a bit more feel from the squishy brake pedal and slightly numb steering rack, but the Tucson displayed tightly controlled body motions even on a section of gravel road.
Room to grow
Other elements of the 2016 Hyundai Tucson aren’t quite as much of a leap forward. The interior boasts plenty of small upgrades, including a cleaner dashboard layout, enhanced infotainment functions, and more comfortable seats. But lower-trim models use lots of hard-plastic trim, and even the top-trim Limited model, with its stitched leather inserts, doesn’t quite feel up to its $30,000-plus price tag. A bit more flair would be appreciated here.
We’d be more forgiving of the interior’s unexciting form if it offered class-leading functionality. It does not. While the 2016 Hyundai Tucson is a bit larger than its predecessor, it’s still slightly smaller than most of its competitors, which means you give up a bit of space inside. The 176-inch-long Tucson gives up a few cubic feet of cargo space compared with the CR-V and the RAV4, both with the rear seats up and with the rear seats folded. More important, it’s not as cleverly packaged. The Toyota and Honda offer significantly lower load heights, rear seats that truly fold flat into the floor, and a few extra storage spaces around the cabin than the Hyundai does. These are small details, yes, but details that matter when you’re struggling to load that last box or grocery bag. To its credit, the Tucson does offer a comfortable rear seat, with multiple recline positions and plenty of space for three passengers.
In the Hyundai tradition, you do get plenty of equipment for the money, with even midlevel Tucson trims offering kit such as alloy wheels, heated seats, and a power liftgate you’ll pay extra for elsewhere. That said, this Tuscon is no longer a budget buy. It’s actually priced a bit higher than key rivals, with prices starting at $23,595 for the base model and rising to $34,945 for a loaded Limited AWD 1.6T.
Part of the in-crowd
A higher price is all part of Hyundai’s plan. The 2016 Hyundai Tuscon, like other recent models from the Korean brand, is worth considering for many more reasons than its feature content. Even if it isn’t quite as utilitarian as some of its rivals, the new Tuscon, with its sharper styling and excellent powertrain, should have no trouble breaking into the cool clique.
2016 Hyundai Tucson Specifications
- On Sale: Late July
- Price: $23,595/$34,945 (1.6T Limited AWD) (base/as tested)
- Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/164 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm; 1.6L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/175 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-seat, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 21-26/26-33 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented disc/disc
- Tires F/R: 225/60R-17 (SE, Eco), 245/45HR-19 (Sport, Limited)
- L x W x H: 176.2 x 72.8 x 65.0 in
- Wheelbase: 105.1 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.6/39.2 in
- Legroom F/R: 41.5/38.2 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 57.1/55.1 in
- Cargo Room: 31.0/61.9 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
- Towing: 1,000-1,500 lb
- Weight: 3,325-3,710 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 130 mph