The latest Hyundai to join the under-20 club is the Hyundai Tucson, the Korean automaker’s smallest SUV and the second Hyundai to wear the name of a Southwest city. Its 170.3-inch length is 6.9 inches shorter than its bigger brother, the Santa Fe, and the Tucson is targeted at people shopping for, among others, the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V. Some people call these “cute utes.” The Tucson certainly fits that description, its stubby ends and flaring fenders imparting the appearance of a clumsy shar-pei puppy. Whether this is a good or bad thing, we don’t know—it’s a matter of personal taste. We do know that cute generally translates into “chick car,” so, like the roly-poly dog, the Tucson’s fetching façade is likely to garner more attention from women than men.
Pricing for the Tucson opens at $18,094, which gets you a front-drive GL with a 140-hp four-cylinder and a five-speed manual. A comparably equipped Escape XLS stickers for $19,995. Add about $600 to that Escape’s price tag, and Hyundai will hand you the keys to a V-6–powered, front-drive GLS ($20,594) —like the one adorning these pages—and that’s only 84 more bucks than the cost of a front-drive, four-cylinder CR-V LX. There’s a top-of-the-line Tucson LX available, too, which, for another $1250, includes an in-dash six-CD changer and leather-trimmed seats. And if you require traction in wintry weather, every trim level can be equipped with a $1500 Borg-Warner electronic four-wheel-drive system, which monitors throttle position, front-wheel angle, and slippage and then automatically diverts up to 50 percent of available power to the rear wheels when conditions demand. There is also a dashboard-mounted four-wheel-drive lock button that enables the driver to lock the driveline manually into four-wheel drive for a 50/50 torque split.
Similar to Honda’s sell-it-loaded approach, Hyundai has stacked the Tucson with enough standard equipment that adding options would be like piling marshmallows on top of whipped cream. Our GLS test vehicle—lacking the optional sunroof and CD changer—offered mucho for the moola: a 173-hp, 2.7-liter V-6; a four-wheel independent strut suspension; four-wheel disc brakes with ABS; stability control; 16-inch alloys; A/C; front, side, and curtain airbags; and a CD player with MP3 capability. And let’s not forget that the price includes Hyundai’s stellar five-year/ 60,000-mile vehicle warranty and 10-year/ 100,000-mile powertrain guarantee.
Based on our experience with the Tucson, that kind of insurance seems superfluous. Since Hyundai burst onto the market in the late 1980s, the quality of its vehicles has steadily improved—in the 2004 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, Hyundai was deemed the most-improved brand—and the Tucson does not appear to be taking Hyundai a step back. Our test vehicle displayed tight panel gaps inside and out, premium-for-the-price interior plastics, and that reassuring thud when a door is closed. There’s nothing tinny or conspicuously cheap-feeling about the Tucson; it exhibits solidity and refinement uncommon in its class. That said, one change we would make would be to replace the disco-style upholstery—it brings to mind one of Starsky’s butterfly-collared shirts—with something a little more somber.