Tucson is worthy competitor

Friday, October 15, 2004

Tucson (TOO-sahn): Arizona's second largest city, and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States; Hyundai's second largest SUV, and the newest vehicle in its lineup.

The 2005 Hyundai Tucson is a 4-door, 5-passenger sport-utility, the newest competitor in the crowded compact SUV category. According to the Hyundai web site, the Tucson has the most comprehensive set of standard safety features in the compact segment. That may be so, but the big news in automotive circles is Hyundai's meteoric rise from near the bottom to near the top of several quality ratings and surveys. Strategic Vision, an automotive consulting firm, asked 74,000 owners to rate the overall value of their new cars and trucks based on price, affordability, expected reliability and resale value. The top ten brands were Lexus, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Scion, Infiniti, Acura, Cadillac, Honda, BMW, Audi and Volvo. Hyundai scored well because the brand's vehicle quality has improved, its models have a long warranty and they are affordable.

After quality control difficulties tarnished the Hyundai name in the '90s, the brand began a turnaround when it started to focus on quality and backed the new vehicles with an aggressive, 10-year warranty, says Robert Cosmai, head of Hyundai Motor America. Hyundai's "mantra is product quality," he said at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show.

Over the past year, Hyundai has also scored well in the J. D. Power Initial Quality Study, which measures problems owners reported in the first 90 days. Hyundai moved up eight places from 2003 to tie with Honda for second, and almost nudged out Toyota for the overall number one slot. It also won "recommended buy" ratings from Consumer Reports magazine this year for the Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle, Sonata compact sedan and XG350 midsize sedan. Hyundai intends to release one new product every six months for the next couple of years.

The new Tucson is smaller than the Hyundai Santa Fe and is considered an entry-level model. Its Japanese competitors are the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Mitsubishi Outlander, which control 40 per cent of the compact SUV market. Hyundai hopes to build 50,000 Tucsons annually. Built at its Ulsan, South Korea, plant, the Tucson shares its platform with the Elantra sedan. There are three trim levels from which to choose -- the base GL, the GLS, which I tested, and the top-of-the-line LX. GL models get a 2.0-liter, 140-hp, 136-foot-pound four-cylinder engine from the Elantra sedan, while the GLS and LX versions get a 2.7-liter V6 producing 173 hp and 178 foot-pound.

Four-cylinder models are equipped with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, but V-6 models come only with the automatic. All-wheel drive is standard on the top model and optional on the other two. Under normal conditions, the Borg-Warner torque management system operates in front-drive mode, but may transfer up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels when needed. Punch a dash-mounted button and you can lock in a 50/50-power distribution -- a feature missing from most of the competition.

Headroom, legroom and interior volume in the Tucson is competitive with industry leaders, even though at 170.3 inches long, it is shorter than the CR-V and Outlander, but its 103.6-inch wheelbase is nearly six inches longer than the RAV4's.

My test vehicle, a pretty GLS equipped with a 2.7 liter engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission, was painted an eye-catching "warm silver," and had contrasting black plastic cladding on the lower quarter. Bright alloy 16-inch wheels, privacy glass, a roof rack, fog lamps and bold headlamps projecting through clear lenses give Tucson a sporty look that belies it low price tag. It attracted attention everywhere I drove it.

Inside, the Tucson power accessories tell you this is not a stripped down economy vehicle. And the satin brushed-aluminum-look dashboard trim gives Tucson an upscale feeling. Many thoughtful features indicate the car was designed for comfortable travel, such as the leather-wrapped steering wheel and durable cloth upholstery on the seats and door panels. I liked the adjustable center armrest with two levels of storage beneath, and noted that the rear seats fold flat without having to remove headrests, as does the front passenger seat. The driver's seat is manually adjustable eight ways, and the steering wheel tilts for a comfortable driving position. Doors open wide for easy entry and exit, and the rear glass can be opened separately from the cargo hatch with the push of a button. The strengthened and stretched Elantra car platform provides a surprising amount of interior space in the Tucson, and it actually has nearly two more cubic feet of passenger space than its big brother, Santa Fe. It's only in the cargo area that the longer Santa Fe beats the Tucson.

The Tucson provided a smooth, car-like ride, every bit as good as the Santa Fe. Power from the 2.7 liter V-6 was adequate, but it does not provide the performance of some other compacts, notably the pair from Ford and Mazda, which have more horsepower and torque. The engine and automatic transmission should produce respectable city and highway gas mileage figures of 20/26.

My well-equipped front-wheel-drive Tucson was priced in the low 20s and featured the famous 10 yr/100,000 mile Hyundai warranty.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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