2010 Hyundai Tucson first drive review: Stylin’, but runnin’ with the pack

2010 Hyundai Tucson

2010 Hyundai Tucson

The good news first. The 2010 Hyundai Tucson is an absolute knockout, shedding its sport-utility roots for sports car styling. It’s hard to recognize the new Tucson compared to its immediate predecessor, which was chubby cheeked and rounded off, with all the sex appeal of an apple. Apples are nice, but except for the one that got Adam and Eve in so much trouble, they’re short on glamour.

The Tucson, however: Hyundai tells us that new Tucson was a collaboration and competition between the company’s design offices in Korea, California and Germany. The shop in Germany won with its expression of Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture design philosophy. We don’t know what the other designs looked like, but it’s no wonder they lost. The 2010 Hyundai Tucson manages to make a relatively short and tall vehicle look graceful.

2010 Hyundai Tucson

2010 Hyundai Tucson (click to enlarge)

There’s a smooth flow to the shoulder line that starts at the back of headlight clusters that run back halfway to the Tucson’s A-pillar, sweeping back to taillights that wrap around up over the rear wheel arch. The side windows combine in an almond shape, the roof tapering down into a rear spoiler over a rear window canted steeply forward. A contrasting design element streams back from behind the front wheels like kicked up spray.

This is a vehicle that makes a lot of promises.

And that’s the bad news. The Tucson is 61 pounds lighter than its predecessor while being three inches longer, and lighter at 3,203 lbs, than all of its competitors, including the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue and Ford Escape. Its 176 horsepower is about average for the group. This, claims Hyundai, puts it at the head of the fewer-pounds-per-pony list. Its performance is  good as anything in its class, but it’s not especially melodious and “as good as anything in its class” means that in power situations one wishes the passengers had pedals too.

2010 Hyundai Tucson interior

The 2010 Hyundai Tucson interior is edgy without going over the edge. (click to enlarge)

The Hyundai Tucson has a sophisticated suspension, with MacPherson struts up front and multi-link independent suspension at the rear. The Tucson’s ride height, however, means the Hyundai’s aggressive-looking crossover can’t live up to its sports car lines. What’s more, we won’t say that the Tucson has dead-on-center steering, but there seems to be some built-in delay, or perhaps a variable ratio that turns the wheels faster the further they’re steered from center. Or maybe it had something to do with the Tucson’s new electric power assist steering.

The Tucson has a tight turning diameter of 34.7 feet, better than others in its class and welcome in parking lots and other tight quarters maneuvering.

2010 Hyundai Tucson multi-information display

The 2010 Hyundai Tucson multi-information display is large and easy to use. (click to enlarge)

We drove both front- and all-wheel drive Tucsons, and noticed a firmer ride with the latter. It’s an automatic all-wheel drive, with a locking center differential for use in deep snow or mud and such, but normally it operates in front-wheel drive until slip is detected. Consider it a foul weather friend.

We didn’t get a chance to sample the six-speed manual but did find the Hyundai-designed and built six-speed automatic transmission smooth and generally unobtrusive, the way most people who choose an automatic want it. An “Eco Indicator” light is fitted between the speedometer and tachometer on automatic transmission-equipped models, and by keeping it lit, Hyundai claims, fuel savings of 15 to 1`7 percent are possible. Either our light wasn’t functioning, or we weren’t very observant or we just weren’t very economical drivers, but we didn’t notice the light. Ahem. Manual transmissions come with the annoying shift-up light we’ve seen on other vehicles.

The 2010 Hyundai Tucson adds hill descent control and hillstart assist as standard equipment, the former which allows “feet free” constant downhill speed and the latter holds the vehicle stationary for several moments when starting off uphill. The latter will be handy in Pittsburgh or San Francisco or other cities with a lot of ups and downs, but former is really more of an off-roader’s tool. Hyundai calls the Tucson an “urban cruiser” that’s “tough and compact for life in the city, yet sleek and agile for out-of-town travel.” OK, that’s how they speak to the press, but no claims are made to off-road prowess.

2010 Hyundai Tucson

2010 Hyundai Tucson (click to enlarge)

Inside the Tucson, Hyundai’s interior designers matched the outside contours with original shapes carved out of the dash and novel location for the central dash vents. The navigation screen for the Limited trim level Hyundai Tucson we drove was positioned high on the center stack–actually positioned off by itself–with a small bill over it. The screen was tilted forward, however, suggesting that in certain lighting situations it might be obscured by glare, but when we used it to return to our base when we were, um, misplaced, we had no problem seeing it or for that matter, programming it without resorting to the manual.

Although a trip computer is standard on all Hyundai Tucson models, our relatively short drives kept us from getting a fair fuel economy reading, but according to EPA estimates of 23/31 mph city/highway, the Tucson equals or betters all of its classmates.

The 2010 Hyundai Tucson is, as they say, competitively priced, with the base manual transmission-equipped GLS trim pegged at $18,995, with the automatic transmission adding $1,000 to the price. All-wheel drive is not available. The GLS with the Popular Equipment Package lists for $21,695, while the Navigation-equipped GLS comes in at $2,000 more; it includes navigation with a 6.5-inch screen, a rear-view camera, automatic headlamps and a premium audio system. The latter two trim levels are also available with all-wheel drive.

The premium model Limited is priced at $$24,345 while the Limited with the Premium package has a $27,195 sticker. Add $1,500 for all-wheel drive.

The problem, then, is that the designers did such a sensational job on the exterior that the 2010 Hyundai Tucson, despite meeting or beating its competitor in other factors. We recommend shoppers not consider the exterior until other factors are evaluated, and then expect to be wowed. Otherwise one might just be bl