2016 Hyundai Tucson First Drive: A wallflower blooms
It's a familiar scenario in family dynamics: The youngest is stuck with the hand-me-downs while the older kids get the latest stuff. The thinking goes that the smallest of the pack will eventually grow into the "new" things. Call it familial trickle-down economics.
We see parallels in the automotive industry, where pricier flagship models are christened with the latest technology and amenities. Yet eventually, those hot new features become available even on the brand's entry-level cars, and though they may seem familiar within the automaker's lineup they'll still be relevant to buyers who have gone years between buying a car.
A seat at the table
For the 2016 Hyundai Tucson, its day in the sun has arrived. The newly matured SUV is set to go on sale this month with a price that spans from $23,595 for a base model to nearly $35,000 for a loaded Limited Ultimate. For 2016, Hyundai's smallest and least-expensive crossover SUV has been given a full revamp. From its striking "Fluidic Sculpture 2.0" design to higher-strength steel, advanced safety features and a more efficient engine, the Tucson enters its third generation with so much appeal that it might just cause envy among its older siblings, the Santa Fe and Santa Fe Sport SUVs. It certainly aims to do that among its raft of small SUV competitors, which include the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue and Mazda CX-5.
Like those other compact crossover SUVs, the 2016 Tucson remains a 2-row, 5-passenger hauler aimed at singles, young couples, empty-nesters and buyers in general who desire room for their active and busy lifestyles, but seek the maneuverability and good fuel economy of a smaller vehicle. And in a year in which Hyundai's crossover SUV sales are down 14.5 percent while the rest of the segment booms, the all-new Tucson couldn't come soon enough. While most of its rivals have been reborn or significantly refreshed in the past few years, the Tucson has gone six years between generations.
That time frame has seen advanced powertrains, gee-whiz amenities like motion-activated power liftgates and driver-assist systems such as lane-departure warning, automatic braking and blind-spot monitoring trickle down from premium models to those who just graduated from eating at the kids table. The latest Tucson arrives available with all such features and more.
New engine, new transmission
One of the biggest changes for this new Tucson is under the hood. While the base version uses a mostly carryover 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with a 6-speed automatic transmission, the three other trims -- Eco, Sport and Limited -- come with a 1.6-liter turbocharged and direct-injected 4-cylinder mated to a 7-speed twin-clutch automatic. This drivetrain replaces the previous 2.4-liter/6-speed automatic. The setup is already being used in the Hyundai Sonata Eco sedan, but it's a first in the small SUV segment. Hyundai says the benefit of a twin-clutch is a better blend of performance and fuel economy.
Both powertrains come standard in front-wheel drive (FWD), and all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional. Worth noting is that Hyundai has kept the "lock" feature on AWD models. When engaged it splits torque 50/50 between the front and rear wheels. You're unlikely to conquer the Rubicon in one of these, but the feature could just get you out of a sticky or slippery situation amid mud or snow.
One of the first things you notice in the new Tucson is actually a lack of something: noise. Like every other car maker, Hyundai is going to great lengths to make its vehicles quieter in the quest to minimize the dreaded NVH: noise, vibration and harshness. Great strides have been made with this latest Tucson.
Steering to a better place
Here's another area where Hyundai has needed help -- more so than others: steering feel. A lack of it can result in what automotive critics deride as "numbness." Yet another fault can appear when modern-day power-steering systems aim to artificially stiffen or relax effort. The result can feel, well, artificial.
Thankfully the Tucson's steering is improved over past models. It still doesn't feel as connected to the road as the athlete in this segment -- the Mazda CX-5 -- but for most drivers it will be more than fine. For those who do want to firm things up, the 2016 Tucson features the new Drive Mode Select, which enables you to toggle between Eco, Normal and Sport. In addition to adjusting power delivery and shift mapping, the system provides more resistance to steering, which makes for a more sporting experience when roads twist and turn.
The department of power
In terms of power, the new Tucson's optional engine is adequate and feels about average in this class. It just does more with less thanks to turbocharging. At 175 horsepower, this 1.6-liter 4-cylinder has 7 fewer ponies than the larger, outgoing 2.4-liter 4-cylinder used in higher-trim Tucsons. But the gain comes in fuel economy, and it's impressive. Where the former model with that engine topped out at 28 mpg on the highway, the new one earns up to 33 mpg in Eco trim. It isn't quite class-leading -- the CR-V is rated up to 34 mpg with an automatic transmission, while manual shifters are blessed with a 35 mpg gold star in the Mazda CX-5-but it's impressive nonetheless.
Power delivery itself is good, and the new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission felt smooth enough to pass for a traditional automatic. When we needed to pass slower vehicles on a 2-lane road, the Tucson was eager to kick down a gear or two -- especially in Sport mode -- but we would not turn down a few more horsepower to inspire more confidence in such situations.
New, improved, and a true contender
Suspension work is another area in which the new Tucson is improved. While both front and rear setups are 20 percent stiffer than the outgoing model, this new SUV's ride was compliant on a variety of roads, including miles of gravel. We never felt punished in it.
In fact, we quite relished our overall first blush in the new Tucson. And that goes for the front passenger seat as well, which now offers power adjustability. Beyond just powertrain improvements, the new Tucson showcased its new maturity in every other aspect, ranging from enhanced cargo space to its evolved infotainment system. (We'll touch on all those aspects in our forthcoming full review.)
Over a couple hundred miles and a few hours of driving, the new Tucson acquitted itself as a highly adept, highly advanced crossover SUV that will more than hold its own against entrenched rivals. It may remain the smallest sibling in Hyundai's SUV lineup, but it now brings maturity, head-turning design and leading-edge technology to the table.