Review: 2011 Hyundai Tucson GLS FWD
By Charles Krome
It’s amazing how quickly time flies in the auto industry. There was a moment back in January of 2010 when the Hyundai Tucson represented the cutting edge of South Korean automotive culture here in the U.S. It was the very first of the new-school Hyundai models—beating the Sonata to market by a matter of weeks—and was light years ahead of the outgoing Tucson. Today, however, it’s a different story. With the pace of automotive advances accelerating so quickly, and expectations for Hyundai products rising in lockstep, the Tucson could end up disappointing some customers—depending on how they approach it. At least that’s my takeaway from a recent test drive with a 2011 Hyundai Tucson GLS FWD, provided to me by Hyundai with a full tank of gas.
Now, I’m just going to start with the bottom line here: The Tucson that ended up in my driveway had an MSRP of $21,845 (although it’s listed on the website at $21,995) and the only options it had were the $100 carpeted floor mats. Add in a $795 destination charge, and you end up at $22,740. That’s a bargain price in today’s marketplace, especially when you consider how unlikely it is that anyone would be paying the full MSRP for the vehicle. And it’s not like this was some stripper model, either. It had all the usual “safe” driving technologies, like electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, downhill brake control and hill-start assist, along with 17-inch alloy wheels, a nice-ish AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM sound system, some leather interior accents and Bluetooth compatibility.
In other words, it was the typical Hyundai high-value package. But this is where that tempus fugit business comes into play, because the automaker is already leaving its positioning as a low-cost “value” brand in the past. The products still offer a lot of value for the money, but the top end of the Hyundai lineup, from Sonata to Genesis to Equus, obviously is aimed at less cost-conscious customers. In this context, the Tucson seems out of place—except for its exterior.
The Tucson is another of those vehicles that looks better in person than it does in photos, and there’s plenty to hold the eye. Perhaps even too much. The surface of the Tucson showcases an array of different curves, angles and dimensions, and depending on where you stand, it can look quite pleasing. But if you take a single step in a different direction, the parts can end up overwhelming the whole. The face of the Tucson is an ideal example of this. Head on, it’s a nicely aggressive and sporty treatment, with notable detailing around the lower inlets. Yet from a three-quarters front angle, the front overhand looks awkward and “snouty.”
The design at the rear is more accomplished and coherent, and again, I was impressed by the details. The tiny lip spoiler at the bottom of the rear glass and the treatment around the lower running lights are the kind of touches that show me Hyundai is making a strong effort, and no one can complain that the Tucson’s exterior is too bland. In fact, if you went by the exterior alone, you could easily believe the Tucson cost thousands of more dollars than its actual sticker price.
The interior, well, not so much. What you need to do here is to stop reading and take a quick scan at the interior pictures, and find the one showing the dashboard area on the passenger side (also shown to the right). You’ll know which one I mean, because it shows the word “AIRBAG” stenciled onto the dash in bright white letters, just sort of hanging out there in the middle of nowhere. On a vehicle that costs under $23,000 and offers the Tucson’s level of amenities, this isn’t a deal breaker; but it is very tacky, and it’s wholly out of alignment with the automaker’s hopes of taking the Hyundai brand out of the bargain basement.
The cowling over the sound-system controls, in the middle of the dash, strikes me as a misstep as well. I think Hyundai was trying to echo the piece over the center gauges, but the two design cues don’t match each other in shape or design, and that center one really didn’t seem like an organic part of the interior layout. I also absolutely loathe the kind of notched shifter gate used in the Tucson, but that’s just another of my pet peeves.
And there were plenty of nice touches inside as well. The storage tray/USB port/power outlets just in front of the shifter was a nice bit of business, with the cutouts giving the unit a sophisticated, architectural appearance. The controls were well laid out, too, with the center vents blending around the rear-defrost button (and the dummy button on the passenger side) in a notably subtle yet arty design. The metallic accents on the steering wheel looked sharp as well, although the wheel itself seemed smaller than normal. I meant to whip out the ol’ tape measure, but the Krome home underwent a major sewage disaster while I had the Tucson, and I wasn’t able to do some of the last-minute checks on the vehicle that I originally had planned.
That said, what I was able to do was spend more time exploring the Tucson’s cargo-hauling capabilities than I normally would have, and this was another area in which the Hyundai performed well. Despite its somewhat dramatic roofline, there was still a fair amount of room in the Tucson for boxes and whatnot, even with the 60/40 split rear seats up. It’s also worth pointing out that passengers do even better. The way the back doors angle upward to start forming the small rear “opera” windows adds flair to the Tucson, yet reduces daylight to the back-seat passengers, and I did get some complaints there. But the reality of the matter is different. Consider: The Tucson is a surprisingly short vehicle, stretching just 173.2 inches, so it’s more than half a foot shorter than a Honda CR-V. Yet the Hyundai has more passenger room than all but the base Honda models—which, probably because of the sunroof, gives people 2.9 more cubic feet of interior space than the CR-V in EX or EX-L trim—and specifically more rear-seat head- and leg-room.
The driving experience was about what I’ve come to expect from a Hyundai: That is, all systems accomplished their given tasks with what felt to be above-average results, but sometimes the processes involved seemed to be operating with below-average refinement. The Tucson was plenty peppy off the line for a vehicle in its segment, yet the engine and transmission didn’t always sound very happy about it. There was never any kind of concern over stopping power, yet there was more brake travel than I prefer.
It’s a relatively nimble handler, too, you just have to remember this is a crossover vehicle. Thus, like all crossovers, it’s relatively tall compared to its length, and it simply isn’t going to handle as well as a vehicle with the proportions of a Mazda Miata.
Which brings me back to expectations. If you’re expecting the Tucson to be a BMW X3 with a Hyundai price tag, you’re going to be out of luck. If you’re looking for an entry-level crossover that, in some areas, delivers better-than-expected advantages, your first stop should be a Hyundai dealership.
One last note: Because of the aforementioned plumbing problems, I also didn’t get to calculate the Tucson’s fuel efficiency. It is EPA rated at 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined, and eyeballing the fuel gauge told me I was pretty close. I just have to point out that the Hyundai Sonata, a mid-size sedan that’s more than a foot longer and a few pounds heavier than the crossover, posts a line of 22/35/26.