Car-makers rarely do anything just for the hell of it. No move is motiveless and every act is loaded with the potential for spin.
With all this taken as a given, the news that Hyundai had chosen Latvia as the launch venue for the new Tucson SUV caused some head-scratching. Eastern Europe is about as far removed as you can get from the sun-drenched venues that manufacturers normally choose to introduce hacks to their latest models. Yet all became clear in the press conference, and it was a lot less subtle than I was expecting. As the newest member of the EU, Latvia reckons its future success is best served by becoming a big player in Europe. And so does Hyundai. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more ambitious car manufacturer than the Korean outfit. Already the world’s seventh biggest maker of cars, it wants to supplant DaimlerChrysler and PSA and hit the top five by 2007. And it sees Euro-friendly cars like the new Tucson as key to spearheading this future upsurge.
Enough of the corporate issues; just where exactly does the Tucson fit into the current market? Its proportions and styling tell you everything you need to know. It’s another alternative to the sub-£20k small SUV set that already includes the Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-trail, Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin, Honda CR-V and the cheaper members of the Land Rover Freelander line-up. The new car also sits below Hyundai’s existing off-roaders, the Santa Fé and Terracan. And you could see it treading on the toes of internal and external rivals when it goes on sale in August, with competitive pricing from £15,000 to £18,000 and a choice of three engines, all familiar from other Hyundai models and all Euro4 compliant: 140bhp 2.0-litre and 173bhp 2.7-litre V6 petrols, and a 110bhp 2.0-litre common-rail turbodiesel. Normally front-wheel drive, the Tucson’s torque-sensing transmission diverts power to the rear wheels when it’s needed, and the car can be locked in four-wheel drive via a dash-mounted switch.
In the past, Hyundai has struggled to compete dynamically with its rivals. The fact that the Tucson – along with the next Sportage from sister company Kia – shares a platform with the mediocre Elantra should ring a few warning bells.
On the road, those bells get a lot louder. Latvian roads are badly scarred, but no worse than some British highways. Which means that the way the Tucson behaved on the roads around Riga should be a good reflection of how it will behave in the UK, and it’s not looking good. Fact is, the good containment of body roll through bends means poor ride quality. There’s a distinct choppiness over rucked-up tarmac, but by far its worst characteristic is the way it builds up a pogo-ing motion over undulating roads, failing to keep vertical movement in check and then crashing down when encountering even modest surface pockmarks. Ironically, these characteristics made it a decent companion over the unmetalled roads (with much worse surfaces) we occasionally came across, but unless you spend most of your time on dirt and gravel it’s going to be unacceptably uncomfortable.
Other aspects of the Tucson’s refinement are also dubious. Even at modest speeds it throws up vibration and road roar into the cabin, and by the time you’ve reached motorway pace the cacophony is augmented by wind whistle from the A-pillars and roof rails.
Sadly, the engines are no saving grace. The diesel is the biggest disappointment, lacking the lusty low-down urge we’ve come to expect from oil-burners. Noise suppression is only average, too, and the Tucson lacks the cruising and low-speed polish of the quietest modern diesels. The V6 petrol, allied to a standard four-speed automatic ’box, is a better effort, yet this too gets thrashy when you extend it – as you need to when making overtaking manoeuvres, such is the modesty of its mid-range punch.
But it’s not all bad news. Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the Tucson is its attention to practicality and versatility. Turning the SUV into a load carrier is sweat-free stuff: either side of the 60:40 split bench folds virtually flat in one motion, pivoting both the seat back and base. The front seats also fold back, creating a bed of questionable comfort. But, more usefully, there’s also a host of other addenda designed to make an owner’s life easier, including luggage nets, a housing for small items in the sides of the boot, takeaway hooks and a smattering of 12-volt power outlets. Best of all, the rear tailgate glass lifts independently of the hatch itself, BMW Touring-style.
Passengers aren’t getting a bum deal either. There’s enough space to luxuriate in even if you’re relegated to the mid-riding rear position, and despite the narrow glass area and thick pillars there’s good visibility and plenty of light.
Unfortunately, quality of fit and finish undermines Hyundai’s claims that it’s getting to Toyota levels. There’s little wrong with the standards of construction or the no-nonsense layout. It’s just that the average quality of plastic mouldings and the uniformity of the textures and tones give the feeling that you’re in a low-grade product.
Equipment largesse is in evidence, though. Exact levels of kit have yet to be decided but even base GSi versions will get air-con, a CD player and a full suite of safety kit. Move up to the CDX and for a £500 premium you can expect climate control and an electric sunroof.
Despite Hyundai’s desire to add sales fast, we don’t reckon the Tucson is the car to change the company’s image or give it a push upwards. It’s entering a class that’s already full to bursting and it’s too much of a me-too car – and an average one at that – to cause many ructions. It looks like good value and also has the unique selling point of a five-year warranty, but against the likes of the Toyota RAV4 that may not be enough.