Review: 2014 Hyundai Tuscon: Cheap, Cheerful and Capable

It’s not everyday that one gets to test a car they would never consider owning, but Hyundai has gone to great pains to make this process enjoyable with their latest Tuscon. This model started life back in 2004 as a cheaper alternative to the Ford Escape and was left largely unchanged through 2009, save for a fuel cell concept (Hyundai Tucson FCEV) that showed up at the 2005 LA Auto Show. Based on the 2nd generation Kia Sportage, and, by extension, the Hyundai Elantra compact sedan, Hyundai uses the classic model of lifting an existing road car chassis and fitting a bigger cab to get what is now referred to as a crossover. With the latest take, Hyundai took the technique further and offered a couple of things that aren’t standard fare for the “set it and forget it” crossover crowd: a locking center differential and hill descent control.

Though these two options can be viewed as low-cost software upgrades made possible by the US government’s requirement of stability and traction control on all cars sold over here, Hyundai has sent a message of confidence to those who like light off roading. We’ll get to specific measurements of ground clearance and the like later on, but let’s get this clear: Hyundai is heading in the right direction.

Drivetrain

This car weighs 3,439 lbs and is powered by a 182 horsepower four mated to a traditional 6-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels with a lockable center differential. If this powertrain were the base powertrain, it would be pretty acceptable (but the base model comes with a 150 horsepower engine and is likely even less fun). The base front wheel drive version can get 29 mpg on the highway. This AWD version is EPA rated at 20/25 city/highway and 22mpg combined, it just so happens that is the average mileage we recorded as well during our testing sessions. Next to the Ecoboost-equipped Fusion, this car is lethargic and is even more lethargic than a bottom-of-the barrel Chevy Captiva. Much of this is down to the transmission: first gear is pretty tall, and it doesn’t improve much from there on out. We suspect that given a CVT and a gas tank that’s larger than 15 gallons, this could be a much more competent player.

Exterior

This is a car that is somewhat anonymous, but if one looks at individual details like the lights or the wheels or the individual lines, it’s a tiny bit different than other Hyundais, and it’s pretty attractive. The 18s on this car look a bit pretentious and look downright ridiculous with even a lick of dirt on them; there are very few bits of bargain-basement gray plastic, and Hyundai has thankfully resisted the urge to experiment with gratuitous LED frippery.

Handling

The ride is pretty firm, but the rebound isn’t so useless that the car skitters all over the place on washboarded roads. The big payoff of the firmness is pretty clear: the roll control is pretty class leading. And if you’re in one of the two buckets in the front, this car isn’t wholly frustrating on smaller roads, but it’s aimed at the zero-involvement Honda CR-V crowd, and Hyundai has nailed it here.

Interior

This is a 3,439 lb SUV with nearly every option including leather and heated seats for $28,000; there will be compromises, but overall, the fitment is pretty impressive for an entry level crossover. Finishes are average at best and those expecting a quiet Q-ship for their extra option dollars will be dissapointed. There’s plenty of hard plastic and many of the softer plastic finishes already looked a bit care-worn despite the fact that our tester only had 2,800 miles on the clock.

Practicality

Like all crossovers in this class, this is merely a bubble-shaped 5-door hatchback. There’s 25.7 cubic feet of trunk space, over 100 cubic feet of passenger space, and 55 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear 60/40 split bench folded flat. On paper, this is only slightly more than what one might find in a new Volvo station wagon. Unlike the Volvo, this car isn’t particulary boxy, and so space isn’t used efficiently, this is great if you’re filling the car to the gills with pillows, but if you plan on placing luggage or any quantity of moving boxes, the crossover shape makes it only marginally more useful than a sedan. Towing capacity lags behind the Subaru Forester and others at 2,000 lbs, which is not an uncommon rating for mid sized or larger sedans.

Ergonomics/Comfort

There really isn’t much to complain about in the Tuscon as far as ergonomics are concerned. The 6-speed auto shifter lever operates softly and accurately, more so even than in a $55,000 Volvo S80 that we recently tested. There’s a pretty small touch screen that can be operated both by touch and by control knobs for the radio and climate. The size doesn’t really matter though, because unlike quite a few touch screens fitted in cars these days, it does a great job of sensing capacitance (it’s super easy for touches to be sensed).  The buttons on the steering wheel make perfect sense, as does the car’s operating system.

The seats are a different matter. The front seats are great on a long drive and offer loads of support in the corners; while they aren’t racing-spec recaros, or milled coconut husk stuffed clouds found in a Mercedes S-Class, Hyundai offers some of the best seats in this class. The rear seats offer less side-to-side support than coach seats from a commuter rail car. The rail car seats offer more displacement too. From the logbook, the term “park bench” seems to have been used generously in relation to the rear seats.

Off Road

This term means different things to different people. This car likely qualifies as an off roader for those purchasing crossovers. There’s a locking center differential and hill descent control. Though it only has a tick more ground clearance than a station wagon at 6.7 inches, and certainly less than most of Subaru’s lineup, the approach and departure angles are not terrible, and though the steering is pretty light and pretty dead, there is just enough information through the wheel to indicate where the wheels might be. We didn’t venture too far, but there’s a healthy amount of travel in the suspension, the brakes are definitely up to the job and the hill descent control works for those who are into that.

We crossed minor washouts and water bars without issues, visited muddy areas that most crossovers will never see and were generally impressed. Could it used more ground clearance? Sure. What’s the one thing that has our knickers in a twist is the fuel economy promoting first gear, which seems more at home as a second gear on smaller cars. Hill descent control is likely accomplished by employment of skilled and very loud hamsters nibbling away at the brakes. It works, but it feels awful. In conclusion, the Tucson is better than most of the competition, but that’s not high praise.

Conclusion

This is a $28,000 crossover with an ungodly number of options fitted to it that don’t make it more remarkable. Is the base model a better deal than a similarly equipped Ford Escape? Yes. Will it be slower? Of course. Can you get a massive moonroof? No. In short, this car is easily the one of best at the entry level segment of this class.

-By: Sawyer Sutton