THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Comfortable and quiet, stylish looker, great value proposition
- What’s Bad: Underpowered with 2.0-L engine, not a gas saver, transmission hiccups
Hyundai has been nothing if not a quick learner since its first timid incursion into North America in 1984, marketing the crude and wheezy Pony hatchback to Canadians.
Loosely based on Britain’s Ford Cortina that Hyundai built under licence in its native South Korea, the nascent automaker hired ItalDesign’s Giorgio Giugiaro to come up with a contemporary hatchback profile and subcontracted the drivetrain to Japan’s Mitsubishi.
The first Pony rolled off the assembly line in 1975. It wasn’t long before the little cars were bound for export to Ecuador and then Belgium and the Netherlands, where it established a beachhead in Europe.
Hoping to sell 5,000 Ponies during its first year in Canada, Hyundai was thrilled to see buyers scoop up 25,000 of them for the irresistible starting price of $5,994. It was briefly the best-selling car in the nation.
Hyundai has been a hit in Europe, too. The automaker upped its game by designing and engineering models that are increasingly infused with European driving characteristics, guided by the efforts of its technical centre in Rüsselsheim, Germany.
Hyundai is serious about making its cars and sport utilities rewarding to drive. In 2014 it hired Albert Biermann, former vice president of engineering at BMW’s M performance division, to oversee chassis development.
When it came time to redesign Hyundai’s Tucson compact crossover ute, it received a thorough makeover worthy of a vaunted European nameplate – complete with a worldwide premiere at the all-important Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland.
Introduced for 2016, the third-generation Tucson grew 7 centimetres longer overall, 3 cm wider and riding on a 3-cm-longer wheelbase, yet remained smaller than a Toyota RAV4 or Ford Escape. Engineers incorporated a lot more high-strength steel, as well as structural adhesive at the weld seams to enhance body rigidity. A column-mounted electric power-steering system keeps the Tucson on the straight and narrow, along with the redesigned suspension consisting of MacPherson struts up front and control arms at the rear.
The redesigned crossover gained a blocky front profile and very tall hood along with asymmetric wheel arches – a quirky detail everyone seems to miss until they’re pointed out to them. Exterior styling was the handiwork of Hyundai’s German studio, while its California design centre worked up the pleasant interior.
The cabin presents a sensible dashboard design with nicely arrayed controls, but plenty of hard plastic surfaces, too, unless you opt for the Limited, which received upscale trim that included padded dashboard and door inserts. The standard cloth seating, provided by YES Essentials, apparently resists staining, repels odors and reduces static.
There’s a standard 5-inch infotainment touchscreen that’s intuitive and user-friendly, while the Limited’s 8-inch version is more capable. USB connectivity, Bluetooth and satellite radio come standard on every Tucson. Seating is decent all around; the folding rear bench doesn’t slide fore and aft as it does in some competing models, but it’s mounted higher than before and can better accommodate a couple of tall adults in back.
“I am about 6′-1″ and 175 pounds and can sit in the back seat and have plenty of room to relax. The back seats recline just like the front seats do, which is great for long trips,” commented one owner online. Headroom is exceptional and cargo space in back is about average for a ute in this size category.
DRIVETRAINS AND UPDATES
Base models make do with the Tucson’s carryover engine: a direct-injection 2.0-L four-cylinder, which makes 164 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with a six-speed conventional automatic transmission (a manual gearbox is no longer offered) and can be found with front- or all-wheel drive.
Fancier Tucsons are powered by a new 1.6-L turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 175 hp and 195 lb-ft, its small twin-scroll turbocharger sized for instant response rather than maximum output. The accessible torque develops earlier in the rev range (1500 rpm) with almost no lag.
The 1.6 Turbo works exclusively with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that was designed and built in-house by Hyundai. It uses two automated clutches inside, each handling alternating gear changes. It’s said to work quicker and without the hydraulic losses associated with torque converters. However, some owners have reported harsh or delayed shift action with this mechanism (more on that later).
In U.S. government crash tests, the Tucson earned five stars (out of five) for overall collision protection, as well as five stars in front and side crash protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave it its top score of Good in the small-overlap front-impact, moderate-overlap front-impact and side-impact crash tests.
The Tucson didn’t get a refresh until the 2019 model year, when it received some updated styling tweaks and more standard safety gear, including automated emergency braking and lane assist, across the model range. Inside, the centre stack features a new 7-inch touchscreen display complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
Significantly, Hyundai dropped the optional turbocharged engine and troublesome dual-clutch automated transmission, and replaced them with a naturally aspirated 181-hp 2.4-L four cylinder and the company’s trusty six-speed automatic transmission.
DRIVING THE TUCSON
Given the sporty overtures, turbo-equipped models tend to deliver on the promise by accelerating to highway velocity in 7.6 seconds, placing the Tucson near the head of the compact crossover class. Base 2.0-L Tucsons take about an extra full second, while the newer 2.4-L models split the difference.
Handling isn’t all that noteworthy: body roll is well controlled, the electric steering feels weighty, if a little numb, and the little ute changes direction confidently. As is the case with many Hyundais, it offers a very smooth and refined ride, soaking up all but the harshest lumps competently. Another crowd-pleasing aspect of the Tucson is its church-quiet deportment on the highway, which further underscores its perceived quality and value.
Regardless of the engine chosen, fuel economy is less than stellar (those who know their Hyundai history might smile) for such a small crossover. Owners typically see 29 mpg in mixed use driving, though some have reported disappointing numbers driving in urban centres.
Owners of the third-gen Tucson cite their crossover’s styling, comfortable and roomy cabin, agreeable driving characteristics and overall bang-for-the-buck as compelling reasons for recommending their rides. On the negative side, the Tucson is not quite the gas saver buyers expect it to be, the base engine feels underpowered, and the complex dual-clutch automatic disappoints on a couple of fronts (shift quality and durability).
Mechanically speaking, Hyundai’s compact crossover is a pretty reliable commuter, backed by a five-year comprehensive warranty that is often exhausted by the time the second owner acquires it. Canadian-market Tucsons are assembled in South Korea.
The biggest durability concern is the dual-clutch automatic that’s bundled with the turbo engine. A U.S. lawsuit alleges owners experience shifting problems, hesitating acceleration, loss of power and stalling. Hyundai quietly dispatched technical service bulletins (TSBs) to dealers to address problems with the seven-speed transmissions, although no recall was ordered.
“The transmission is terrible, it shifts like it was an old (manual) stick car, it has something called a double clutch that cannot be fixed. They reset it back to the factory settings, and said that is all they can do,” wrote one exasperated owner online. A newer recalibration of the transmission is said to work better. Pay close attention to how a used Tucson shifts gears when test-driving a 1.6T model.
A number of 2016 and 2017 Tucson owners noticed that their air conditioner would intermittently blow hot air on a warm day. The prevailing opinion is that the thermistor, a probe that senses the temperature inside the system, can malfunction and should be replaced when this happens.
Some drivers have noted that their power door-lock actuators stopped working, which can prevent doors from unlatching from the inside or outside. Others have had to repair or replace their window regulators, which wind the side glass up and down. A few Tucson owners have had their display panels replaced after malfunctioning.
Beyond that, the Tucson acquits itself nicely as a value-packed compact ute that has made a lot of people happy. If you want to avoid the herky-jerky dual-clutch transmission headaches, stick with the sleepy 2.0-L engine and its drama-free automatic.