2005 Hyundai Tucson review

It all will make sense a year from now.

Hyundai has introduced a compact sport-utility vehicle for 2005 called Tucson, the production version of the prototype unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February.

The compact sport-ute market is growing, and it helps to have a new offering in that segment.

But Hyundai already has a compact SUV, the Santa Fe, so why two vehicles that will compete with one another?

Relax, Hyundai says.

Tucson and Santa Fe may be similarly sized offerings now. But Santa Fe will grow late in the fall of '05 to compete in the midsize segment, leaving Tucson to hold down the entry-level end for the South Korean automaker.

Tucson, with its 103.5-inch wheelbase and 170.3-inch overall length, is roughly the size of the Santa Fe, with its 103.1-inch wheelbase and 177.2-inch overall length.

And there's some overlap in price, with Tucson's starting prices ranging from $17,499 to $23,000 and Santa Fe's from $21,499 to $25,999.

But once Santa Fe grows in sizeand priceyou'll better be able to distinguish one as the entry, the other as the move-up vehicle in the Hyundai family.

Hyundai won't say, but in keeping with the midsize segment trend, that bigger Santa Fe may even add three rows of seats to further separate the two.

Tucson and Santa Fe are car-based. Tucson is built off the same platform as the Elantra sedan, Santa Fe off the same platform as the Sonata sedan.

For the '06 model year, Sonata will be produced at Hyundai's new U.S. assembly plant in Montgomery, Ala. Sonata will be built for a few months before the Santa Fe is added to focus on initial production quality at its first U.S. assembly plant.

Santa Fe was introduced in the fall of 2000 with the XG300 sedan. Both were instant hits, with Hyundai taking advantage of the growing popularity of small SUVs and midsize sedans with well equipped, low-priced offerings.

Santa Fe sales have swelled to 100,000 annually. While Hyundai is forecasting first-year Tucson sales of only 40,000 to 60,000 units, it says its plant in South Korea that produces the new small sport-ute can easily be cranked up to build more based on demand.

Tucson is offered in front- or four-wheel-drive in GL, GLS and top-of-the-line LX versions.

We tested the Tucson GLS with 4WD. There are small sport-utes and small sport-ute/wagons, and Tucson is all sport-ute. Front and rear bumpers as well as fenders and rocker panels are covered with a plastic cladding for a rugged SUV look as well as to protect the body from road debris.

Tucson's 4WD system is one of those on-demand units that operates in FWD until it detects the need to engage all four wheels and then does so.

If you spot a mound of snow in the road and feel the need to engage 4WD on your own, you can press a button on the dash.

With 4WD, Tucson should be able to handle the snow, but being car-based and with no 4WD-low setting, we wouldn't advise heavy-duty off-roading or attempting to climb over fallen limbs.

Tucson offers a choice of a 2-liter, 140-horsepower 4-cylinder or 2.7-liter, 173-h.p. V-6, same V-6 as in Santa Fe. But Santa Fe has no 4 cylinder, which helps distinguish it now as the upgrade.

The V-6 gives Tucson more than ample power to get off the line, merge or pass.

Not only is the V-6 spirited, it also performs quietly, a characteristic no longer reserved for the higher-priced competition. The mileage rating is a respectable 19 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway with 4WD and 4-speed automatic.

Because it's Elantra-based, Tucson has car-like ride and handling without jostling those in the cabin. Tucson has a low stance that contributes to decent handling without lots of lean in corners. The cloth seats are comfortable and well cushioned for long-distance travel without having to pause to retune the vertebrae.

The appeal of the GLS tested is that it comes fully equippedexcept for one option. A power sunroof runs $750.

Some also may choose to add the only other option, an upgrade from AM/FM stereo with cassette, single CD and MP3 players to a six-disc in-dash CD player and woofer for $395.

Those who relish navigation systems are out of luck. Not offered. But more important for parents, there's no DVD-based entertainment system that would allow the kids to watch movies or play games on long journeys and prevent the inevitable "Are we there yet," pleas.

Hyundai said it put money into safety features rather than navi or entertainment systems, which is why Tucson does come with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, side-impact and front and rear side-curtain air bags and traction and electronic stability control as standard.

So you won't have an in-dash screen directing you to Grandma's house and the kids may get ornery on the trip, but they should be able to get to Grandma's without side trips onto the shoulder.

And all that safety hardware is standard whether you opt for the GL with its 4-cylinder engine or GLS/LX with the V-6.

There's a host of noteworthy features as well, nothing real glitzy or technologically sophisticated, but features you can use and appreciate daily.

They include two levers in the hatchback to open the lid or the window glass separately; bottle/cupholders in all four doors; power plugs in the dash, back of the center console and rear cargo hold; a rear parcel shelf that not only holds items, but also serves as a cover for items underneath; several small stowage compartments under the rear floor mat just above the spare-tire well to hide more items; fold-flat second-row seat backs to increase cargo capacity; flip-down plastic grocery-bag holders built into the second-row seat backs; and mirrors in each sunvisor.

Other standard goodies include air conditioning; rear window wiper/defroster; body-colored, power, heated, side-view mirrors; power windows and door locks; remote keyless entry; and cruise control.

Tucson is a $21,499 4WD SUV to which you add a sunroof and $595 for freight and drive home.

When you get home, you don't have to hide it in the garage because it's a Hyundai. You can leave it in the driveway for others to admire that it's a lot of vehicle for the moneyand is a Hyundai.

Strictly personal: Anniversary greetings to Mrs. Twin No. 2, Dana, as well as birthday greetings to daughter-in-law, Lori, and Mrs. Twin No. 2, oh, and Mrs. Twin No. 1, Gina.

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