2010 Hyundai Tucson review by By Scott Burgess

It has spent nearly two decades repairing and then polishing its reputation. In the past, critics, including myself, have accused it of copying designs and then dulling them up. Some vehicles had styling, just not Hyundai's.

Not anymore. Hyundai is original, respectable and nibbling out of Toyota Motor Corp.'s, Honda Motor Co.'s and Nissan Motor Co.'s Bento Box. It is becoming that other guy with some pretty cool cars.

Need more evidence? Take a look at the 2010 Hyundai Tucson small crossover. It's surprisingly comfortable, offers a quiet, smooth ride and still has import good looks. It drives like a car, hauls like a crossover and costs less than some compacts.

And Hyundai has moved into a leadership position with its powertrains, as the Tucson will feature only four-cylinders and six-speed transmissions, something other carmakers will undoubtedly follow. The V-6 has disappeared.

Really, why should there be those other two cylinders? The 2.4-liter Dual Overhead Cam inline four-cylinder engine provides 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque, plenty of juice for canyon-carving around Malibu. It's also on par with all of the major four-cylinder competition such as Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV 4 and Ford Escape -- just with better gas mileage.

The Tucson is the only compact crossover out of that group to top 30 miles per gallon on the highway. Overall, the Tucson can manage 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway -- a 24 percent improvement over the 2009 model. Only the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox can top the Tucson's numbers.

Many small changes

Creating a lighter, more powerful, slightly larger vehicle is no easy task. Much like every carmaker, Hyundai had to chip away at improving mileage numbers. There is no easy big fix, just lots of little ones. It had to improve the aerodynamics, make it lighter, add electric power steering and a better gearbox. It may sound easy enough, but if it was, there'd be more than two five-passenger crossovers that managed better than 30 mpg on the highway.

Hyundai developed its own transmission -- a big undertaking that will inevitably make it onto a lot of new vehicles -- one that is particularly smooth and fluid (as well as smaller and lighter). The transmission never hunted for the right gear and responded to the driver's input quickly and efficiently. Driving up a steep hill, you could feel it find the right downshift and provide the additional needed power.

Also, it never raced to sixth gear too quickly, an annoying fuel-saving feature other vehicles tend to have to save a few more drops of gasoline. The Tucson never felt like it sacrifices performance simply for the sake of fuel savings.

Hyundai has included a green Eco light on the instrument panel that comes on every time your foot comes off the accelerator. Engineers say that if a driver follows the light's suggestions to keep it on more than off, you can improve your fuel efficiency by as much as 17 percent. Color me skeptical, I just wish you could turn it off. I don't mind eco-driving, I just don't want the lecture.

More for your money

But that was really the only feature in the cabin that felt like a well-intentioned gimmick. The cabin was spacious, well-designed and comfortable. The flow is calming and the lack of sharp edges means Hyundai was safe from any cutting criticism.

The speedometer and tachometer are set deeply into the dash and the center of dash bumps out nicely to make all of the controls easily accessible to the driver. There are lots of nicely appointed silver trim throughout the cabin that adds a touch of sophistication and luxury. Nothing is over the top, nothing offends, but everything seems to meld together into an intuitive interior.

The value of Hyundai has always been that the brand provides more for your money and the Tucson carries that tradition forward. Standard features include Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation with voice recognition, remote keyless entry and a 160-watt, six-speaker audio system. The stereo can play a driver's iPod or other music device, a USB thumb driver, and then control the device through the vehicle's optional navigation screen. The driver's iPod and cell phone can fit nicely in a small open storage bin at the base of center of the dash, where the USB port rests.

There are some optional features that are certainly worth consideration as well. The leather interior is crisp and clean and feels much more luxurious than the Hyundai's low price tag. Hyundai has added a two-pane panoramic sun roof that provides blue sky views from the second row and makes the cabin feel even more open.

There's also the versatility within the cabin for someone who carries more stuff than people. The 60/40 split second row can create up to 55.8 cubic feet of stuff and even with the second row up, there's 25.7 cubic feet of room.

Most of all, there's plenty of room to stretch your legs -- what with 41.2 inches of legroom in the front and 38.7 inches in the back.

Smoothly quiet

Now, while driving around Southern California, perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the Tucson was how quiet it rode. This is in part because of all the work Hyundai did to deaden the sounds from the outside as well as smooth out its ride.

Most impressive was the Tucson's electric power steering that felt well-weighted on the road. The feedback was excellent, and had no one told me, I would have guessed it was power rack-and-pinion steering instead of electric. (One reason this helps improve a vehicle's gas mileage is that traditional power steering required a pump that ran off the car's engine. Now that no pump is needed, power to move a belt to operate the pump is, instead, used to power the car.)

Not every fuel saving idea was original and the Hyundai Tucson never wows you the way some vehicles do. But the redesigned Tucson is ages ahead of its predecessor and demonstrates how much Hyundai has matured.

This is just the beginning for the Korean carmaker, as 2010 promises even more vehicles with clean design and good gas mileage.

To assume Hyundai is not ready for the prime time is to make a big mistake, because it's already there.

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