There are maybe a handful of cars that capture the spirit of an age. No one is quite sure how it happens – it could be a combination of good prices, canny advertising and a whole lot of luck. Chev’s Nomad back in the day springs to mind, as do the Volksie bus, VW’s Beetle and a bit more recently, the Toyota Hilux (remember Buddy the Boxer?). They all set up these cars as a truly South African product, regardless of where it was made.
Hyundai’s original Tucson, introduced in 2004, was such a car. It quickly became everyone’s SUV of choice, helping Hyundai re-establish itself after the dodgy Billy Rautenbach/Botswana days. Everyone loved its simple solidity, the unburstable engines, high seating and panoramic views. It also drove well – not something that could be said of many of its competitors at the time.
Then arrived the ix35 – equally good, equally accomplished, but just a little less ours. It appeared to represent Hyundai’s planned global takeover, with its edgy (for then) styling and tech-heavy interior. Now Hyundai has phoenixed the Tucson name, intent on making the latest car friendlier and more approachable, even as it delivers Silicon Valley amounts of new tech at a potentially off-putting price. Will it work? Let’s check it out.
First off, Hyundai has created a real beauty, no question. Following the global trend begun by Audi, the family likeness is striking – the Tucson mostly resembles a shrunken Santa Fe, and that’s no bad thing. The heavily creased sweep of the hipline, the extra-long headlights, the large wheel arches and the aggressive triple grille all shout Santa Fe, except that the Tucson is better proportioned, suffering less from a heavy rear overhang. The same goes for the inside: the separate environments for driver and passenger upfront are similar, the infotainment screen with ventilation ‘ears’ and the combined digital/analogue instrumentation are common. All good news: the expensive Sante Fe is excellent and any trickle-down is welcomed.
Under the skin, some work has been done on the chassis and the suspension, but engines are tweaked versions of what we’re used to. These include a naturally aspirated 115 kW/196 Nm 2.0ℓ and the test unit, a 130 kW/265 Nm 1.6ℓ GDi from the Veloster. On paper, this petrol engine hardly makes a case for itself (check out the fairly ordinary figures), though in character and application it is a willing little thing, as lively and energetic as it is tractable. Particularly notable is the delivery, which feels smooth and fluid, excellent for a turbocharged engine, and certainly better than the Veloster’s. The automatic gearbox is perfectly usable, but Hyundai’s slick, precise manual gearbox is the one to have – together, this excellent engine and gearbox make for a relaxing, yet entertaining drive.
Start up the engine, feed out the light, crisp clutch, listen to the far-off engine, accelerate into traffic and there’s an immediate feeling of quality. The noise suppression is top-drawer, the steering feels direct and precise, and there are no rattles. The view – ever important in an SUV – is ideal, at least looking forward. Once again, the rear view is compromised – glazing is compact in an effort to raise structural rigidity and you will be using those parking sensors. But vision forward across the huge bonnet is ideal, helped in no small part by seats that are perhaps the Tucson’s very best feature. Entirely redesigned, they have a higher hip height than in the previous ix35, meaning the driver and passenger sit higher, can see further and are more comfortable than before. The side bolsters are reworked too, supportive without being intrusive. We reckon they rate as some of the best seats around at the moment, at any price. Good work, Hyundai.
The rest of the cabin is a far cry from the original Tucson, which erred on the side of washable. You’ll not want to be hosing this one down, though – elegant soft plastics and soft-touch materials abound; arms rest sensitively wrapped in elbow-massaging faux leather. Look up: you can tell a lot about a car from its headlining and this one has a smart, brushed expanse – no afterthought.
The current range – more models will likely join the line-up later on, including the diesels – has an AWD variant, but we wanted to suss out the dirt-road abilities of this FWD model, the volume-seller. So we headed to the mountains, intent
on finding a route that would present a challenge similar to anything you would encounter across the country. First was the fast trek west and here, the Tucson confirmed our initial impressions. It is a marvellous cruiser, with no wandering tendencies, even in fairly stiff side winds. The gear ratios are well suited to cruising too, and it’s almost as quiet at the legal limit as it is in town. Pick-up in top gear is acceptable, but it’s advisable to change down to catch the turbo’s power band. Do that and overtaking is a doddle.
Next was the water crossing, a low ford that wouldn’t have worked in a sedan or hatch. Here, the 172 mm ground clearance was useful but not exceptional (a Mazda CX-5 has 215 mm and a Nissan Qashqai has 180 mm), but the car felt very confident through the stream and the compliant suspension dealt with the rocky bed well enough. Up into the mountains, the dirt road was shot through with rocky out-
crops and we were glad about the softer suspension. It behaved much like a more expensive Volvo XC60 and even when the route deteriorated into basic track, the going was never anything but composed. Back over the pass and on to the wide gravel stretch, the Tucson impressed us yet again, acquitting itself well with its confident, planted attitude – in spite of the loose surface.
The trip back gave us a chance to play with the many gadgets inside. Ironically, given the tech on board, we found the rear reclining seats to be the most useful. They can tilt a full 34º, increasing either rear passenger comfort or luggage space. The ventilated front seats were a real boon in the heat too, though we’re still less than sure why full-length panoramic sunroofs are optioned for baking South Africa. The by-now ubiquitous colour LCD display is only a 5” unit, but is easy to use and well positioned for quick glances while driving, and the eight-speaker sound system was a revelation – in-car aural technology truly has come a long way in a few short years. Hyundai’s system counters road noise and accents mid-tone variation, traditionally lost while driving at speed. The result is crystal-clear sound, with full, clear bass but more importantly, excellent treble.
But it was just outside the city that we were given a real sense of what it means to own a new vehicle laden with modern technology. The scabby dog escaping a beating from his pond-life owner didn’t have much time to worry about a rapidly approaching Korean SUV and ran straight into the path of the Tucson. Five up, the car braked and swerved at the same time, ABS chunkering through the brake pedal, the dirt verge quickly reached. The car ground to a fast, controlled stop – two wheels on tar, two on dirt, no skidding, dramatics or even soiled underwear. Body roll was the most notable aspect of the whole episode – it was barely perceptible, certainly not what you would expect from a high SUV. Comfort and looks are all welland good, but every now and then a little reminder of what technology really means comes along. Full marks, Tucson.
In a nutshell
Hyundai Tucson 1.6TGDi Executive
Ever better interior quality, smooth and quiet, entertaining to drive too
Expensive, not as roomy as some of its competitors
- Engine: 1 591 cc 4-cylinder turbo
- Power: 130 kW @ 5 500 rpm, 265 Nm @ 4 500 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 9.2 sec, top speed 203 km/h
- Tyres: 225/60/R17
- Economy: 8.3 ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 169 g/km
- Price: R419 900
Nissan Qashqai 1.6 T Acenta
The industry standard, less capable on dirt than its predecessor, but more luxurious and just as good to drive. 1 618 cc 4-cylinder turbo, 120 kW/240 Nm,0–100 km/h in 9.1 sec, top speed 200 km/h, 6.2 ℓ/100 km, CO2 144 g/km, R374 900
Jeep Renegade 1.4 T Limited
Expensive for the engine size, the Renegade is nonetheless a capable car – and lots of fun. No diesel, but the petrol 1.4 is a great little engine. 1 368 cc 4-cylinder turbo, 103 kW / 230 Nm, 0–100 km/h in 10.9 sec, top speed 181 km/h, 6.0ℓ/100 km, CO2 140 g/km, R396 990
Mazda CX-5 2.0 Dynamic
The big Maz has been a huge hit, thanks to its cocktail of big engine performance, price, space, quality and drivability. 1 996 cc 4-cylinder, 121 kW/210 Nm, 0–100 km/h in 9.3 sec, top speed 197 km/h, 6.4 ℓ/100 km, CO2 149 g/km, R344 600