October 10, 2012 00:00 By Kingsley Wijayasinha
Hyundai's SUV is competitively priced, but its brakes need some adjustment while handling is a bit laid-back
In recent years, the popularity of SUVs has been declining as consumers have been bombarded with a huge range of attractive new passenger cars which are more fuel-efficient and better equipped.
But last year’s massive flood saw the return of the sport utility vehicle, which proved highly useful due to its high ride height and go-anywhere capability.
Hyundai – definitely a force to be reckoned with in the global market but still a small brand in Thailand – has been highly successful with its large H1 van, which has attracted buyers with its large interior space, highly comfortable interior and super-low retail prices. Although it was launched several years ago, the H1 today still maintains excellent value for money, especially when compared to imported Japanese vans like the Toyota Alphard or European makes such as the Volkswagen Caravelle.
But the Korean auto-maker knows it can’t depend on only one model to be successful in the market, so it has been slowly expanding its product line-up in Thailand. Apart from the H1, it now has models like the Elantra, Sonata, Starex and the Tucson (available with gasoline and diesel engines), which I just drove over the weekend.
The diesel-powered Tucson 2.0D 4WD costs Bt1.69 million, which is quite competitive considering that it is imported from South Korea. Hyundai has yet to set up an assembly facility in Thailand, still being content with growth in small numbers and not competing directly against Japanese rivals who dominate the market.
Meanwhile in the global market, especially in the United States, the Tucson is one of the most popular models for Hyundai, with more than a million sold since it was first launched in 2004. In terms of brand image, Hyundai has also been doing very well in Europe and the US, both of which are highly demanding markets.
In terms of size, the Tucson (pronounced “too-zon” like the Arizona city in the US) is comparable with market leader Honda CR-V and the Chevrolet Captiva. But both are assembled locally while the Tucson isn’t, and this makes a considerable difference in the equipment level being offered.
As a result, some of the features available in the top gasoline version may not be offered, in order to maintain attractive pricing – features such as side and window airbags, active headrest, electric seats, automatic windshield wipers, automatic headlights, automatic climate control, panoramic sunroof, back-up video camera, etc. But the marketing division of Hyundai Motor Thailand has made sure that it is not totally stripped down. You still get dual front airbags, keyless entry with push-start button, trip computer, ROP (Roll-Over Protection), Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), Downhill Brake Control (DBC), and Hill-start Assist Control (HAC).
In addition, the Tucson’s turbocharged 2.0-litre commonrail diesel engine, which is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, is another plus. Although the noise level may be a little high, it is capable of pumping out 177 horsepower and a whopping 392Nm of torque that gives it excellent midrange acceleration.
Unlike Japanese companies, Hyundai provides performance data in its brochures and here are some important facts – top speed: 195km/h; 0-100km/h acceleration: 10.1 seconds; and average fuel economy: 13.3km/litre.
On the highway, just “squeeze” the accelerator and the Tucson gets going pretty easily, thanks to the large amount of torque. In fact, anyone with a heavy foot will be surprised how it leaps forward with every push of the foot, making it a highly comfortable and convincing vehicle to drive.
The brakes, however, need a little adjustment. Although the braking distance is shorter than the gasoline models despite the vehicle weight being much heavier (41 metres from 100-0km/h compared to 43.3 metres for the gasoline version), the pedal is a little dull. This might be good for offroad driving, since over-sensitive brakes could prevent you from maintaining a steady flow through loose surfaces. But on the highway, which I am sure the Tucson would be driven most of the time, it may create a sense of uncertainty. You got to be heavy-footed with the Tucson’s brakes to get the desired effect.
Another point is that the Tucson is based on the Elantra platform, which qualifies it for a “crossover” status rather than being an off-road machine. You get McPherson struts in front and a multi-link suspension at the rear that offer a firm but comfortable ride. Unfortunately the handling isn’t as sharp as you’d expect, being a little on the laid-back side.
Another plus is the radical “Fluidic Sculpture” design that is used across the Hyundai model range. It’s bold and expressive, as well as unique – you instantly know that this is a Hyundai even without seeing the badge.
The interior is also stylish, especially the multi-function steering wheel, centre console and the cognac-brown leather seats. A small complaint from me would be the control buttons on the driver armrest which could be upgraded with higher-quality plastic material and feel. And although the single-CD audio system may sound a bit dull, it comes with AUX, iPod and USB inputs safely located in the centre console tunnel.
A final plus from me is that the test vehicle has covered more than 20,000km, being driven hard by auto journalists who are known to drive their own cars with extreme care while thrashing others’ cars, but there were no squeaks and rattles to be heard. A big leap in quality compared to the older-generation Korean vehicles.