Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Take a look at the new Hyundai Tucson. The boldness in design seen here is a reflection of the newfound confidence resting within Hyundai and sister company Kia. No longer content to follow the shadows of the Japanese, the Koreans are now daring enough to chart their own course, both in engineering and design, and are aiming at the top of the class no less. But where do these new generation Hyundais really stand in the overall scheme?

Those thoughts were in our minds as we flew to Oman in the Middle East for the launch of the new Hyundai Tucson and Sonata back in February (an embargo is the reason why you’re only reading this now). Here, we’ll focus on the Tucson SUV with our impressions on the Sonata coming next.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Debuting in 2005, the first generation Tucson was Hyundai’s answer to the mid-sized SUV segment led by the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. While it wasn’t a bad product per se, it shone in no particular area and was very forgettable, both in looks and drive. With this new Tucson (codenamed LM), Hyundai wants to banish all memories of the old car – this car looks as exciting as its predecessor was boring.

Every bit as dramatic as it appears in pictures, the Tucson LM’s sheetmetal is a faithful reproduction of the ix-onic concept car shown at the 2009 Geneva show (blue car pictured below). More often than not, show stand creativity loses the internal battle against the people in charge of cost and practicality, resulting in watered down production cars that look like half hearted efforts. Not this time, because the Tucson was earmarked as the car to debut Hyundai’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design language.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
In the short one year transition from concept car to production car, the Tucson lost none of the ix-onic’s trademarks – the heavily sculpted front end dominated by the hexagonal grille, accent lines that flow from the light clusters on both ends, and the strip of black that rises just after the front wheels – they’re all here. An exception is in the rear design, where the number plate has shifted up to the tailgate. Personally, I think it looks better this way.

It took some lengths to snap the profile picture of the white car, but it’s worth the while, as the sun highlights every line imagined by the designers, which as you can see here is almost identical to the ix-onic concept’s. The previously mentioned accent lines that sprout from both ends interplay with another line that strikes through both door handles – like Zorro’s signature!

Responsible for the Tucson’s sleek looks are the steeply raked A-pillar and a roofline that gently slopes to the rear. What’s the point of that black piece of plastic below the doors, you may ask? It makes the sides look not as thick as they really are, so the car won’t appear bottom heavy. Our test unit in Oman came with 18-inch wheels, but Hyundai Sime-Darby will opt for 17-inch rubber to lower replacement costs.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
If the exterior is concept car like, the cabin of the production Tucson is 95% identical to the Geneva show star, down to the details. There seems to be an “opposing curves” theme going on, which can be seen on the steering wheel spokes and also the way the main dashboard moulding meets in the middle (Hyundai calls it X-design). The latter is accentuated by two “blades” that house air vents and an engine Start/Stop button in the high-spec models. The twin pod instruments peer at you, and the dial design is recognisably Hyundai with its blue theme and easy-to-read markings.

I found my ideal driving position with ease, although the steering should ideally also adjust for reach, not just rake. All switches and buttons fall into place though, and there wasn’t anything that needed finding or learning, so top marks for ergonomics. But although the typical SUV high perch is useful for anticipating traffic, visibility is not the best for its kind, especially when viewing off the shoulder. The Tucson’s glass area is relatively small, and that should be the reason behind this.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Hyundai Tucson test drive report from OmanAlthough the cabin features no soft plastics, the pieces are put together very well and appears solidly built. That, and the stylish presentation, makes up for the lack of padded material. Speaking of stylish, Hyundai has peppered the dash with aluminium style trim and piano-black tops for the rotary dials. The two climate control switches are also knurled, Mercedes style. Those with portable music players will be happy with the clearly marked and conveniently located AUX/iPod/USB jacks – your device’s wires won’t have to dangle a long way.

Personally, I don’t like the sight of blanked out buttons, which reminds me that the car I’m driving isn’t “full-spec” but you won’t see many of those things in Malaysia-bound Tucsons. As previously posted, the Tucson will arrive with two engine options – a 2.0-litre and a 2.4-litre 4WD. The smaller engine comes in regular and high-spec form, with the better specced car having most of the 2.4’s equipment.

For instance, all Tucsons except for the base 2.0 get a full length sunroof (with blinds, of course), keyless entry with start/stop button, driver’s powered seat, semi-leather seats and ESP with Downhill Brake Control and Hill Start Assist. The only equipment the 2.4 has over the high-spec 2.0 is climate control with ionizer (as opposed to manual air con) and a luggage net.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
I did not spend a lot of time sitting behind, so I can’t vouch for long distance comfort, but unless you’re over six foot tall, legroom and headroom should not be an issue. The Hyundai’s 2640 mm wheelbase is 20 mm longer than the CR-V’s, although the Honda is longer overall, and both cars are identical in width. However, it does gets a little dark and enveloping at the back for those who are easily claustrophobic. It’s due to the rising waistline and “coupe-style” glasshouse, but nothing can’t be solved by opening up the blinds for some natural light through the panoramic roof, which is a big wow feature in a car of this price and segment. The 591-litre boot volume is very good.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Hyundai Tucson test drive report from OmanFor the Tucson part of the test drive day, our hosts focussed a lot on off-road driving rather than on-tarmac handling. I’m not a Middle East geography expert, so I expected desert, desert and desert. However, the coastal city of Muscat (the Sultanate’s capital) and its surroundings were rocky and mountainous, providing a dramatic backdrop for the off-road drive. As a result, the moderately rugged trail we took looks tougher in pictures than it really was – very clever on Hyundai’s part!

But make no mistake, although not Land Rover grade, the route was far from a drive in the park and still required some sort of off-road talent from the Tucson. The gravel on the narrow trails were loose in many instances and there were some inclines steep enough for me to mash the throttle in hope, rather than in expectation. The standard road tyres on our test cars meant that some journos with hesitant right feet got stuck, but the entire fleet managed to complete the day without any mechanical trouble.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
The Tucson’s approach and departure angles of 28.1 and 26.9 degrees are good figures for the “soft roader” class, achieved without resorting to ugly protruding chins (that’s you, VW Tiguan!). Those angles and the 44.19 degree max climbing angle were tested (and needed) in our route. We also tried out the Tucson’s Downhill Brake Control function, which like Hill Descent Control, lets you crawl down steep declines (8 km/h) without braking. Works as claimed, unlike a similar system in a premium brand SUV that saw this writer roll down a slope so fast, his foot instinctively intervened!

The Tucson’s 4WD system is the on-demand type, sending torque to the rear wheels when it detects slip, but can be locked to split torque 50:50 between the axles. To have 4WD, you’ll have to opt for the 2.4-litre model; conversely, if you don’t want/need AWD, you’re limited to the 2.0-litre model.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Both engines belong to the Theta II family, which is a development of the “World Engine” shared between Hyundai-Kia, Mitsubishi and Chrysler. Compared to its predecessor, the Theta II gets Dual CVVT (intake and exhaust, Theta I only had intake CVVT) and a two-stage Variable Intake System (VIS) for improved performance across the rev range. To reduce friction (and fuel efficiency), Hyundai has applied a “diamond-like coating” to the top surface of the valve tappets, while oil pump pressure was optimised to achieve a better balance between durability and fuel economy. Additionally, the 2.0-litre unit is lighter than before by 10 kg.

Among the World Engine partners, Hyundai has gone the furthest in development and now has above par output figures to show for. The 2.0-litre produces 164 bhp and 197 Nm, which is much stronger than the Honda CR-V’s 148 bhp/190 Nm. The 2.4 meanwhile makes 175 bhp and 227 Nm of torque, which is on par with Honda K24A’s 178 bhp/222 Nm. Claimed fuel consumption is 11.5 km/l for the 2.0 and 10.9 km/l for the 2.4. The direct injected GDI variants of the Theta II are even more impressive in output and economy, but Hyundai won’t risk bringing them in when our fuel is still stuck at Euro 2.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Our primarily off-road drive didn’t provide a chance to extend the engine. But the same 2.4-litre unit in the Sonata YF proved to be well insulated and smooth revving. Not the strongest off the line perhaps, requiring a heavier right foot for initial acceleration, but that’s not uncommon for naturally aspirated four cylinder engines of this size, even on D-segment cars like the Accord/Camry. Our wish list would include more low end response and torque. Better still, Hyundai’s R-series 2.0 diesel with 392 Nm of twist!

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from OmanIt’s clear that the days when Korean engines played second fiddle to their Japanese counterparts are over, and they’re not stopping there. The Tucson and Sonata ship with Hyundai’s new self-developed six-speed automatic transmission, making them only one of few carmakers to have their own gearbox. Developed over a four-year period, Hyundai’s new pride and joy is claimed to be smaller and lighter than any six-speed auto in existence. It’s also 12 kg lighter than the (off the shelf) five-speed unit it replaces and contributes to 12.2% better fuel economy. The difference for us in Malaysia should be even greater, as the Tucsons and Sonatas currently running on our roads have four-speed units.

But the main headline for this transmission is that it’s maintenance free; the unit comes without a dipstick as it’s filled with fluid that’s good for the life of the vehicle. Hyundai engineers revealed that the test regime involved running the ‘box 24 hours a day for one and a half months, cycling through every ratio in the process. With that, they are confident enough to cover the gearbox with a 300,000 km warranty.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
However, for “harsh conditions” Hyundai recommends servicing the transmission every 100,000 km. What’s considered as “harsh”? If one makes trips up and down Genting Highlands every day, was the response given by Hyundai Sime-Darby. Unless there’s a sudden trend where Genting cabbies replace their trusty old Sentras for this SUV, Tucson owners should be a worry-free lot. Also, the gearbox is serviceable, which means that Hyundai can replace a particular part instead of replacing the whole unit should a problem occur. The chances of that happening is also reduced by having 62 fewer parts than before.

In practise, the gearbox is very smooth, and we didn’t feel the need to take shifts into our own hands with the Shiftronic function (no shift paddles), which is good news. A good automatic should be anonymous and unobtrusive and Hyundai’s six speeder ticks those boxes. It’s never lazy, but doesn’t feel like the snappiest and quickest ‘box around, which would be out of character anyway. Our limited test time didn’t uncover any flaws, but we’re looking forward to an extended session when the car is launched here.

Hyundai Tucson test drive report from Oman
Also needing verification on our roads is the ride quality; the smooth Omani roads didn’t pose any challenge for the Tucson, which felt rather stiffly sprung. Body roll is well resisted, but I didn’t feel totally comfortable with the electric power steering, which assistance didn’t seem to be consistent as you wind on lock. There also wasn’t much feel to the helm. It’s something owners will get used to in no time, but the CR-V’s steering feels more natural and accurate if my memory serves right.

The new Hyundai Tucson is a very strong package, offering stand out design, a stylish, well made cabin and technical competence, not to mention a lengthy equipment list, long warranty and attractive pricing (price isn’t finalised as of now; we’ll keep you updated). In Malaysia, the only prominent rival for this car is the recently refreshed Honda CR-V, and if you’re in the market for one of those, we reckon you should at least test drive the Tucson for a feel of what’s available outside the “safe zone”. Be warned, you might be surprised!

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