Price range: from RM129,990 to RM142,632 (excluding insurance)
Availability: Now
Assembled in: Kedah, Malaysia
Tech Highlights: 1999 cc 4-cylinder petrol DOHC 16-valve petrol engine with variable valve timing and direct injection, 155 ps/192 Nm, 6-speed automatic transmission (torque converter), multi-link rear suspension, front-wheel drive

These days, you hear mostly good things about Korean cars. And they are justified because the Korean car companies have really taken a big step forward in the quality and design of their cars and personally, I am increasingly impressed with the standard of the current crop of models from Korea.

The Tucson, which has been around for some time now, is an example of how Korean cars and Hyundai products in particular, have evolved. It started off as a rather plain SUV in 2004 and was Hyundai’s first compact model in the segment that was growing (and the growth has accelerated in recent years).  Then came the second generation in 2009 which was a radical change as it was one of the first models to use the ‘Fluidic Sculpture’. Much of the design was done at Hyundai’s European studio under the guidance of a former BMW designer and it certainly had head-turning looks.

But for the third generation, which is the current one introduced last year, it seemed that the designers have toned down on the radical styling approach. Even though it is supposed to have the second generation of the Fluidic Sculpture design philosophy, the latest model looks more ‘mainstream’ and doesn’t stand out like its predecessor.

It’s grown in size a bit to increase cabin space, and the chassis also has a new suspension layout. Only one powertrain is available for this market now, which is the well-proven Nu 2.0-litre MPi petrol engine with direct fuel-injection. Although this is a SUV, the 155 ps/192 Nm output goes only to the front wheels through a 6-speed SHIFTRONIC torque converter automatic transmission. These days, many companies don’t offer all-wheel drive variants to keep the prices low and customers don’t really care anyway.

There are two variants available, both assembled locally at the Inokom plant in Kedah, and my experience with the more expensive Executive variant proved to be quite an enjoyable one.

This was partly due to the greater sense of ‘solidity’ that I did felt was different from the previous generation. This would have come from the increased use of Advanced High Strength steel and more extensive use of hot-stamping methods for greater rigidity. The structure also uses 4-point bushing mounts for improved comfort and reduced road noise.

The 2-litre engine is not new to me but it still moved the Tucson surprisingly quickly, perhaps because of its relatively low kerb weight. While the transmission may not be the quickest or smoothest around, it manages to do a good job of selecting gears and rarely feels like it’s ‘hunting’ for the right gear. Manual gear selection is available for those who prefer a more spirited drive, and the engine is eager enough to make things entertaining.

The only thing negative point I found was that the engine seemed rather thirsty. In spite of its modern design and features, it still consumed fuel at a higher rate that other current 2-litre engines even though I was not pushing it hard. This thirstiness also seems evident in the Santa Fe which I tested last year as the fuel tank ran very low on a long-distance run to JB (had to refuel to be on the safe side).

I don’t often find a SUV that handles well and it’s something owners have to live with. Some SUVs have a better suspension set-up and some don’t. In the case of the Tucson, I would say it’s somewhere in the middle. Competent but could still do with some fine-tuning.

Despite this, the Tucson is still quite enjoyable to drive hard on twisty roads. The steering is surprisingly quick and responsive, although some feel disappears when you approach the limit of grip. It doesn’t feel particularly heavy or hefty as you make quick directional changes, with body roll kept nicely in check. 

The suspension may be revised with new dual arms at the rear giving better wheel location, but the damper settings leave something to be desired. I don’t know if the European settings were adopted without considering Malaysian road conditions but even around town, the ride is somewhat harsh, taking speedbumps uncomfortably. Perhaps ride quality was sacrificed in sharpening the handling and in fact, Hyundai does state that the suspension set-up is 20% stiffer than before.

Interior space is impressive and while the design of the previous generation had some impact on rear headroom, the new one doesn’t. Legroom is in ample supply even with 2 tall passengers up front and the boot space is also generous compared to other SUVs in the same class.

The test unit came with the Audio Visual Navigator system which is essentially the touchscreen head unit found in the other high spec models in Hyundai’s range. Cruise control is also provided, and these days, I find it is a welcome feature on highways even though I once questioned its value. Some people dislike the electronic parking brake that is new with this generation, but I find it convenient as all it requires is a light pull with one finger.

The Korean brands are still on the offensive in their efforts to catch up with Japanese brands so they still have to give more and charge less. The pricing of the Tucson puts it somewhere in the middle of the pack of C-segment SUVs and for those who want value for their money, it’s worth considering.

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[Chips Yap]

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