2016 Hyundai Tucson: First Drive

Neal Pollack

What Is It: Five-seat car-based sport utility vehicle, in front or all-wheel-drive

Price: $22,700 — $34,050. 

Competitors: Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Subaru Forester

Alternatives: Mazda CX-5, Nissan Rogue, Jeep Cherokee.

Pros: Advanced safety features if you’re willing to pay up to $10,000 for them; sizable cargo space.

Cons: Generic, sluggish.

Car press launches usually have the upbeat aura of a corporate motivational seminar, especially in the last few years, as business booms and short memories forget the sins of the past. Sales are up, the future is bright, and we will rule the roads forever. By contrast, the launch of the 2016 Hyundai Tucson felt like a wake, or at least a hangover brunch. 

We learned that Hyundai, a company born to sell decent mid-priced sedans, is falling behind. In a marketplace where 56 percent of all vehicles sold are trucks or SUVs of some flavor, Hyundai’s family haulers — the Hyundai Tucson, the Santa Fe, and the Santa Fe Sport — are actually down nearly 15 percent. 

“We don’t have enough production, we don’t have enough vehicles,” said a beleaguered-looking Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai’s North American CEO. “One in three new vehicles sold are CUVs [crossover utility vehicles]. People just don’t think of Hyundai.”

With that cheery start, they introduced the new 2016 Hyundai Tucson, it’s hoped-for rebound. Hyundai expects to sell 90,000 of them next year, Zuchowski said. Their factory in the Czech Republic is working overtime to churn out the Tucson. Who doesn’t want a Korean truck-car made in Eastern Europe? 

Those ambitious sales predictions might come true. But all the massive growth in family sport utilities is coming from the sub-segment of smaller models. Cars like the Honda HR-V, the Subaru XV Crosstrek, and the Mazda CX-3 are poised to dot the strip malls of America. In its previous generation, the Tucson was lapped by the competition; Hyundai moved 47,000 last year, compared to Honda’s 335,019 CR-Vs. Saying you’re going to really start competing now in that arena is like saying, “well, I’ve got a tennis racket, so I’m just going to bop off to Forest Hills for the weekend to beat Serena Williams.” 

The new Tucson comes with a carryover base 2-liter engine, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that generates 164 hp, and an average 21 mpg city/26 mpg highway/23 mpg combined in all-wheel-drive trim. For the upper trims, there’s also a 1.6-liter turbo four that gets 175 hp and 24 mpg/28 mpg/26 mpg combined. It comes with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission that seems a little superfluous but also worked fine. The fuel economy numbers best some of its competitors but not the whole pack; the AWD versions of the Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V get 28 mpg combined and 32-33 mpg on the highway. (Front-wheel-drive cars in all models are more efficient, and Hyundai does offer an “Eco” front-wheel-drive trim with 29 mpg combined.) The Tucson would really benefit from a hybrid model, though it does come in a hard-to-find but still innovative fuel-cell edition. 

On higher trims, you get a panoramic roof, and on all trims you get an additional 5.3 cubic feet of storage space, including a cargo floor that can be raised or lowered based on the size of the plants you buy at Lowe’s. A rear camera comes standard, while fancier safety features like automatic braking, blind-spot detection and pedestrian detection don’t but should. The “ultimate package,” which gets the car into the $34,000 range, is the only way to land those necessary options.

The Hyundai presentation heavily emphasized high-strength steel and structural improvements in the new model. What it didn’t mention was that those changes added weight; the new car is somewhere between 100 lbs. and 270 lbs. heavier than the old one. Not surprisingly, the Tucson isn’t fun to drive. The carryover engine makes a lot of noise. And even though Hyundai says they took interior design instructions from JFK’s terminal 5, it feels generic inside. None of that is disqualifying, or even necessarily a handicap, in the family SUV market. Only one thing is: To paraphrase “Marathon Man,” a movie you haven’t seen if you’re under 40 years old, “Is it safe?”

Well, during our afternoon drive, a UPS truck barreled around a blind turn straight toward us, forcing me to swerve onto the shoulder. Thanks to excellent traction control, the Tucson kept its balance, and it lane-corrected me back into the straightaway. Five years ago, before a lot of the technology baked into this car was available, that might have been a very dangerous, possibly fatal situation. The center held, and I was grateful.

But the definition of safety is changing rapidly as cars evolve. Hyundai positions itself as an industry tech leader. “Tucson embodies athletic design and advanced technology,” they say. Leaving any “athletic design” cracks behind, this is true by the incredibly slow development standards of integrated car tech. The car has a voice-activated Google search and an in-dash Yelp app, representing the very cutting edge of 2013 driver distractedness.

That’s where the safety problem comes in. Lane-departure warnings and automatic cruise control is great, but carmakers shouldn’t be encouraging their customers to do Google searches and read restaurant reviews while driving. Maybe the 2017 edition will offer me a distracting Facebook “year in review” video feature, complete with jingle, as well. 

At a lunch stop, a representative was handing out Apple watches. Hyundai has a feature where you can remote lock and unlock your car via the watch, as long as the watch is accompanied by your phone. Since it wasn’t, Hyundai had to give me an extra phone as well. I managed to get the car unlocked once and managed to make the lights blink once. The rest of my attempts to use this groundbreaking technological advancement breakthrough failed, because it was a rainy day and I was in the middle of rural Wisconsin. When it comes to the Hyundai Tucson, the future appears to still be running a little behind.