WHEN we reviewed Hyundai’s flagship Tucson Highlander last month, we considered it one of the most unique and impressive SUVs in the segment. But by no means should the new base model Tucson be shunned.
In fact, there are big advantages to buying the basic Tucson – even beyond the almost $12,000 you will save. Not everyone in the market for an SUV is hell bent on differentiating themselves with big wheels, sci-fi tech and an ostentatious extras package.
Of course, you need a car snazzy enough to elicit a “new car looks good” comment from other Saturday sport parents. But perhaps it should be plain enough that grass, mud and smelly band-aids can be flicked all over the upholstery without causing a cardiac arrest.
What the new Tucson delivers is the same experimental design upheaval afforded to the Highlander and Elite variants, but without the extravagance. The result is something a little whacky in style, and a fantastic family knock-about.
The reworking of the Tucson is predictably more apparent on the outside of the car. Dressed in what Hyundai call ‘parametric dynamics’, they’ve tried to probe the possibilities of SUV bodywork design with jagged geometry and the impression of slenderness.
This theme is channelled heavily into the uniquely patterned grille and integrated daytime running light arrangement, and becomes more pronounced down the side of the car with angular panel protrusions.
Design effort then suddenly peters out into a rather unimaginative rear end. That’s okay though, because it is at the tailgate where your kids can scratch the paintwork with a surfboard without fear of retribution.
On the practical side, the Tucson is fitted with automatic dusk-sensing halogen headlights, automatic folding mirrors, plastic fender surrounds, roof rails and L-plater friendly, curb-rash ready 17-inch alloy wheels.
The wheels look tacky and out of place, but as we realised later in our test drive, if you can get past the appearance there are driveability advantages to the small wheels.
The cabin of the Tucson is a nice place to be too, albeit a little sleepy. An emphasis on simplicity hasn’t robbed the Tucson of all the style seen in the higher variants.
Curved lines running from the doors and across the long, recessed air vents, a sporty leather steering wheel and thoughtful dash layout make for a modern and attractive atmosphere.
You aren’t dazzled by an excess of modern technology in the Tucson, but it hasn’t been reduced to some primitive trailer-cart either. You’re pretty spoilt with a wireless phone charging pad, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and an 8.0-inch media touchscreen.
There’s also a drive mode selector and a bunch of USB ports. As part of Hyundai’s SmartSense Safety Suite, you’ll find numerous electronic safety features go to work in case you’re distracted by your children fighting.
Blind-spot collision and forward collision avoidance systems serve as excellent checks on your driving in busy residential and city environments. For safe parking the reversing camera is clear, and the distance warning sensor is well calibrated.
Also standard on the Tucson is lane keeping assist, tyre pressure monitoring and intelligent speed limit assist, just in case you missed the sign. A descent braking assist feature has been installed, but it is more of a novelty than a useful function.
The base model Tucson does have interior shortcomings, all of which are quickly acknowledged as benefits. You’re less protective over knobs and buttons than massive cutting-edge touchscreens.
Fabric seats reduce anxiety over rips, spills, sand, and lost lollies. The instrument cluster which has been summoned directly from 2007 is somehow reassuring and pleasantly practical. Speed on a speedo, fuel on a gauge, miles on an odometer. Perfect.
If space is all you’re interested in, the longer, wider new Tucson has enough of it to subdivide and rent out. There’s big legroom in front of all five seats and a boot area large enough to transport a cow.
You might get an Esky and a gazebo in there too by folding down any one of the back seats.
Propelling the Tucson is the same 2.0-litre 4-cylinder SmartStream petrol engine that powered the Highlander. This engine, paired with a 6-speed automatic is the only option for the base model.
Unsurprisingly, power delivery is similar to the Highlander. The Tucson uses all 115kW and moves through the gears really well on the flat, and while responsiveness can sometimes be fickle, it won’t leave you hanging in the middle of an intersection.
A torque figure of just 192Nm means steep inclines are met with some defiance by the engine, but it eventually complies and gets on with it. The most significant difference in driving experience compared to the Highlander comes from the tacky 17-inch wheels.
The Tucson shares the same confident handling thanks to fairly stiff suspension, but the smaller wheels on the same 235/55 tyres make it whippier and more forgiving. It also felt a little more stable on the motorway, and easier to control past the 100km/h mark.
It doesn’t have the floaty feeling created by the Highlander’s 19-inch wheels. Lane assist, which was utterly useless in the Highlander, is at least okay in the base model, particularly if you’re wrestling against the wind.
We get the impression the system was tuned on a set of base model wheels. To top things off, the car also feels spongier over road imperfections, in a good, comfortable way.
You can drive around in the Tucson without the constant paranoia that you might destroy a rim, or anything else on the car, happily bobbing between holes and root ripples. You’ll also feel free to mount the curb for some creative parking during the busy school run.
Overall, the ride in the Tucson is what an i30 would feel like if you gave it orthotics. On top of being an excellent family car, this makes it a good candidate as a commuter for those who want something simple to drive, but bigger and safer than a hatchback.
Although the new Tucson is still yet to receive an ANCAP rating, don’t expect it fumble the 5-stars handed to the previous generation. Phenomenal braking, several electronic driver aids and seven airbags aren’t a formula for failure.
Priced at $34,500 before on roads, the Tucson is positioned directly against the basic trim, 2.0-litre automatic Toyota RAV4 and Mazda CX-5. Even so, maybe it’s biggest competitor will be the Tucson Elite variant.
If you’re already interested in a Tucson, it’ll be hard to commit to family-friendliness and resist the temptation of big wheels and leather seats for just a bit of extra cash.
Nonetheless, if you go for the base model, you’ll be buying a versatile, no-nonsense, tech-filled and cheerful SUV that’ll meet the demands of a chaotic family schedule, or keep you comfortable, safe, and frugal on a long and dreary commute.
Our test vehicle was provided by Hyundai Australia. To find out more about the 2021 Hyundai Tucson, contact your local Hyundai dealer.