HYUNDAI know the Tucson sells, particularly its Highlander variant. Last year the smart looking third generation was the fourth highest selling SUV in the world, and in Australia it’s their best performer behind only the i30.
With the new fourth generation, you’d understand if Hyundai played it safe, retained the clean lines and sensible SUV predictability, and trusted that the people would continue to buy.
But what Hyundai also know is that the mid-sized SUV market is full, and everything is getting a bit stale.
So instead of the safe bet, they’ve turned the Tucson into an experiment, touting a pioneering package of futuristic styling, advanced technology, and unique emotional appeal.
The base model, now known simply as the Tucson, Elite, and Highlander variants have all undergone a personality shift courtesy of Hyundai’s ‘Sensuous Sportiness’ design ambitions.
With exclusive styling, tech, and performance features, it’s the top of the range Highlander model that allows you to experience the full extent of Hyundai’s Tucson experiment – a so-called revolution for the SUV market.
We spent a week with the new Highlander, and we were quick to sign up to the cause.
Stepping into the Highlander’s cabin is a bit like assuming a seat on Virgin Galactic. At once it is minimal, extraordinarily well equipped, and has an exciting but familiar level of futurism.
Particularly at night, the vivid 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster and panoramic glass roof blend with the arcing door lines and white leather upholstery to continue a somewhat cosmic feel.
Meanwhile the consolidation of almost all the car’s features into a central touchscreen panel help you focus on the task of driving, while still giving you a raft of advanced tech at your disposal.
The Highlander has all the technology you’d expect in a modern SUV, from sophisticated navigation to seamless smartphone connectivity and charging options. More impressive is the innovative model-specific technology.
Blind-spot monitors synchronised with indicating make for super safe merging and turning.
The remarkably clear, and genuinely useful 360-degree birds-eye view monitor paired with various parking cameras can help even the most hopeless reverse parker avoid the panel beaters.
The premium BOSE sound system is as good as car audio gets, and the fun factor is further enhanced by the heated steering wheel and seats.
Adjusting audio, climate and drive settings to your preferences via the futuristic touchscreen is easy enough to be done by the family dog, but doing so still gives you the smugness of a highly tech-savvy person.
Space in the Highlander is abundant, thanks to both thoughtful design and a longer wheelbase than the previous generation Tucson. The rear seats can comfortably carry three adults, with decent leg room available.
The cavernous boot area is big enough to take all your household possessions on a camping trip, and loading up is easy thanks to the automatic tailgate. Compared to its puffy beginnings and rather orderly mid-life, its new exterior look is magnificent.
Hyundai have managed to turn an inherently bulbous body type into something aggressively beautiful and properly distinctive.
From the front grille which looks like a campus sculpture at RMIT to the lesson in angles on the side of car, the Highlander has a mathematical yet radical flare the Europeans would have a hard time matching.
The hidden DRL’s embedded in the unique grille, LED reflector headlights and chrome trimming give the Highlander a more commanding and elusive road presence than its subordinates. The front of the car also appears low and planted despite its size.
Although the square profile on the wheel arches means the space is dying to be filled, the unconventional but attractive 19-inch alloy wheels do a good job, while adding to the experimental feel of the car. Things do come a little unstuck at the rear though.
It feels like one designer has had a Range Rover Evoque in mind while the other was oddly thinking about Peugeot 3008. Despite the confusion, the back end still looks sporty and assertive, and the LED taillight arrangement is prettier than a Christmas light display.
While Hyundai have gone all out with technology and styling, they didn’t forget the Tucson Highlander is a mid-sized SUV that should be easy to drive through suburbia, and comfortable enough for a drive up the coast for the long weekend.
On both these fronts the car delivers. The ride is surprisingly firm, which makes for saloon-like handling. Through residential chicanes the car feels agile, staying nice and flat without any dreaded SUV wobble.
The Highlander is also happy tackling long, drawn-out corners. Nicely balanced steering, and a well-tuned MacPherson setup and front-wheel drive system allow you to slide through bends with relative precision.
When overtaking at high speed on the motorway the car feels too floaty though, but settles into a nice rhythm as a middle-lane cruiser. Despite the firm ride comfort isn’t compromised either.
Big compressions on poorly maintained roads were absorbed very well, and it bobs over carpark speedhumps without a fuss. In bad weather the car remains composed and grippy, reserving traction control only for when it’s absolutely necessary.
The FWD Highlander has mild off-road abilities in that it can gnaw through soggy grass and sludgy dirt but anything more serious would be best left for the AWD diesel variant. Overall, the drive is smooth, endlessly comfortable and graceful in most settings.
One hurdle to settled travelling is lane assist, which is best set to ‘warning’ or turned off to avoid any steering interference.
The fact is the system can’t make sense of real-world corners, and its obsession with staying centred often translates into oversteer for which it then overcorrects.
Our test vehicle was powered by a multi-point injection 2.0-litre 4-cylinder petrol engine, producing 115kW and 192Nm of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission. Performance isn’t mind-blowing but what’s available can be put to good use.
Power is best sent to the wheels in ‘Normal’ driving mode. Eco improves fuel economy but is sluggish, and the car has a tendency to rev out in a panic in Sport mode. Normal mode is calm and convincing, and punchy enough for an SUV.
Without much torque the little 2.0-litre has to dig deep at times, but we found no major issues scooting over the hills of North Sydney. The 2021 Hyundai Tucson Highlander is priced at $46,000 plus on-roads, a tad more expensive than its predecessor.
Even at the higher end of the reasonably priced mid-SUV’s, the new Tucson Highlander is still exceptional value for money. No doubt it will continue to sell in droves, and buying one could be seen as a bold move.
While this car won’t feel like a rare classic, it will give you the sense that you’ve joined an important club – a club of people who didn’t buy the most expensive SUV for status, or the cheapest one because of excessive thrift.
Instead, you’ll be a deemed someone that has used their initiative. Someone that has bought something truly interesting, undeniably distinctive, and ambitiously fun in a dull, saturated market.
And when it is only you sitting at the lights in a Highlander, beside the timid Tiguan and childlike Sportage – then you’ll feel set apart.
Our test vehicle was provided by Hyundai Australia. To find out more about the 2021 Hyundai Tucson Highlander, contact your local Hyundai dealer.