Check out the Hyundai Tucson

Check out the Hyundai Tucson

Hyundai’s reputation for undercutting the competition looks increasingly attractive in a weakening economy.

In the competitive crossover segment, for example, Hyundai can offer a top-of-the-line Tucson Limited with 4-wheel drive for a base price of $24,585. That window sticker might be hard to believe once you’ve seen and driven this attractive, well-mannered sport utility imitator.

Standard equipment on the Limited is extensive, including leather upholstery, seven-speaker AM/FM stereo with six-disc CD changer and MP3 functions, power accessories, six air bags, fog lights, tire-pressure monitoring system and a number of other attractive features.

Sharing the Elantra platform with the Kia Sportage, the Tucson is a sport utility body atop a car chassis. It can go off-road but is chiefly designed for less demanding duty.

Crossovers represent a middle ground between gas-guzzling full-size SUVs and cars that lack the utilitarian functions of a ute. They also attract buyers who shun the domesticated aura of a minivan.

They tend to attract the safety-conscious, as well. Tucson boasts the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s highest five star safety rating. The compact also received top honors in J.D. Power and Associates’ Initial Quality Study in 2005.

Sold in three trim levels in a price range of $17,235 to $24,585, the Tucson is offered in front-drive or 4-wheel-drive formats.

The entry-level GLS comes with a 2 -liter inline four cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. Electronic Stability Control, traction control and ABS are standard, as are 16-inch alloy wheels, advanced front airbags, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags covering both rows of seating.

Other standard features include power windows, door locks and exterior mirrors and an 80-watt AM/FM/CD audio system. Active front head restraints are standard across all trim levels for 2008. Automatic transmission, air conditioning and cruise control are optional.

At $21,035, the SE trim in front-drive brings along a 2.7-liter, double overhead cam, V6 engine and four-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission, 16-inch double-spoke alloy wheels, fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and upgraded cloth seating surfaces. Air conditioning, cruise control and trip computer are standard.

Options on the Limited include electronically controlled four-wheel drive and a power tilt-and-slide sunroof. A front-drive Limited retails for $22,885, compared to $24,585 for the 4-wheel-drive version.

While the Tucson’s ride is generally comfortable, handling is not as crisp as that of the new Nissan Rogue’s. The V6’s 173 horses are typical for the class, but don’t expect the performance to be too spirited.

The independent suspension handles bumps without sloshing your coffee. The setup includes struts up front and multiple links in the rear, along with stabilizer bars front and rear.

The brakes on the Limited are discs with anti-lock features and electronic brake force distribution to keep the driver in control.

The Tucson’s power rack-and-pinion steering system provides a tight, 35.4-foot turning circle.

Hyundai took extra measures to dampen outside noise in the 2008 model. The interior is nice and quiet.

I appreciated the back-lit power window and door lock switches that made them easy to find in the dark. The 10-way adjustable driver’s seat and tilt-adjustable steering column are unusual in this price range. The Tucson’s trip computer, standard in SE and Limited trims, includes two trip modes, each with information relating to mpg, distance to empty, drive time and average speed.

The standard 60/40-split fold-down rear seatback allows you to expand the cargo capacity of the Tucson. The seats fold down with the release of a single lever, and you don’t have to remove or adjust the headrests. The front passenger seatback can fold flat either forward or backward, adding more cargo capability.

I appreciated the fact that the lift gate has two modes. You can open just the glass or the whole gate, and the release for each is clearly labeled.

Three bag hooks help secure your groceries, and you can take additional security measures with six flush-mount metal tie-down anchor points and six cargo net mounting points.

Beneath the load floor is a sectionalized storage area with the spare tire below. Other storage bins can be found throughout the vehicle. A two-tier front storage console comes with a two-position padded armrest with two cupholders and two more in each door pocket. The rear armrest also has a cupholder that can hold juice boxes.

While Hyundai has put a lot of years between its early quality problems and its current reputation, the South Korean maker continues to offer one of the best warranties in the business.

The Tucson comes with five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper protection, 10-year/100,000-mile limited power train warranty and seven-year/unlimited mileage anti-perforation coverage. Buyers also get free 24-hour roadside assistance for five years.

WHAT’S NEW: Active head restraints; new leather interior; XM Satellite Radio free for three months.

PLUSES: Value, standard equipment, safety.

MINUSES: Somewhat vague handling; modest power.

BOTTOM LINE: Very attractive value.

(Richard Williamson writes about automobiles for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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