2014 Tucson combines style, affordability

The styling of the Hyundai Tucson has similarities
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The styling of the Hyundai Tucson has similarities to the Elantra and Sonata sedans. Light-pipe LED accents are available around the headlights, while LED taillights are optional.(Credit: Hyundai)

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The 2014 Hyundai Tucson is a stylish, comfortable, surprisingly agile little SUV, but its size deficiency, mediocre gas mileage and worrisome crash-test ratings keep it from being a top choice.

Small sport utility vehicles continue to climb in popularity, and it's no secret why. Cars like the new 2014 Hyundai Tucson provide the fuel economy of a compact car with the space of a tall station wagon, combined with the commanding outward view of a pickup truck.

Hyundai has updated its compact SUV for the 2014 model year, giving it some new direct-injection four-cylinder engines, new shock absorbers, standard Bluetooth, a reclining rear seat, LED accent lighting and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.

Exterior & Styling
The new Tucson doesn't look all that different from the prior model, aside from some new wheels and a slight revision to the grille. Hyundai instead chose to spend its money inside and under the hood, on equipment and engines.

The styling is still fresh, following the Hyundai family look with similarities to the Elantra and Sonata sedans. Light-pipe LED accents are available around the headlights, while LED taillights are optional. The vehicle tested was a loaded Tucson Limited, and the included LED lights really added some pizzazz to the tail end. The Tucson looks good overall; it's not as edgy as a Ford Escape or as butch as a Nissan Rogue, but it's a clean design that will neither excite nor offend.

How It Drives

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Updates for 2014 bring two revised engines to the party. Standard is a 164-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that comes in the base GLS trim. Upgrading to an SE or Limited will earn you the more powerful 182-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Both are mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission, with either standard front- or optional all-wheel drive. Power numbers are up slightly from the previous year thanks to the addition of direct injection, and the result is brisk acceleration without sacrificing fuel economy. Initial accelerator response is a bit jerky, throwing passengers back in their seats until you get used to it. There's a bit of torque steer, as well, causing the steering wheel to pull left or right if you push hard on the gas from a stop. But with the smooth-shifting transmission and plentiful power, the Tucson never feels slow or ponderous, even with three full-size humans in it.

Ride and handling are astonishingly good. The Tucson drives like a larger, more expensive vehicle than it is. It's quiet around town and under acceleration, with wind noise on the highway the only noticeable fault. Bumps are soaked up with minimal disturbance, with only some choppy motions on truly broken highway pavement upsetting the ride. It rides better than the skittish Ford Escape but isn't quite as sophisticated as the Rogue's big-car feel. Handling is tight; the Tucson feels nimble and quick, easily manageable in city traffic, and easy to park in a lot or on the street. In this class, however, quick handling is becoming increasingly common: the Escape, Rogue, Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V all handle well.

The Tucson's gas mileage is not best-in-class; the front-wheel-drive Tucson reviewed is EPA rated at 21/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined. In comparison, the Ford Escape — with its much more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine option — is rated 22/30/25 mpg. The Toyota RAV4 nets 24/31/26 mpg and the surprisingly miserly, yet fun-to-drive, Nissan Rogue comes in at 26/33/28 mpg (all figures are for front-wheel-drive models).

Interior
The most recent update to the Tucson brought a full interior upgrade, bringing it up to the latest level of Hyundai goodness, and it puts the little truck solidly among the segment's top competitors for comfort, style, utility and quality. The step-in height is surprisingly high, but the Tucson doesn't feel like a high-riding car. The seats are flat but comfortable over long trips, and they feel larger than those in the Escape (but not as supportive as those in the Rogue). Switches are well-laid-out, and everything is easy to use and easy to reach. Visibility is good in all directions except to the rear, where the belt line's stylish upturn results in small windows. This makes backing up challenging, especially if your Tucson doesn't have a backup camera, which isn't standard until you get up to the Limited trim.

The loaded test vehicle also had an optional panoramic moonroof, which, when open, creates an amazingly light and airy feel in the cabin. The rear seats have decent width and headroom, even with the moonroof, and legroom is plentiful. The Tucson has more listed rear legroom than any competitor mentioned here, but the numbers seem hard to believe. While the Tucson feels more spacious in back than a RAV4 or Escape, the Rogue feels like it has much more rear legroom than the Tucson. This may be an example of manufacturers not using the same criteria to measure legroom, as we have already demonstrated is the case regarding cargo capacity. The only blemish on the very nice interior is the rear-window wiper motor, which is ridiculously loud and sounds like a sick cow when in operation.

Ergonomics & Electronics
Hyundai has made the latest version of its Blue Link app manager standard in the Tucson Limited, and my test vehicle came with the optional Technology Package, which includes a 7-inch touch-screen, navigation, premium audio and more.

Blue Link is easy to use but poorly organized; the home screen in particular is packed with icons that are difficult to find on the fly. Navigation is easy to use — inputing data is a trouble-free experience — but the map itself needs an update: A rerouting of U.S. 24 through northern Indiana that was finished several years ago still doesn't appear in its present location on the navigation system. Bluetooth streaming audio is standard on the Limited, and my iPhone paired up without a problem.

Cargo & Storage

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There's adequate room in the Tucson for bringing along a good-size suitcase plus a small duffel or two, but this car maximizes passenger space, not cargo room. It's a smaller car than its competitors, and it shows in the numbers: while the Tucson has 102 cubic feet of passenger room versus 98 in the Escape, 101 in the RAV4, and 100 in the two-row Rogue, it has just 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row, as opposed to 34.3 in the Escape, 38.4 in the RAV4, and 39.3 in the Rogue. Fold the rear seats down, and the deficit gets even bigger: You get only 55.8 cubic feet of cargo space in the Tucson, versus 67.8 in the Escape, 73.4 in the RAV4, and 70.0 in the Rogue. That's a difference that's noticeable in normal use.

Safety
Crash-test ratings aren't so hot for the Tucson. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Tucson a four-star safety rating overall, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted some front-impact issues, giving the Tucson a rating of poor in several categories, including overall front-crash safety. See the results of the organization's crash tests here and a list of the Tucson's standard and optional safety equipment here.

Value in Its Class
One area in which the Tucson shines is bang for the buck. A base Tucson GLS starts at $22,325, which is $1,670 less than the cheapest Ford Escape, more than $2,000 less than the cheapest Toyota RAV4 and about $1,300 less than the least expensive Nissan Rogue. The loaded Limited model started at $27,075 but added the Technology Package for $2,650 (which includes navigation and the panoramic moonroof). Once you add floormats and take into account package discounts, the total for the tested front-drive Tucson Limited was $29,835. Going the all-wheel-drive route would tack on another $1,500. Build a Tucson your way here.

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