THE latest addition to our long-term fleet barely had a chance to get its 19-inch Continentals comfortable in the car park before it was passed over for something quite a bit faster, sexier and way more licence-endangering.
Ponch’s long-term Mercedes-AMG C63 S needed a home for a few weeks and I couldn’t resist the lure of its almost satanic twin-turbo V8.
The first few days passed in a frenzy of monster torque locked in brutal battle with sticky Michelins, and just a little spinal tap courtesy of the ultra-firm ride. Which is to say everything was going perfectly, right up until the power steering failed. Have you ever tried to extract yourself from an underground car park on 245/45 front tyres with unassisted steering? Wrestling a polar bear would be less strenuous.
I nursed the C63 to the local Benz dealership and, sweatier than James Brown’s jock strap, collapsed into the cool embrace of the Hyundai Tucson. And I’ve gotta say the transition was entirely painless. I love a good super-sedan as much as the next power junkie, but there’s something about driving an angry 700Nm German sledgehammer around my neighbourhood that makes me think of shooting ducks with a grenade launcher.
The Tucson, on the other hand, is a study in practical, affordable, family friendly motoring. And a damn handsome one. The crisp lines, short overhangs and sharply tapered glasshouse make this, I’d argue, Hyundai’s best-looking car. It’s far more masculine than the slightly androgynous Hyundai ix35 it replaces, without being excessively boofy or cartoonish.
My only question is: Did VW receive a royalty cheque for the wheel design? These 19s bear a striking resemblance to the optional ‘axe-head’ design offered on recent Volkswagen Golf GTI models. Just wondering.
The Highlander diesel is the most expensive Tucson model in the range, offered only with a six-speed torque-convertor auto. Our paint is a basic white, not a metallic that would have added $595, which exhausts the options list in one fell box-tick.
Opting for the turbo-petrol 1.6 Highlander with seven-speed dual-clutch would have saved $2000, or you can stick with the diesel and pocket more than $5K by dropping one spec level to the Elite CRDi at $40,240.
I’m glad that’s not a choice we had to make because the extra gear the Highlander brings is nice to have. Both front seats are fully electric in their adjustment, and have both heating and cooling functions. I’m finding the three-position cooling fan especially welcome, particularly if, for example, you’ve worked up a sweat trying to manoeuvre a Mercedes-AMG with no power steering.
The glass roof makes the rear-seat accommodation feel extra light and spacious, while the electric tailgate with its hands-free operation (you just stand behind it for three seconds with the key in your pocket) is a brilliant feature I’d hate to be without.
I’ve become a fan of digital radio and that’s one thing I miss in the Tucson.
The touchscreen’s graphics feel a bit dated, but its functionality, and that of the navigation, is excellent.
The only other let-down is the slightly dour and non-premium interior materials. There’s too much hard plastic, slabby door-trims and unlined storage bins for a top-spec model. It’s a shame because I can’t fault the ergonomics, and we know Hyundai can do materials and finishes better than this.
It’s in the driving, though, that the Tucson hammers home just how far the Koreans have progressed in recent years, and the dynamic dividends that have come from local suspension and steering development. The Tucson may not be quite class-leading, as our SUV comparison review in the November issue proved, but it’s so close as to not really be a factor in general driving. The bottom line is it steers fluently, rides with real compliance (even on the 19s) and has good body control and damping, despite being on the heavy side at 1744kg.
Ponch’s AMG may have the shock-and-awe elements sewn up, and the power steering failure was quickly sorted. But so far the Tucson’s great blend of functionality, spaciousness and coherent driving qualities has put me in a place where shock and awe aren’t crucial to satisfaction.
Hitting the wall
There was considerable wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth at Hyundai Australia when the Tucson emerged from its ANCAP crash test with just four stars. The company’s internal testing suggested it would get a five-star rating without a problem. An engineering change was quickly implemented and all cars built from late-November now have the essential five-star rating.
Sexy sister act
It was a bit like dating a pretty girl only to meet her stunning sister. I made the mistake of browsing the Hyundai US website and saw that its top-spec version, called Limited, has all the desirable stuff missing from our Highlander; a far more premium-looking interior, including leather-trimmed dash top, high-spec audio system with centre channel and subwoofer, and internet radio. Hyundai’s local product planners asked the question of their Korean bosses, but computer said ‘no.’
Hyundai Tucson Highlander CRDi
Price as tested: $45,490
Part 1: 1134km @ 12.2L/100km
Overall: 1134km @ 12.2L/100km
Date acquired: January 2016