Hyundai plans to be one of the world's five largest automakers by 2010, up from seventh. Part of its growth strategy is a bigger, "aspirational" 2006 Santa Fe that makes room in the lineup for the new, smaller Tucson. The Elantra-sedan-based crossover is just 170.3 inches long, with a crude 140-horsepower, cast-iron-block 2.0-liter I-4 or a 173-horsepower, 2.7-liter aluminum-block V-6. Both offer continuously variable valve timing and front- or all-wheel drive (which Hyundai calls Torque-on-Demand 4WD). Both will use a four-speed automatic, and a five-speed manual is available with the four.
The preproduction V-6s we drove were tight and well-built, with a crowd-pleasing list of standard features. Plastics remain among the cheapest in the industry, however, and the leather seats might as well be vinyl. As for the dynamics, we were neither disappointed nor delighted. The V-6 makes just 12 and 13 more horsepower, respectively, than the four-cylinder engines of chief competitors Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V; the Hyundai is also heavier than both, so it's not exactly peppy. The suspension is soft and will inspire drivers to reach for the brakes, which have excellent grip and feel, early in the corners. The attractive Tucson is an improvement over the ungainly Santa Fe and is among Hyundai's best-built models, but it only incrementally raises Hyundai's status as an automaker (despite recent positive J.D. Power initial quality ratings). On the other hand, that Hyundai has any status is something no one would've predicted five years ago.