When the Hyundai Tucson first arrived on the CUV scene in 2005, Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4 had already started the party, but it was beginning to wind up. Designed to fill the Santa Fe's niche -- allowing that vehicle to move upmarket -- the Tucson became the Hyundai of choice for those who wanted the appearance of a sport/utility vehicle, but the on-road feel of a compact car.
Loosely based on the Elantra platform, the Tucson was actually a bit longer than the outgoing Santa Fe; it also looked reasonably stylish and had more interior room, if not cargo space. When we first drove the Tucson in 2005, we found it more refined than the Santa Fe, albeit a bit soft, with somewhat slow, numb steering and lackluster acceleration -- even with the V-6. While editors deemed the Tucson to be well screwed together with no untoward squeaks or rattles, the materials felt cheap and the cabin layout uninspired. In essence, it was a good "Point A to Point B" vehicle, but not much more.
Unfortunately, four years of aging hasn't done much to improve the Tucson. While Hyundai as a company has risen by leaps and bounds over the past four years, the Tucson as a model hasn't. And for that, it is undeniably part of the "old Hyundai" -- a simple budget offering without grander pretensions. At first glance, the Tucson's styling hasn't yet become dated, but it's not particularly fresh, either. Seating yourself inside only confirms this feeling. Just as in 2005, only by looking at the spec sheet of our 2009 Hyundai Tucson AWD Limited tester could we tell the seat upholstery was actually real leather and not vinyl. Even with the upscale Limited trim level, the interior feels Spartan, with a simple aluminum-look trim surround on the center stack as the only element to break up swaths of hard, tan plastic. Still, the cabin is relatively spacious, and the light materials and ample greenhouse convey an airy atmosphere -- especially with the sunroof open.
Even though remote keyless entry, foglamps, a premium six-disc XM stereo, and automatic climate control find their way to the Limited trim level, a couple features we'd expect in a $26,000 CUV are notably absent -- no Bluetooth and no multi-function steering wheel, for example. There is an auxiliary input on the center stack to connect iPods and the like. The Tucson's heated front seats are quite high, giving good visibility but also making the driver feel rather isolated from the driving experience. Both front seats in our tester offered full manual adjustment.