Payne: Nerdy Hyundai Tucson dresses up

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Hell must be freezing over. I’m recommending SUVs.

I worship at the altar of physics. A car with a low center of gravity is optimum. If not the road-hugging-if-space-limited sports coupes I own, then a four-door sedan. The lower the center of gravity, the better the car’s handling and reactions when you find yourself in extreme conditions: A sudden swerve, a wet mountain descent. Lower center of gravity also benefits aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Need cargo space? Buy a hatchback.

Sport utes defy my physics textbook. They totter in the air, half-a-foot higher than sedans. They are the auto kingdom’s water buffalo: Heavier, less nimble, and requiring more grassland to feed. Take the Subaru XV Crosstrek I reviewed last week compared to the Subaru Impreza hatch. They are the exact same vehicle except the Crosstrek sits 4 inches higher, gulps more fuel, and makes the Impreza feel like you’re driving a Porsche.

And yet I’ve been recommending utes like Slow’s Bar BQ to foodies.

I’d consult my racing buddies about my apparent insanity, but half of them are driving SUVs to the track. What gives? There is method to my madness. Begin with the fact that sport utes have rendered station wagons all but extinct. In the wagons’ absence, ute hatchbacks are the most versatile cargo haulers on the lot. What’s more most SUVs now sit on unibody car chassis, making them more nimble than their body-on-rail, truck-based ancestors. And as ute chassis have followed cars, so have their body styles. Today’s Ford Escape looks like Maria Sharapova next to its boxy, 2012 predecessor.

Which is why the Escape’s mid-size ute segment is the hottest thing this side of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Which is why I’m recommending the Jeep Cherokee to my neighbor on the physical therapy table. He likes Jeeps. He doesn’t need three-rows. He’s got bad knees (been there) and balks at bending down into sedans.

Which is why I just gave my friend, Judy, a walk around this week’s review: The handsome, all-new Hyundai Tucson. I admit that when she first asked what car she should get I said a Mazda Miata. Judy’s sporty after all. But when she looked at me like I had just recommended she try cliff diving, I also realized she’s a sixty-something and prioritizes practical things like cargo versatility and visibility.

Physics has to live with convenience.

Judy loves the higher seating position of the Tucson — and not just because she’s 5-foot-2. The ute is infinitely easier to slide into compared to her Honda Accord sedan. Last weekend I ate with middle-aged friends at a Japanese restaurant — it took us all five minutes to get up off the Tatami mats.

The 2016 Tucson’s looks have also bloomed. While no Miata, the Tucson’s raked windshield, streamlined stance, and sculpted dash make it a class hotty. Like the Genesis luxury sedan, the Tucson continues Hyundai’s run of pleasing designs including the Sonata and Tucson’s midsize SUV sibling, the Santa Fe.

Sure, Hyundai is derivative. The Genesis is an Audi knock-off and the Tucson borrows its face from the Ford Edge. But, hey – like Ford’s Fusion taking its grill inspiration from Aston Martin, at least the Korean maker has the good sense to ape the best.

The brand once known only for class-leading affordability and a 10-year/100,000 drivetrain warranty (yes, wow) has grown into so much more. Yet Hyundai hasn’t forgotten its roots. The handsome, $23,595 base, front-wheel-drive Tucson SE is still one of the cheapest in class (along with precocious cousin Kia Sportage), yet doesn’t look the part.

Throw on essential all-wheel-drive for our brutal winters, and only the homelier, standard-all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester is a better bargain.

Even where the SE comes up short — its 2.0-liter engine can’t keep up with competitors’ 2.5-liter mills — refinement comes to its rescue. Extensive upgrades of body mounts, bushings, adhesives, and other engineering tricks throw a blanket over the buzzy four-banger.

The hushed interior punches several classes above its weight. I’ve taken to showing folks photos of Audi and Tucson dashes and asking them which is which. So tasteful is Hyundai’s use of simple lines, matte-black buttons, and aluminum-trim that you have to squint to confirm it’s not wrapped in luxury leather.

The insides are festooned with smartly-located cubbies for that plus-sized phone — a trend the Lexus RX350 (double the Tucson’s price) is apparently unaware of. The Tucson complements the cubbies with a USB charger and twin driver-passenger 12V ports — even the gearshift looks hip with a leather sleeve hiding the shift gate.

Around back, the Hyundai is crisp and stylish. Indeed, I defy you to distinguish the arse of many of the SUVs in this class — Escape, Cherokee, Audi — from the other.

Helping our son move, Mrs. Payne and I stuffed the Tucson to the rafters. Boxes, books, clothes, shoes, the kitchen sink. Despite its redesign, the Hyundai still falls well short of class leaders like the Forester and Toyota RAV-4 in interior cargo room — yet the Tucson loads easily courtesy of its fold-flat seats while stowing a full spare tire under the floor.

The SE’s a competent, utilitarian base model. But can it be upgraded to do tricks?

The Mazda CX-5 offers a nifty button so you can flatten second-row seats from the rear. The Escape allows you to raise the back hatch by kicking the rear bumper if your arms are loaded with groceries, small children, and ... well, so does the Tucson. Hover behind an upper trim Hyundai with an armful of groceries and the “Smart Power Liftgate” reads the key fob in your pocket and opens.

The trick is a prelude to the boatload of features (including a more powerful turbo-4) that can dress a Tucson Limited in an all-leather, all-LED wardrobe costing $32,195.

Hyundai calls its little ute “Tucson” because it wants me to daydream of the rugged outdoors of Arizona where utes climb sheer rock faces and hurdle rocks on the way back down. Nonsense. Judy’ll sooner go cliff-diving than I’ll explore the Outback in this thing. That marketing machismo used to turn me off of utes, too.

Not anymore. Hell has frozen over. Save your knees. Load your arms with groceries. And stuff a cute trucklet to the rafters.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

Vehicle specs

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $23,595 ($23,720 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4; 1.6-liter, turbocharged inline-4

Power: 164 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 175 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque (turbo)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.1 seconds (Car & Driver estimate)

Weight: 3,186 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (2.0-liter FWD); EPA 24 mpg city/28 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (turbo AWD)

Report card

Highs: Ugly duckling no more ... yet still a cheap date

Lows: 2.0-liter underwhelms next to competitors ... as does cargo room


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★