How much are cute-ute buyers willing to pay? Hyundai aims to find out by offering the 2019 Tucson with a new unbadged (so discreet!) “Ultimate” trim level. As cute-ute money grabs go, Hyundai’s $2,650 premium relative to the Limited grade undercuts the $3,500 Subaru demands when upgrading from Limited to its new Touring trim on a Forster 2.5i. It’s also a considerably gentler bump than the $6,590 Mazda asks to upgrade a CX-5 Grand Touring to Signature spiffiness. Of course, the Mazda throws in the CX-9’s turbo engine while those other two leave the powertrains untouched.
OK, the Tucson Ultimate’s powertrain is definitely touched. Its newly offered 2.4-liter naturally aspirated engine and six-speed torque-converter automatic is billed as an “upgrade” from the 1.6-liter turbo and seven-speed twin-clutch automatic that powered the 2018 Value and Limited models, but it now powers the top four trim grades (SEL, Sport, Limited, and Ultimate). That “upgrade” notion is a tough sell.
Power increases by 6 hp, but torque drops by 20 lb-ft. Making matters worse, comparing all-wheel-drive test samples, this six-speed’s gearing is 13-26 percent taller in the first three gears—a leverage deficit that isn’t compensated for by the launch-torque multiplication the torque converter provides. This posh new Tucson hit 60 mph in 8.8 seconds—that’s between 0.5 and 0.9 second slower than our last three Tucson 1.6T test vehicles, one of which was also heavier. Quarter-mile and figure-eight times trail the quickest of the 1.6T Tucsons by about a half second. None of this is meant to imply that the new Tucson feels lethargic or winded, per se. And of course torque converters launch and creep the way Americans expect them to, unlike twin-clutch trannies.
The Tucson’s quarter-mile performance ranks it in the bottom quartile of 40 similar CUVs we’ve tested recently, but more than half of those utes weigh more than this one’s 3,633 pounds. Its tidy dimensions and savvy chassis tuning stand it in better stead in our handling tests: It ranked in the top quartile in braking distance from 60 mph (118 feet) and figure-eight performance (27.6 seconds with an overall average lateral/longitudinal g-force vector of 0.60 g). Pure lateral grip is in the top 15 percent at 0.82 g. The news is considerably worse on the fuel economy front, however, where this Tucson’s EPA city/highway ratings of 21/26 mpg rank in the bottom 15/5 percent of the class.
A few editors wished for slightly suppler damping, but many lauded the chassis’ ability to quickly take a set in a turn and hang on through the switchbacks with minimal tire squeal. And on a day that involved running several CUVs around our figure-eight course—including that Signature CX-5—road test editor Chris Walton praised the Tucson’s “excellent throttle response, responsive manual mode on the shift lever, good brake pedal feel, ease of transitioning from braking into cornering, and good balance on the skidpad with sharp steering. It might not be the quickest, but it sure feels good doing this.” (Meanwhile, that Mazda was stymied by an overeager and undefeatable stability control system.)