Hyundai aims to please drivers, not writers
Old-school automotive journalism emphasizes speed, handling and something called "fun-to-drive." It treats every vehicle, be it family sedan or crossover utility model, as if it were a high-performance sports car whose best use is found on a racetrack . . . or Germany's Autobahn.
As such, there is something inherently unrealistic about the old-school approach, something woefully out of kilter with the dominant reasons most of us buy passenger vehicles and the way we actually use them.
Thus, many old-school automotive journalists, who fancy themselves automobile "enthusiasts," have encountered great difficulty understanding why South Korea's Hyundai Motor, at one time a laughable entry in the U.S. automobile market, made major gains in market share (from 2.9 percent at the end of 2007 to 4.3 percent through November 2009) when many of its better-respected rivals have floundered.
I hereby suggest that Hyundai's success stems from its realization that old-school automotive journalism doesn't reflect everyday-world realities.
My argument, in part, is based on one of Hyundai's revised product offerings, the 2010 Hyundai Tucson, a compact crossover utility model, two versions of which I recently drove in Los Angeles and environs.
The driving experience showed me that Hyundai understands what many old-school automotive journalists either fail to comprehend or choose to ignore. To wit: Most people buying passenger cars aren't looking for the fastest times from zero to 60 mph. Nor are they seeking -- to use an illogical cliche of automotive journalism -- a car that "handles like it is on rails." (The average high school physics student knows disaster is likely to occur if a train takes a curve too fast.)
Instead, most automotive consumers, especially those in need of family transportation, look primarily for affordability, safety, fuel economy, comfort and reliability. If they can get all those things in a vehicle possessed of good looks and personality, and endowed with reasonable highway prowess -- for example, it changes lanes quickly and safely -- so much the better.
In Los Angeles, I drove the base Tucson GLS with front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission, and the top-of-the-line Tucson Limited with front-wheel drive and a six-speed transmission that can be shifted automatically or manually.
Both the GLS and Limited are available with four-wheel drive, and both share the same 176-horsepower 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine. What largely distinguishes them is cosmetic -- their trim levels (materials) and other appointments.
Both models demonstrate Hyundai's excellent understanding of the Tucson's intended audiences -- young families and empty-nesters. Safety is a major concern of both groups. So both the GLS and Limited come with six air bags, rollover danger sensors, an antilock braking system with electronic brake-force distribution, and electronic stability and traction control as standard equipment.
Families buying "base" or economy models still want vehicles that make them smile. Hyundai understands that. So the same attention to detail found in the Limited -- perfect fit and finish, for example -- is evident in the GLS.
Again, the differences beyond the standard transmissions offered (six-speed manual in the GLS vs. six-speed automatic/manual in the Limited) rest largely in appointments (a cloth-covered manually adjustable driver's seat in the GLS, compared with a leather six-way power adjustable driver's seat in the Limited).
The trend in the global automobile industry, largely in response to government regulations and a real-world understanding that oil isn't a forever thing -- certainly not something that will be forever available at low prices -- has been to squeeze more power out of smaller engines, which is what Hyundai has done here. The maximum 176 horsepower offered by Hyundai's new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is three horsepower more than what was offered by the 2.7-liter V-6 in the 2009 Tucson.
Driving impressions? I would love to wax eloquently about having driven at extra-legal speeds along Southern California's highways and byways, taking curves at a breathtaking pace, wheels sticking to the road, that sort of thing. But the truth is more prosaic. Both the GLS and Limited behaved quite competently at highway speeds. The exceptionally well-appointed Limited was more fun to sit in during traffic jams, and there were many. Only a fool would drive recklessly and exceed speed limits on the well-patrolled Pacific Coast Highway. I'm no fool.