It’s difficult to carry expectations for new generations of South Korean cars, especially in an era when the vibe has definitely shifted. While many automakers move in lock-step with the evolutionary status quo, Hyundai and Kia have a habit of throwing everything in the bin and starting completely over again. An Everclear cleansing of the palate, scorching off the tang of the automotive zeitgeist in favor of something new. Case in point: Several years ago in a design center, someone at Hyundai had the bright idea that cyberpunk would be the styling direction for the company’s next Tucson Plug-in hybrid.
While a risky gamble, the foundations of solidity were there. New tech’s silver luster had tarnished to reveal a thin undercurrent of dread, pop music had lost its pop, the Blade Runner aesthetics of the ‘80s were back in fashion, and the world was starting to hold a mood of unease. Thankfully, Hyundai rolled with it, and we’re seeing the result in the latest series of Hyundai products. The Hyundai Tucson Plug-in is a cyberpunk-influenced, smartly-electrified departure from anything else on the market, and I’m really glad Hyundai made it that way.
[Full disclosure: Hyundai Canada graciously lent me this Tucson Plug-in Ultimate so long as I reviewed it and returned it with a full tank of fuel.]
What Makes It Tick?
While a plug-in hybrid compact crossover doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing on the face of the planet, the Tucson Hybrid packs one of the most incredible drivetrains in the segment. Let’s start with the engine. It’s a 1.6-liter four-cylinder unit that’s been turbocharged to produce 180 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and a stout 195 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,500 rpm all the way to 4,500 rpm. While numbers like these would normally be enough to be extremely competitive in the compact crossover segment, Hyundai’s juiced things a little by throwing a 66.9 kW electric motor into the mix for a combined output of 261 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. Those aren’t shabby numbers, and they’re made possible thanks to a 13.8 kWh battery pack located under the floor.
So far, so high-tech. However, the high-tech vision sort-of stops when you get to the gearbox. So what sort of gearbox is on tap here? Perhaps some sort of power-split CVT like most hybrids? Absolutely not, the Tucson PHEV uses a six-speed automatic, the hottest technology of 2005. Yes, those really lovely metallic paddle shifters on the steering wheel control actual gears.
What’s more, this Rube Goldberg contraption spins an actual rear differential using a driveshaft, extremely uncommon among mass-market plug-in hybrid compact crossovers. That’s right, the electric motor itself is integrated into the gearbox so that this compact crossover can put torque to all four tires when in EV mode. Wild.
General body construction of the Tucson Plug-in seems really nice, with tight panel gaps, beautifully-applied seam sealer, and plenty of paint pen quality assurance marks under the hood. There’s also plenty of insulation on tap including extensive underbody paneling and a popular flat muffler to smooth out underbody airflow.
Interestingly, the post-resonator exhaust hanger attaches to the subframe, meaning exhaust vibrations at that point are isolated by a rubber hanger then further isolated by the rubber subframe bushings. It’s a small detail, but rather a clever one.
How Does It Look?
I’ll be the first to admit that the styling of the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate isn’t for everyone, but Hyundai’s done a good job of doing something really different here. Up front, things are more than a little bit wild. The mirrored daytime running lights are some of my favorite on the market because they’re such an innovative use of materials, while the air curtains are really nicely tucked in next to the main headlamp enclosures. It all makes for an icy-cold alien face that’s positively intriguing. There’s a lot going on here, but it’s not overrun with more materials than an IKEA kitchen (I’m looking at you Nissan Rogue).
Around the side, things get even weirder. Gandini-style arches front and rear, massive box flares, and impossibly sharp creases over the rear haunches shouldn’t blend well with a fairly rounded silhouette, yet the Tucson makes it work. Equally-distinctive is the satin greenhouse trim that effectively forms the D-pillar. It’s damn-near as sharp as a Ginsu set and really pops out against the dark paint of my test car.
With such unconventional front end and profile styling, it would be a shame if Hyundai phoned it in out back. Thankfully, the weird continues on the Tucson’s rump. Slapping the Hyundai badge on the rear glass for a floating appearance frees up room for a wicked heckblende taillamp treatment, and the rear windscreen wiper tucks away under the spoiler like a Murphy bed when not in use to maintain a clean look. Unfortunately, Hyundai’s put the rear indicators down low in the rear bumper, a somewhat infuriating decision that ensures drivers of tall vehicles will never know the Tucson’s next move. Still, the unpainted lower bumper means there’s no paint to scratch when loading and unloading cargo, and the nifty bumper insert features more triangles than a Mazda RX-7 meetup. Quirky.
What’s It Like To Drive?
So, are six gears enough in an age where eight or a CVT is the standard? For the most part, yes. Between dipping into boost and letting the electric motor assist the gasoline powertrain, there’s enough torque on tap to ensure you’re almost always in a decent gear. The Tucson’s gearbox isn’t quite as efficient as the CVT in the Toyota RAV4 Prime, but it’s absolutely good enough and features the lovely feedback of actual shifts. Moreover, the gasoline engine kicks on really smoothly and provides ample acceleration for freeway overtaking.
However, the hybrid part of the Tucson Plug-in’s equation is less important than the plug-in part. The Tucson Plug-in is rated at 33 miles (53 km) of range, so I elected to keep it in EV mode as much as possible to verify that claim. Sure enough, I achieved 52 km on electric-only mode, meaning the rated range is right in-line with reality. Of equal importance, the Tucson Plug-in packs a surprising amount of zest in EV mode. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not quick, but it has absolutely no problem keeping up with most traffic (Nissan Altima owners who drive six inches from your rear bumper are among the obvious exceptions).
Plus, driving in EV mode is uncannily luxurious. Sure, the cooled seats on my Ultimate trim tester certainly helped bolster that impression, but even the smoothest V12 won’t be as quiet as an electric powertrain. Combine the motors with excellent noise reduction measures, and the cabin of the Tucson Plug-in is like a library when on the move.
Complementing the quiet is a sense of comfort. Hyundai’s suspension engineers have been hard at work making sure the Tucson PHEV sands the rough edges off of awful pavement. It’s nicely sprung, nicely damped, and offers remarkably good body control over the post-apocalyptic Toronto roads I drive on. Even the worst potholes don’t feel jarring or expensive, a good sign of a well-sorted suspension system. What’s more, the transition between regenerative braking and hydraulic braking is absolutely seamless, a rarity in this segment.
The handling is quite good as well. Body roll is quite nicely controlled given the Tucson PHEV’s height, while the steering is quite good. There’s no real steering feel to speak of, but what did you expect? This isn’t a sports car. Instead, the steering here is well-weighted, wonderfully accurate on-center and feels linear in effort as you wind on lock. What’s more, the front end feels perfectly happy to change direction. The Mazda CX-5 may be more eager, but the Tucson feels plenty capable and confident.
What’s The Interior Like
Given Hyundai’s disposition for giving more for less, it shouldn’t be surprising that this Tucson packs a staggering amount of kit. All the expected loaded compact crossover mod-cons like heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a panoramic moonroof are on tap, but the Tucson’s luxuries run deeper than that. For starters, there’s a little icon on the dashboard marked diffuse. Press that while avoiding all the other touch-sensitive buttons, and you get draft-free climate control a bit like on a Volkswagen Phaeton. Fabulous.
Speaking of party pieces, Hyundai’s seen fit to equip this Tucson with “Ghostride the Whip Mode” under the moniker of Smart Park. While it’s really neat seeing the Tucson move back and forth at low speeds using the key fob, if a parking space is tight enough to require the use of Smart Park, it’s usually quicker to just park somewhere else and walk the extra distance. Still, what a gadget.
While toys are neat, practicality is more valuable in the compact crossover segment. Plug-in hybrids typically sacrifice some cargo room as a result of battery packaging, and the Tucson Plug-in is no different. It features 31.9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, 1.6 cubic feet fewer than the RAV4 Prime can manage. While loading and unloading bulky items is easier in the Tucson thanks to a flat load lip compared to the RAV4 Prime’s awkward step-up in the cargo floor, the RAV4 Prime still takes the win for room behind the second row. However, the Tucson Plug-in redeems itself in the maximum capacity department with an extra 8.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat down compared to the Toyota RAV4 Prime.
Front and rear legroom are excellent for a PHEV compact crossover, while an extremely low central tunnel means being the fifth passenger isn’t a chore. Reclining rear seats greatly enhance passenger comfort, while Hyundai must’ve chosen the driver’s seat foam from the Goldilocks collection. It’s not too firm, not too stiff, and quite supportive for the class. Hyundai also hasn’t been stingy with steering column adjustment, nor has it positioned armrests too low to be functional. Finding a great driving position in this thing is easy.
Once comfortable in the driver’s seat of my Tucson Plug-in test car, I was greeted with this wonderful sense of forward visibility. By pushing the center stack down and going with a hoodless digital gauge cluster, Hyundai’s been able to bring the top of the dashboard low and close to the cowl to create an old-school view out the windshield in the best possible way. The straight edge across the top of the low dashboard reminds me a lot of the fourth-generation Honda Prelude, something I never expected to say in an age of high cowls and massive tablet-style screens.
Unfortunately, that low dashboard comes at the expense of usability. There’s exactly one physical button on my test car’s center stack, and it’s the hazard light switch. Every single stereo and climate control on the dashboard is touch-sensitive with no haptic feedback to let the driver know they’ve adjusted the right thing. It’s all just so massively distracting that I’m genuinely surprised Hyundai can get away with it.
Speaking of stereos, my Ultimate-trim tester comes with a Bose unit that’s perfectly okay. It won’t captivate you, it won’t ruin music, it’s just fine. Harmonic distortion is acceptable for the segment, while high-frequency sounds like hi-hats aren’t overly shrill. Is the JBL unit available in the Toyota RAV4 better? Sure, but the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate’s Bose system isn’t atrocious by any means. Of more practical importance is the rather lengthy charging cord which had absolutely no problem reaching any of my available 120-volt outlets. As a bonus, it still stows nicely below the false cargo floor. Good job, Hyundai.
What’s The Verdict
In crafting the Tucson Plug-in, Hyundai has built a compact crossover for surviving the vibe shift. It rejects both the premium minimalism competitors like the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V aspire to, while also rejecting the blocky traditionalism of vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 and the Ford Bronco Sport. From arachnid daytime running lights to an extremely unusual and arguably slightly regressive powertrain, the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate does things its way, and it’s all the more refreshing for it. This is a genuinely great compact crossover that punches far above its weight class for refinement and tech.
At $44,495 as-tested, the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate isn’t cheap. However, no loaded plug-in hybrid compact crossover is. The Toyota RAV4 Prime XSE stickers for $44,960 and doesn’t even come close to offering the plethora of luxuries you get on the Tucson. Add the “Premium Package with options” as Toyota likes to call it, and pricing jumps to $50,305, a lot more money than the Tucson. As for the Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrid, it’s getting refreshed for 2023 so the judgment is still out on whether Ford improved it enough to be competitive. On the other hand, the Kia Sportage Plug-in Hybrid X-Line Prestige stickers for $210 more than this Tucson and offers nearly as much. No genuine leather, but it still has a panoramic roof, big dual displays, and a hands-free power tailgate. Overall, I’ll hand the value crown in this race to the Tucson because real leather for $210 feels like a no-brainer.
Naming your compact crossover’s top trim level “Ultimate” comes with some lofty connotations, and the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate rises to the occasion. The gadgets on tap here are breathtaking, and even with all the tech stripped away, it’s built on solid bones. Ride and handling are great, noise levels are low, and the seats are really quite comfortable. Even if you pop for the lower SEL trim, you’ll likely be very happy with a Tucson Plug-in as a daily driver. It’s no wonder why so few people buy sedans anymore when compact crossovers can be this good.
Who Should Buy It?
So who should buy the Tucson Plug-in Ultimate? I say: Sci-fi parents, middle-class millennials, bougie pack-rats, people without fingerprints, aspiring Q-branch recruits, grown-up bloghouse fans, near-perfectionists, and really anyone looking for a fully-loaded yet thrifty compact crossover. Yep, it’s that brilliant.