Sometimes, it's easy to forget how significantly a single car can vary in character and competency depending on the trim level and options chosen. These days, most vehicles are so thoroughly designed and vetted that it's rare for a bum steer to find its way onto dealer lots.
What we have here, however, is a rare exception to that rule.
Don't get me wrong -- the 2016 Hyundai Tucson is a perfectly nice compact SUV in most trims, but the Eco seen here is a model I'd avoid.
Like all other third-generation Tucsons, the Eco is quietly handsome, with good proportions, tautly drawn sheet metal, and few wasted lines. All new for 2016, Hyundai's entry-level crossover has grown in size, and now sits in between most subcompact models like theand and their next-size-up brethren, the and , making it a little tough to find a fair set of competitors.
A high-tech, flawed powertrain
Regardless of its tweener size, it's the Tucson Eco's thoroughly modern powertrain that lets it down. Like the Sport and Limited models, the Eco receives a new 1.6-liter turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder from Hyundai's Gamma engine family, generating 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Those figures suggest it has the potential to be a pretty nice unit, especially as the torque peak arrives just off idle at 1,500rpm and sticks around until 4,500 revs, which is right in the wheelhouse of 95 percent of daily driving.
I say "potential," because while the 1.6 is quiet and has plenty of torque just off idle, the other part of the powertrain equation lets down the whole drive experience. The Eco is offered exclusively with Hyundai's new seven-speed EcoShift dual-clutch transmission, and while car writers typically get excited about DCTs because of their ability to pre-engage the next cog to deliver lightning-quick gear changes, the Hyundai unit disappoints in this application. Unfortunately, while the Tucson's shifts can arrive quickly depending on what drive mode the vehicle is set in, gear swaps often fail to arrive smoothly. You needn't be seeking high-performance motoring to find the burrs in this setup, as they show up in regular commuting, especially in around-town, low-speed trundling.
In the case of my test car, the Eco's engine and transmission didn't always feel like they were reading from the same playbook -- there was an occasionally fumbling, discombobulated quality to their interactions. That was particularly the case when the three-position drive mode selector was placed in Eco, which is ostensibly this model's raison d'être in the first place. It's not that Eco mode -- which retards the throttle and alters the transmission's shift schedule -- is too slow. It's definitely not quick, but the dulled-acceleration quotient it brings about is certainly manageable. It's that it's entirely too easy to get the transmission caught out in city traffic, resulting in a thunk in the back or unexpectedly jerky progress, particularly in very low-speed work (0-10 miles an hour, and 10-0 mph, as when creeping forward in a left-turn lane queue or slowing to a stop sign). Shifts can be ill-timed in addition to being uncultivated, too, especially on low-speed inclines. Sorry, San Franciscans.
Normal and Sport modes are somewhat better, but there are still moments where it feels like this powertrain hasn't been completely vetted, as if the consumer is an unwitting beta tester. And since Hyundai hasn't bothered to fit the Tucson Eco with paddle shifters, drivers can't even take advantage of one of the best and most enjoyable qualities inherent in dual-clutch transmissions -- their ability to snap off a quick and satisfying manual gearchange. Automated downshifts often aren't quite quick enough, either. Oddly for an eco model, there's no stop/start system, which is a cornerstone of most green-minded models these days.
In exchange for putting up with its stilted performance, all-wheel-drive Tucson Eco models like my test car return 25 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway according to EPA estimates. Eco models equipped with front-wheel drive fare better, netting 26 city and 33 highway. Those government estimates, for the record, are slightly inferior to that of the Honda CR-V, which is at once larger, heavier and quicker. I registered 24.3 mpg in mixed driving.
A disappointing cabin
Nor is the Tucson Eco particularly posh inside. Tap on the door panels and the dashboard, and you'll find unyielding, hard plastics. Grab the wheel and your fingertips are met with urethane. Other Tucson trims offer thicker, soft-touch dash caps, leather-wrapped steering wheels, proximity keys with pushbutton start, and a lot more equipment. The Eco skimps, ostensibly to keep weight down in the interest of eking out better fuel economy.