The non-luxury compact crossover segment in the USA is hotter than ever. For years, the segment has been dominated by the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 (the best selling car in Massachusetts, apparently), and the Ford Escape. While the top three best sellers have been stable, the battle in the remaining ten spots has been no less important, with the monthly winners bringing in much needed profits for their parent corporations. The CX-5 has become the best selling vehicle for Mazda. The Nissan Rogue, a rather soft vehicle in look and feel (soft suspension, soft CVT transmission, really soft steering, soft seats), has been a huge hit for Nissan. The Subaru Forester is now big enough to belong in this segment. The GMC Terrain and Mini Countryman are sleepers. The Fiat 500L is adorable, but too slow, and not long for this world. Jeep has a new vehicle coming to this segment in 2017. The Volkswagen Tiguan is poised to re-enter the segment at a more reasonable price. And then we have the Korean siblings, the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.
Looking back to around 2001, these two little SUVs represented the bottom of the American automotive barrel. The Kia Sportage was a badly designed vehicle based on the Mazda Bongo, and was recalled twice for a little problem of having a rear wheel fall off now and then. The exterior panels and interior parts didn't seem to match. The parts didn't seem to belong to the same vehicle. The rear hatches were rickety to say the least. The quality was simply not there. The Tucson fared a little better, with a dated design, but with an old, yet reliable Elantra powertrain. By 2010, the Tucson had gotten a new platform and new engineering from Hyundai's offices in Germany. And now, both the Tucson and Sportage enter new generations for 2016 that bring new levels of quality and design to both brands. These are daily drivers, to be sure. But they deserve a serious look for those who want to avoid the top three sellers and get a lot of car for their money. Well-equipped and with all wheel drive, either can be had for a little over $30,000.
Hyundai has a controlling stake in Kia, and the similarities between the two vehicles is apparent. The Tucson is in its fourth generation, and the Sportage is in its third, but I now see them synchronized with each other. I'm fairly sure they ride on the same Hyundai Elantra platform. The both have rear, independent multi-link suspension (are you listening, Honda?). They both have a 1.6 liter, turbocharged, direct-injected aluminum Hyundai Gamma motor under the hood (for premium AWD trims). That motor is mated to Hyundai's noisy but effective 7-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). In fact, that motor and DCT is coming to the Elantra as well. Both now offer Android Auto and Apple Car play interfaces for their entertainment head units. Both offer heated leather seats, LED exterior lighting, and a motorized rear hatch. And both offer digitally-set cruise controls and a host of driver safety aids, both standard and optional.
A note about that 7-speed gearbox. Hyundai's new DCT seems inspired by Volkswagen's excellent use of the technology. The reviews are in, the consensus is that Hyundai's DCT is better than any CVT. However, it is slow to shift, and so, it is not much fun. There is a slight hesitation to get moving from a stop, as is the case with most DCTs. And when the driver parks the car, or takes it out of Park, the gearbox sometimes makes a ratcheting or clicking sound. Hyundai even produced a video explaining how this behavior is normal.
So the difference is obviously design. Hyundai is taking a more conservative, luxury car path, as it wants it's cars to compliment its rebooted Genesis brand of luxury sedans and possible coupes. Kia prefers to be different, with it's happy, big mouth grilles and sportier interiors. Indeed the biggest differences are inside, where Hyundai has taken a conservative approach to vent shapes and soft-touch materials, and Kia is going for the younger buyer, with a sportier flat-bottom steering wheel busier (and glossier) center stack.
Both vehicles feature four (four!) thumb toggle controls on the steering wheel. Two on the left side for audio controls, and two on the right for cruise control settings. Because more is more, right?
Automakers have finally figured out where customers want USB ports and 3.5mm audio ports to live - behind the shifter.
And then aside from the steering wheel shape, the question is, how do you want your center stack to look? Do you like he Hyundai's soft touch materials that simulate a more expensive car, or is the Kia's piano black gloss bearable?
These cars are not going to go from 0-60 in under 8 seconds. But they are important. How important? Well, for Kia, the Sportage has taken over as their best selling vehicle worldwide. The longer it remains hot, the better Kia will be able to produce more cool family movers like it, and grow as a respected brand. In 20 years, Kia has gone from a brand you can never trust, to the "Hyundai for people with bad credit," to the more interesting and edgy division of Hyundai.
I am yet to test drive either, but I hope to this year or next. I do think that with both vehicles, the Sport or EX trim is the one to get. Hyundai offers a stripped-down version of the Sport called the Eco. But considering that it only manages to match the Sport's 25 miles per gallon, there is no clear advantage. So if you can afford the heated seats of either the Tucson Sport or Sportage EX, go for it.