2010 Hyundai Tucson – Click above for high-res image gallery

Little more than ten years ago, the meat and potatoes of the automotive universe were C and D segment sedans. Think Corolla and Camry; Focus, Fusion and (old) Taurus; Civic and Accord. But then, for better or for worse, something significant shifted in that old sales paradigm. Specifically, crossovers. Also known as CUVs, the overgrown wagons still ride around on C and D platforms, only a foot higher off the ground. Why? Blame the SUV craze and/or what automakers refer to as the "command seating position," an odd euphemism for sitting up high.

A momentary flirtation with $4 per gallon gasoline has – for the most part – shut down the large SUV game. But for whatever reason, consumers still want and demand command seating, so much so that Hyundai believes the compact CUV segment will experience more growth than any other niche in the market. Hyundai knows this specialized segment well, as the outgoing Tucson – the Korean brand's previous generation small CUV – has sold more than one million copies. However, the Tucson has been around since 2005, and to put it nicely, the old Tucson wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. And this is a gun fight. Knowing that, Hyundai has just rolled out its newest car, the 2010 Tucson. But is it a killer?

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

Judging by nothing except the flowing new sheetmetal, we'd argue yes. Hyundai has banned boxy from its styling lexicon and is calling its design language of both the new Tucson and the coming-in-January Sonata "Fluidic Sculpture." The name is so contrived that Hyundai's affable President and CEO John Krafcik apologized for the art school jargon during the Tucson's introduction. But silly name notwithstanding, the results are noteworthy, if not striking. The central idea is that, "the line flows around the vehicle." As opposed to say one box grafted onto a larger box. Like the old Tucson.

Hyundai is actively seeking to establish an emotional connection with its customers. Something that, no matter how you slice it, the previous Tucson could never do. And really, most older Hyundais. No one's every been turned on by inoffensive and generic. Fluidic sculpture on the other hand, is anything but. The new curves have the potential to attract some while turning off others. That's a good thing. The best view of the Tucson is the front three-quarters where, starting with the fancy wrap-around headlamps, you can see the thrust of the design's flow and how winds its way around the car.

The sloping hood and highly raked windshield, combined with the grille, comes off as distinctive yet pleasantly restrained – especially in this era of giant, gaping maws. And while there's a little bit of an insect face to the front end, it's used to good effect. Our least favorite angles are from the side. Not only is there too much Buick Enclave going on, but the black plastic chunks below the doors look like the afterthoughts they are. The rear end is pretty simply okay, though it does resemble a Subaru Tribeca. Just a smidge. Besides, SUVs and CUVs never look great from behind. We should point out that the rear spoiler is standard – not because it looks good (it does), but because it aids fuel economy. Overall though, the new Tucson looks several orders of magnitude better than the old one. And much of its competition.

Like the bodywork, the innards of the Tuscon have received a thorough makeover. The outgoing model had all the inner charm and sophistication of a 2005 Hyundai. The new car (obviously) raises the game, but those looking for a lot of trickle down from the Genesis are advised to keep looking. Though we can reasonably compare the Tucson's innards to a Genesis Coupe, it might be damning with faint praise. Not only is there plenty of ticky tack plastic covering wide expanses (something that probably only bothers us nit picky journalist types), but you're forced to touch some of it. Specifically your elbows and knees. As the driver, your left elbow rests on a surprisingly thin piece of faux-leather covering up some rock hard plastic. After an hour, it's both noticeable and uncomfortable. And while the center stack's design is refreshing, it's bordering into Honda's weird territory of organic shapes and spread out buttons.

The 2010 Tucson comes in two flavors, GLS (standard) and Limited (premium). We tested the Limited, which adds a good deal of content to the Tucson's interior. Namely a 6.5-inch navigation screen, leather seats and Hyundai's first "panoramic" sunroof, which is a fancy way of saying two panes (though only one opens). Hats off to Hyundai for nice, comfy leather seats. You can get leather in practically any vehicle these days, but the quality is often times closer to dorm couch than anything resembling luxury. The Tucson not only uses a high grade of leather, but goes the extra step and furnishes the seats with two types of leather. A rougher, stickier grade for your thighs and shoulders, and a smoother, more butter-like surface for your butt and back. An unnecessary step perhaps, but a good one that pays dividends during the drive. The rear seats might even be better than those in the front, reminding us of the Infiniti FX's rear quarters – a compliment, to be sure. Thanks to a three-inch overall stretch versus the previous Tucson, rear passenger leg room is good, even for six footers.

At 6.5-inches big, the nav screen is only one and half inches larger than modern smartphones. Meaning it's difficult to clearly see streets and, frankly, just too small. However, when displaying the contents of your iPod (or similar), the touch screen works exceptionally well and the iPod integration is worlds better than the last generation Hyundai software we experienced in the big dog Genesis. Speaking of MP3s, those who opt for the navigation package get treated to a sweet sounding 360-watt stereo system that takes iPod, Aux or USB. The nav system also includes a back up camera, a first for the segment. Overall, the Tucson's interior is a big improvement over the last generation, but constrained by the reality of the vehicle's $18,995 starting price. As such, a completely tricked out Tucson Limited with every option including all-wheel drive will set you back $28,695.

The new Tucson is motivated by Hyundai's Theta II 2.4-liter I4. The power numbers are class-competitive, but nothing to phone home about – 176 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 168 pound-feet of torque at 6,000 rpm. For comparisons sake, the 2010 Honda CR-V produces 180 hp and the 2010 Toyota RAV4 generates 179 hp and 172 lb-ft or twist. However, there are a few howevers. The big one being gas mileage. Hyundai is serious about becoming the "global fuel economy leader," and as such has bent over backwards to ensure the new Tucson gets more MPGs than the competition. Despite every emotion in our being shouting "WRONG!" at the top of our lungs, higher mileage is probably more important than beating a CR-V in a drag race. Those wanting to beat up on a CR-V (or even the mighty 269-hp V6 RAV4) will have to wait until 2011 when a turbocharged version of the Theta II finds its way into the Tucson. Curiously, Hyundai elected not to put the Theta II GDI (gasoline direct injection) motor from the upcoming Sonata into the Tucson (reason: cost benefit of having just one motor), though we were told that mill will eventually be offered.

Equipped with the optional six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard) and front-wheel drive, the 2010 Tucson delivers 23 mile per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway. None of its class competitors can even claim 30 mpg on the highway, let alone 31 (the larger 2010 Chevrolet Equinox claims a freakishly high 32 mpg highway, but Hyundai doesn't consider the two vehicles in the same class). In a suddenly mileage conscious America, this is a big selling point.

Also of note is Hyundai's new six-speed autobox, which it developed and built in-house. Hyundai claims to be one of exactly three automakers in the world that builds its own six-speed automatic transmission, no doubt at a huge expense. Why invest that kind of coin in R&D? Because Hyundai's new transmission is 24 percent lighter than the old five-speed auto, has 62 fewer parts and gets 12 percent better mileage, all of which allows the Tucson to achieve its class-leading fuel economy. Remember, Hyundai is in the volume game, and once that initial cost is amortized out across a few million vehicles (you can rest assured that this transmission will appear in many other models), the money will have been well spent.

Hyundai turned us loose on some of our favorite Los Angeles canyon roads (Kanan, Latigo, Decker). Our initial thought was that such winding, treacherous asphalt might be wasted on a compact CUV. We were half right. On the plus side, the Tucson feels (and is) remarkably stiff, especially for a little crossover. Due to higher federal roll over standards, Hyundai was forced to use higher strength steel for the unibody, resulting in a tight, vibration and body-movement free vehicle.

Hyundai also put MacPherson struts in front and a sporty multi-link setup out back, just like you'd find on a whole host of higher-end performance cars (the BMW 3 Series, for instance). There's a also a thicker – but hollow, to save weight – front sway bar. The Tucson is light for a CUV – 3,331 pounds in Limited FWD Auto trim and just 3,179 as a manual GLS. As a result, the Tucson can carry a great deal more speed than you'd think into, through and out of a turn. The body also stays flat – some might say weirdly flat – through corners. Seriously, there's almost no body roll. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be a penalty for all that stiffness in terms of ride quality, though the Tucson is on the more rigid side of the suspension aisle. Will the majority of Tucson buyers appreciate the trucklette's newfound athletic prowess? We'd wager not.

Obviously, the Tucson is not a Lotus Elise. And every reason why it's not (besides the blatantly obvious) is tied into Hyundai's quest for higher fuel economy. For instance, like the new Ford Taurus, the Tucson features electronic power steering. You can just go ahead and get used to this in most new vehicles, Hyundai or otherwise. Hyundai claims e-power steering adds three percent to a vehicle's MPG rating, and while the steering isn't bad, it's just different than a traditional hydraulic setup. How? It takes more effort to "crack" the wheel out of its on center position, meaning you initially have to put more muscle into turning the wheel and find yourself turning a degree or two more than you intended, especially at higher speeds. However, we got used to the sensation fairly quickly. We should also state that like with most new technologies in cars, the feel of electronic power steering will improve over time. In fact, Hyundai's toying with the idea of letting drivers select the amount of assist they want, though that's still further down the line.

Then there's the issue of visibility. Keep in mind that almost every aspect of the Tucson was done for fuel economy reasons – including the extreme rake of the windshield. Forward visibility is great, especially as the hood drops off so precipitously. Turning right isn't an issue either. However, when you're making a hard left, the A-pillar almost completely blocks your line of sight. It's not as bad as the new Camaro, but it's still an annoyance. We also found that during really sporty driving there's a dead spot in between second and third gear. Second leaves you too close to redline to be smooth and third leaves you torqueless. Yes, we're aware that 99 percent of Tucson buyers could care less. And we're not sure we care, either. Despite what BMW believes, no one buys a small CUV to carve canyons.

While not our first choice in performance machines, the 2010 Hyundai Tucson might in fact be our first choice if we needed a small crossover. There's little doubt that Hyundai's bringing forth the right vehicle at the right time. Its competition is not only getting long in the tooth, but all the segment stalwarts were designed prior to the recent spike in gas prices, meaning that fuel economy wasn't their overriding design concern. But it was Hyundai's. It even included a little green "Eco Indicator" light that shows up when you're driving in a fuel-friendly manner. Hyundai claims that paying attention to the light can increase mileage by 15 percent. We personally found it distracting and were happy to learn we can shut it off. Those foibles aside, we know there are a lot of folks who will appreciate the Eco light and the fact that Hyundai was just named the most fuel efficient automaker in the U.S. And even more will appreciate the combination of style, value, versatility and fun that comprises the new Tucson.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

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