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

Like it or not, the small crossover segment is booming. Not only are budget-minded automakers all putting forth their best efforts to create new-and-improved vehicles for the class, even higher-end manufacturers like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are getting into the act hoping to win over customers looking for a more premium experience. Why? These vehicles offer an excellent coupling of both utility and economy – two of the most important must-haves for the vast majority of new car shoppers.

We recently invited the latest small CUV offering from Hyundai, the 2010 Tucson, into the Autoblog Garage for a week, and found it to be a stylish, useful workhorse for everyday tasks that doesn't sacrifice too much in the way of driving enjoyment. What's more, with a sticker starting at $19,995, it's quite a bargain. But just because the Tucson carries a wallet-friendly price doesn't mean it lacks refinement or quality. Hit the jump to find out why.

Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Perhaps the biggest win for the new Tucson is its exterior styling. After years of lookalike product, Hyundai has finally begun to find its design muscles, and we're pleased with the way the automaker's "Fluidic Sculpture" styling sets its latest small CUV apart from the generic stalwarts of the class. We still affectionately refer to these crossovers as "cute utes" every now and then, and it's pretty safe to say that the Tucson is among the cutest of them all. No, the styling isn't a huge leap forward in crossover sex appeal, and that's okay. These types of vehicles are designed to appeal to the masses, but being able to do so fashionably will definitely earn you bonus points.

Our GLS tester benefited from Hyundai's $1,700 popular equipment package, which adds styling upgrades like handsome 17-inch alloy wheels (wrapped in 225/60 Kumho Eco Solus rubber), body-colored mirrors and door handles, a set of roof rails and tinted rear windows. If we're honest, we actually prefer the styling of our less-costly GLS model to that of the high-zoot Limited – mostly due to the dismissal of chrome trim around the front grille. This gives the Tucson a more streamlined schnoz while allowing the front fascia's design language to do the talking without being overshadowed by shiny lipstick. The sloping lines up front carry over well across the sides and around the back, but we're still scratching our heads over Hyundai's decision to add black plastic molding to the bottom of the doors. Our test car's Ash Black paint does camouflage this quite a bit, but it's still a rather large wrinkle in an otherwise sleek design.

Moving inside, Hyundai has clearly tried to mimic the exterior's chiseled good looks within the cabin. Notice the curves of the dashboard, the sloping line on the right side of the gearshift surround and the aluminum accents on the steering wheel and air vents – these all work together to give the Tucson's insides a much more upscale appearance. It's a tease, though – especially since the majority of the dash plastics can be unpleasant to the touch. The knobs and buttons found within the center stack don't feel cheap or clunky, but it's the surrounding sea of colored dash (brown, in this case) that isn't particularly pleasing. Still, the overall levels of refinement are better than what you'd get in a comparable Nissan Rogue, though they aren't nearly as good as what the Volkswagen Tiguan has to offer (at a significantly higher price point, it has to be said). And though some of the interior materials leave a bit to be desired, the Tucson's overall build quality is solid, with no noticeable rattles or unacceptable panel gaps.

Nitpicky stuff aside, the Tucson's cabin is actually a rather pleasant place to spend time. We liked the darker tan and brown color palette of our test car's interior, and as we mentioned before, the whole package looks more costly than the crossover's budget price would lead others to believe. Furthermore, it's quite comfortable and spacious. The standard cloth buckets up front provide ample amounts of support for both your back and thighs, though we wish the seat bottoms were a bit longer to provide better comfort just above the knees. What's more, little amenities like a height-adjustable driver's seat and a steering wheel that's adjustable for both rake and reach make it easy to find a comfortable driving position no matter your height. Rear seat passengers won't complain, either – there's an ample amount of both head- and legroom, and the rear bench is surprisingly comfortable as well.

The only engine available for 2010 is Hyundai's new 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which produces 176 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque. Unlike the last-generation Tucson, a V6 is not available, though the new inline-four is actually more powerful than the outgoing six-pot. Plus, when coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, it allows the Tucson to post some very respectable fuel economy numbers – 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway for our front-wheel drive tester. With a mix of spirited driving on the freeway and various jaunts through the city, we managed 25 mpg.

Obviously, the vast majority of consumers shopping the Tucson won't give two hoots about driver involvement and outright performance, but we're happy to report that from an enthusiast's perspective, the little Hyundai is certainly better than the majority of its CUV stablemates. It's not quick, but it doesn't have to be, and its 176 ponies and respectable twist are more than enough to get the stylish crossover up to cruising speed without feeling overly sluggish. The six-speed automatic is generally smooth, though the transmission did suffer from bouts of shuffling between fifth and sixth gear on the highway – even during relatively low-grade climbs. Thankfully, autobox-equipped Tucsons come standard with a manu-matic shift mode, which allowed us to override these moments of indecisiveness. Yes, the engine is quite buzzy, but it's only noticeable above the 4,000 rpm mark, so unless you're really wringing it out the racket shouldn't prove to be too obtrusive, and that sort of behavior is par for the class.

The big quirk in the Tucson's dynamics portfolio comes from the electronic power steering, a feature that is slowly cropping up on more and more new vehicles, mostly for its minor improvements to overall fuel economy. In the Hyundai, this system definitely takes some getting used to. The steering can feel somewhat heavy on center, and while it does lighten up as you turn the wheel, you'll notice that it takes more effort to make slight turns than you'd think. This extra energy is mainly noticeable around town at lower speeds, and Hyundai is still working on improving its operation. To be fair, though, the vast majority of automakers employing this type of steering aren't exactly getting it just right either, but we're warming up to the technology as the systems are being fine-tuned.

That foible aside, the Tucson's overall driving experience is better than what you'd expect out of a base-grade small CUV. There's little body roll even during moderately spirited driving, and the suspension isn't wafty, though pavement irregularities are nicely softened. The outgoing Tucson wasn't nearly as good in this regard, and we equate the 2010 model's good dynamics to its better proportions. At 103.9 inches, the new Tucson's wheelbase is only 0.4 inches longer than the model it replaces, but its front and rear tracks have been widened by 1.4 inches, giving it a better overall stance. We do find the brake pedal to be a bit touchy, with a lot of stopping force applied at initial tip-in. This takes some getting used to, but when you learn to modulate the pedal accordingly, the brakes inspire confidence – you'll rarely need to press deeply into the brake pedal to get the Tucson to stop where and when you need it to.

As a daily driver, the Tucson has the goods to please the vast majority of small CUV shoppers. Overall functionality is rather good, too. The second-row seats fold flat, meaning that the rear cargo area can swell to accommodate up to 55.8 cubic feet of haulables. It's not as capacious as, say, a Honda CR-V (which offers an impressive 72.9 cubic feet of storage, and comes at a cost), but it's certainly nothing to frown at. And when you consider that the as-tested price of our GLS tester was only $22,590, the Tucson represents one heck of a value proposition – something Hyundai's based its business case on for years.

In a time when many consumers are trading in their humdrum sedans and larger SUVs for more affordable crossovers, the Tucson offers an economical, functional, good-to-drive option wrapped in surprisingly stylish sheetmetal. It's a proper evolution of the cute 'ute, and despite competing in a hotly contested segment, this new Tucson should certainly help further Hyundai's considerable momentum.

Photos by Steven J. Ewing / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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