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Compact crossovers--cute-utes, if you want--make up a crowded field, one with some strong sellers among them. The Ford Escape is 11 years old, and it's still a huge hit. Honda's CR-V lingers near the top ten of sales charts, too. For years, Hyundai's entry in the class was the underwhelming Tucson, but in 2010, it was redesigned to take on the best in the class.
The transformation couldn't be more dramatic, starting with the Tucson's daring sheetmetal. The Tucson actually arrived before the latest Sonata, Accent and Veloster hit the scene, and its "fluidic sculpture" theme predicted what was coming to those cars. It's a brash look for a company that thrived on conservative looks for a decade, dramatic, attention-seeking and attention-getting in its anti-SUV stance. There might be an inch of straight line in its silhouette, the rest given up to curves and surfacing that swells at the fenders and crests at the front and rear. The tail gets a little thick, and there's plenty of brightwork, and it all hangs together as well or better than a Nissan Rogue or an Acura RDX, even. The interior's just a shade less dramatic, with a big LCD screen and vertical blades of metallic trim knifing into bands of tightly grained, low-gloss black plastic.
The Tucson lineup is all four-cylinder, with a price-leading 2.0-liter with 165 horsepower in base versions, offered with either a five-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. We've driven the manual transmission and liked its light shift action, but the automatic improves gas mileage to 22/29 mpg and has pretty clean gearchanges, too. Even better is the optional 2.4-liter four with 176 horsepower and only the six-speed automatic. That combination is good for an estimated 21/30 mpg, and moves the Tucson along at a measured pace with relatively low noise and vibration for a big four. The Tucson isn't quick--and as of yet doesn't have the turbo four found in the similar Kia Sportage--but it's a passable straight-line performer.
Handling is predictable, and the Tucson rides better than it steers. The slightly firm, settled ride on higher-end versions comes to base versions this year, in the form of more sophisticated shocks and retuned bushings. While the road manners are much better than the last Tucson, the new engine-speed-sensitive electric power steering is a weak spot. It brings with it a small turning circle, great for parking-lot squeezes, but the steering feel isn't as linear as the better electric systems from VW and Ford, and there's little direct feedback from road surfaces.
It's more spacious than before as well, and the new Tucson bests some luxury crossovers for interior space. It's smaller by a good margin than the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester, but four adults, especially those in front, will find ample room in all directions. The rear seat has just enough headroom for taller adults, and good leg room. Given the choice, we'd steer clear of the optional leather seats: the front leather buckets have short bottom cushions that tilt down at their leading edge, leaving them less comfortable than they could be.
The Tucson earns the IIHS' Top Safety Pick award, but the NHTSA hasn't crash-tested the latest version. Curtain airbags and stability control are standard, while Bluetooth and a rearview camera are available. Visibility is an issue in the Tucson: its heavily styled rear end has thick pillars and less glass than, say, a CR-V.
All versions have standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; cloth seats; remote keyless entry; air conditioning; and an AM/FM/XM/CD player with USB port. The options list has as many upscale features as some entry-luxury sedans. There's Bluetooth; telescoping steering; leather seating; heated front seats; steering wheel audio controls; a power driver seat; 17-inch wheels; automatic headlights; and dual-zone automatic climate control. More expensive options on the 2012 Tucson include a panoramic sunroof; premium audio; and a touchscreen navigation system fitted in tandem with Bluetooth streaming stereo audio and a rearview camera. Go whole-hog on the options, and the Tucson can reach $30,000.