WHEN I started road-testing cars in 1987, a four-wheel-drive launch was a fun thing to do. It generally involved taking a vehicle that was seemingly the offspring of a large station wagon and a truck and aiming it at a bush track or a beach full of sand dunes.
Mostly they looked like heavyweight wrestlers with the demeanour to match, were fairly ungainly and their construction was such that what they couldn't go around they went through.
Putting them on nice sealed roads exposed the deficits in their ride and handling and driving them in the confines of cities and suburbs was character-building.
I once drove a very large four-wheel-drive through the heart of Paris on a busy weekday and remember the experience vividly. At least I don't wake up screaming uncontrollably anymore.
But we loved the big (and sometimes smaller) things and could not get enough of them, probably because we all dreamed of going bush one day, of tackling the Simpson Desert or rolling over the Stockton Beach sand dunes.
Happily, the world's car makers interpreted our dreams. They removed the military tank factor, added-in refinement and car-like characteristics such as ride quality, handling and manoeuvrability and called the end result the Sports Utility Vehicle or SUV.
Which brings us to Hyundai's Tucson, a delicious drive that manages to encapsulate the earthiness of the bush with the style of the city, the comfort of a mid-size sedan with the macho of the offroader, respectable driving characteristics, impressive luggage capacity and an overwhelming sense of ‘feel-good'.
Better still, Hyundai offers Tucson in a broad model range incorporating four engine and three transmission choices, two- and all-wheel-drive and pricing between about $28,500 and $47,500.
Anyone expecting a bone-shaker ride will be happy to know that Tucson just is not going to give that. Just the opposite in fact and this smallest of Hyundai's SUVs delivers more than most will expect.
Two comfortable bucket seats up front (cloth-trimmed on the entry grades, leather-appointed on our Elite test car), a spacious bench seat in the back with loads of legroom courtesy of the SUV's more upright styling, a lidded console and loads of door pockets and cup holders.
Standard equipment is impressive with a list way too extensive to go through here but think central locking, a big touch screen display, standard Apple CarPlay, six-speaker audio with USB and auxiliary connection, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, power windows, steering wheel-mounted controls, trip computer, three 12-volt power sockets and roof rails.
All of that is on the entry point Active model and equipment levels work upwards from there through the Active X, Elite and Highlander.
ON THE ROAD
Ride and handling qualities are excellent, showing how far development has come in this style of vehicle.
The suspension is independent front and rear with MacPherson struts managing the front and a fairly sophisticated multi-link arrangement looking after the rear. Spring and damper settings give a nice degree of firmness on the blacktop (it almost feels European) but on unmade or rough roads the compliance is excellent.
The Elite test car came standard with 17x7-inch alloy wheels and 225/60R17 tyres which helps ride quality and the 18- and 19-inch wheels (with 55- and 45-series tyres respectively) on some of the other models might make the ride a little firmer but will stiffen the handling a touch.
Steering is rack and pinion but the assistance is by an electric motor rather than hydraulics, and seriously, you'd have to work hard to pick the difference.
BEAUTY OR BEAST?
I have to admit to being a fan of this car's visuals and I admire the way Hyundai's designers have transferred the corporate ‘Fluidic Sculpture' design language from the sedans and hatchbacks into this SUV.
The wheels sit well into the corners of the car and minimal body overhangs front and back give it a bulldog stance, all knuckles and attitude.
Up front, the beefy grille leads back across a low-set bonnet, and there is a big glasshouse that runs back towards quite delicate C- and D-pillars.
Side creases at the shoulder line break up any degree of slab-sidedness and the rear has a slightly elongated tail rather than being chopped off abruptly.
SNIFF OF AN OILY RAG
The diesel engine is the thriftiest, returning official averages of 6.4 litres/100km when running the 17-inch wheels and 6.8 when fitted with the 19-inch wheels.
The 2.0-litre MPI engine averages 7.9 litres/100km with both manual and auto gearboxes, and the 2.0 GDi does 7.8 (manual) and 7.9 (auto). For its part, the 1.6 T-GDi averages 7.7 litres/100km.
I might be going out on a limb with this but I reckon that, right now, Tucson is the best buy in Hyundai's growing range – a range that includes a lot of very good buys.
It looks good, drives well, has a tonne of versatility and can pack a bundle of stuff in when luggage space becomes an essential.
In other words, Tucson is a complete package with plenty of choices to appeal to both the hip pocket and the buyer's desired level of individualisation.
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