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2011 Hyundai Tucson

Hyundai selling European design - at a Euro price Add to ...

The 2011 Hyundai Tucson is one of 25 SUVs to earn Top Safety Pick honours from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Being just one on a long list of 25 is no big deal, correct?

Think again.

Cast your eye on which rival SUVs are not rated Top Safety Picks: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander and Jeep Compass.

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Wow. Those are some seriously heavy hitters in Canada. Last year, the Escape was the fifth-best-selling light truck in Canada, the CR-V No. 8 and the RAV No. 10. To put it another way, the three best-selling small SUVS in Canada are not Top Safety Picks.

So which ones are? The Honda Element, Jeep Patriot, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan and Subaru Forester. For the record, IIHS names its Top Picks based on "good" crash test scores in vehicles that also offer electronic stability control - an anti-skid system designed to reduce the risk of accidents.

The safety story matters here for a very good reason: Tucsons and Tiguans and Foresters and their ilk are 21st-century station wagons and safety matters to the family buyers coughing up $20,000-$30,000 for a household ride. Folks, the Tucson is as safe as they come.

Reliable, too. Name your research - J.D. Power and Associates, Consumer Reports - and the story is the same: Hyundai is producing high-quality vehicles.

Consumer Reports' most recent reliability study ranks Hyundai No. 11 overall and says the Tucson is a "recommended" vehicle. J.D. Power's three-year dependability study also ranks Hyundai No. 11 overall, and among mainstream brands only Toyota, Honda and Ford are rated higher. Hyundai is No. 7 in J.D. Power's three-month quality study, as well. No wonder Hyundai has scored huge gains in perceived quality among consumers in a study released last November by ALG (Automotive Lease Guide).

All this might lead you to believe the Tucson is perfect. No. In a world stuffed with compact SUVs, this one is pretty good overall and it may be the best-looking rig in its class. Yet in many ways the Tucson is hardly a stand-out.

Take power. The current Forester, Chevrolet Equinox (and its corporate cousin, the GMC Terrain), the Escape, CR-V, CX-7, Outlander, Rogue and RAV4 all offer four-cylinder engines making from 161 to 182 horsepower - although some of these have V-6 options and an updated Forester is available with a turbocharged four making 224 hp.

The Tucson in all-wheel-drive form has a 2.4-litre, 176-hp four-banger (the front-driver's engine is rated at 165 hp). Nothing special there, although the Hyundai's fuel economy is pretty good: 10.1 litres/100 km city, 7.1 highway for AWD.

The Tucson fits right in with its competitors in terms of size, too. Sure, the Tucson's turning circle is a few millimetres tighter than the Ford Escape's and some others, but the differences are minimal. Mechanically, the Tucson is totally mainstream.

That leaves us with styling. The Tucson is one good-looking little wagon. Hyundai calls the Tucson's design "fluidic sculpture," a term that joins "flame surfacing" and "L-finesse" among car designers in matching black suits.

What the Tucson is not, is cute. Far from it. The headlights are pulled back in a way that looks almost sneering, crisp creases define the fenders and the side glass spears down to a sharp point at the rear of the vehicle. Hyundai's Frankfurt studio did this design and the European-ness shows.

I like the interior even more. One fully equipped Limited version I've tested had a two-tone colour scheme with leather seats in a caramel hue. Gorgeous. A panoramic glass roof (with an independently operated sunshade) and a touch-screen navigation system are modern enough touches, too. The instruments and controls work with a simplicity that moms and dads will appreciate.

The driving experience? Not so much. The Tucson is pretty noisy at speed and the four-cylinder engine can get coarse or emit a tiring drone. The all-wheel-drive system sends power to the front wheels until it detects slip (a switch can lock the system into a 50-50 torque split), which means most of the time the Tucson behaves like a front-driver. A compact six-speed automatic is solid but unspectacular.

The steering, however, is too light and the ride quality gets jittery on bad pavement. Then there's the pricing. Hyundai has a starter front-drive Tucson for $19,999, but at the other end is the AWD Limited for $32,249. For that kind of dough, you can get a V-6-powered RAV4 with 269 hp, and for $3,000 less Mazda has a turbocharged CX-7 with 244-hp.

The Tucson's sticker price reflects Hyundai's improvements in safety, quality and design. The question for buyers: Will you embrace a European design at a Euro price?

2011 Hyundai Tucson AWD Limited

Type: Compact SUV

Price: $32,249 ($1,760 freight)

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 176 hp/168 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.1 city/7.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander, Jeep Patriot and Compass, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan, Subaru Forester

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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