One of the oft-touted attributes of early crossover-type vehicles was their "car-like" handling qualities, but in the case of most auto makers' offerings in this new category, the cars their comparisons were based on must have been models that didn't win many kudos for on-road prowess.
Only recently have most crossover suspension designers managed to arrive at a better balance between the size, weight, higher centre of gravity and additional load-carrying requirements of these new-age station wagons and the provision of improved levels of ride comfort allied to handling qualities that actually make them more enjoyable to drive.
Which is the case with the 2012 Hyundai Tucson in its redesigned second-generation form, shape-shifted from SUV-pretender stodgy into something very tasty looking. It also acquired an improved interior and enhanced mechanicals.
Way back in the 1980s, when Hyundai first began to lay down some rubber on the world market skid-pad (and for too long afterwards), it seemingly based its notion of handling on manoeuvring through traffic in congested downtown Seoul and its ride comfort target on 1960s-era Buicks.
And its passenger car suspension tweaks still haven't entirely managed to find the sweet spot in this balancing act. But the Tucson, perhaps because this generation's design and driving dynamics were created in Germany rather than South Korea, now has a more competent and confident feel. And a subtler approach to dealing with pavement disturbances.
The suspension design didn't change significantly, it's still MacPherson struts up front and an independent multi-link system at the back, although it is attached to a much stiffer body structure. But you sense a more refined orchestration of the interplay between spring rates and dampers (SACHS Amplitude Selective type on the LTD), sway bars and bushings when you take it through an on-ramp arc or a bumpy back-road corner. Or down a typically lumpy city street.
At least in the almost top-of-the-line $32,349 LTD AWD tested. The ride is still decidedly firm as the springs have to support a 1,582-kilogram curb weight, a few kilos more than a loaded mid-size Sonata. And it does cause your body to react to spring road surface frost heaves but it absorbs sharper jolts without transmitting nasty shocks to your personal on-board sensor system.
What's more to the point is that it brakes hard without front-end-dive, turns-in to corners, even on winter tires, with admirable directness, and stays flat through them. The only thing that lets things down a bit is the electric power steering that changes effort level with engine rpm. Most of the time effort is okay, but at highway velocities it has an artificially heavy feel and odd on-centre behaviour that requires almost constant niggling corrections, particularly in cross winds.
The other major mechanical components in the driving mix are, of course, the engine and transmission. With the second-gen Tucson, Hyundai eighty-sixed its 2.7-litre V-6 in favour of a 2.4-litre four that makes 176 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, a little more power but a tad less torque than the V-6.
But the power is fed to the wheels more effectively through the new six-speed automatic that can also be shifted manually. Acceleration from 0-100 km/h is in the mid-10-second range, about average for the class, and drivability is good in city traffic.
New for 2012 is ActiveECO mode that electronically manages engine and transmission response and promises an up to 7 per cent improvement in fuel economy. Response using this system isn't as prompt, but you can live with it, although I'd switch to normal mode around town.
Fuel economy ratings are 10.1 litres/100 km city, 7.1 highway and 8.7 combined. With ActiveECO engaged, I averaged 10.1 litres/100 km over a week and 9.2 at cruising speed on a long section of four-lane highway through rolling hills.
The Tucson's all-wheel-drive system is of the on-demand type and operates in front-drive mode until it senses a traction need and sends power to the rear wheels. It also has a 50/50 lock mode for serious traction situations.
The cabin is roomy, attractive and functional; with the sunroof and fixed glass rear panel, it's also bright and open, although rear vision is a bit restricted for the driver.
Front seats are well-shaped and the rear seat fits two comfortably with the hatch out back accessing a useful-sized load area. And on LTD versions there's lots of stuff, including auto climate control and a good sound system.
There may be some other small crossovers out there that offer a little more practicality but the Hyundai Tucson likely delivers enough of this commodity to suit most needs and wraps it up in one of the most stylish packages available. But what really won me over were its driving dynamics.
2012 Hyundai Tucson LTD AWD
Type: Compact crossover
Base Price: $32,349; as tested, $34,109
Engine: 2.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 176 hp/168 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.0 city/7.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX5, Mitsibushi RVR, Nissan Rogue