An all-new model for 2005, the Hyundai Tucson blends into Hyundai’s line-up alongside the Santa Fe compact SUV for now; it will have the slot to itself next year, when the Santa Fe bulks up to a seven-passenger hauler.

The Tucson also has a cousin over at Kia; the equally new-for-2005 Sportage is the same vehicle with different sheet metal, although they’re built in separate factories. Both are based on the Hyundai Elantra/Kia Spectra platform.

The Tucson is slightly smaller than the Santa Fe, but you wouldn’t know it from the inside; interior space is similar, with the same upright seating and excellent visibility. The folding rear seats are a brilliant design: simply pull a handle and they drop to form a flat floor, without flipping seat cushions or removing head-restraints.

Two engines are available: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, and a 2.7-litre V6. The four lacks oomph, especially when hooked to the optional four-speed automatic transmission; the V6 is a fine powerplant and provides plenty of passing power while delivering relatively good fuel economy. The four-cylinder is front-wheel-drive only and comes strictly in GL trim.

The mid-line V6 GL is available in FWD or all-wheel-drive, while the top-line V6 GLS is strictly AWD. The system is front-wheel-drive until it senses slippage, whereupon it sends up to 50 per cent power to the rear wheels. The driver can also lock the system into 50/50 torque distribution, via a button on the dash, at speeds under 40 km/h.

The base four-cylinder GL includes ABS and ESP – unusual for a trucklet in this price range – along with power windows and locks, heated mirrors, 16-inch aluminum wheels, CD/MP3 system with six speakers, and intermittent rear wiper. Air conditioning, keyless entry and a four-speed automatic transmission can be added.

The V6 GL in FWD adds air conditioning, cruise control, and dual exhaust; the AWD version also includes fog lights.

The top-line GLS adds heated leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, and power sunroof.

The Tucson rightfully earned its Best New Crossover award, handed out by the Automobile Journalists of Canada. It’s nimble, fun to drive, and very well-equipped for its price; its base model offers more than the comparable Santa Fe for less money. (Cynics will note that Hyundai slips in under the all-important, under-$20,000 barrier by making air conditioning an option.) Surprisingly, given the usual pricing structure between the two companies that generally sees Kia at the lower end, the Tucson is the same price as the Kia Sportage in base form, and $775 cheaper in the top-end configuration.

Still, it’s hard to understand why Hyundai, traditionally the more upscale of the two firms, presents the Tucson with only two air bags, while even the base Kia Sportage comes standard with six.

The Tucson is made in Ulsan, South Korea.

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