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2010 Hyundai Tucson: Hot, hot, hot

Combine a hot car company, Hyundai, with a hot segment, compact crossovers, and you get the 2010 Tucson. Calling the Tucson scalding would be an overstatement, but it threatens to upset its size and weight class just the way the Hyundai Sonata has overturned the established order in midsize sedans.

Hyundai got its foothold in the U.S. first by offering exceptional value, and the Tucson succeeds there. In a class that includes the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Tucson roars in with a base price of $21,495 (plus $795 for freight and handling).

Even with features like a $2,000 navigation package, my GLS model with all-wheel-drive carried a sticker price of just $26,090.

Quality was the next milepost on Hyundai’s U.S. journey, and the initial reports on the Tucson are excellent. The interior is especially praiseworthy, with the instrument layout and leather and cloth seats better than you would expect in this price class. A less subjective analysis on the Korean-built vehicle awaits the test results from JD Power and Consumer Reports.

The final hurdle for Hyundai is styling. The company has been leaving behind some of the more florid influences of its home market in favor of refinements on a more international look, as seen in the popular Genesis and the recently unveiled Equus.

But to my admittedly conservative eye, the Tucson is a step backward. Although Hyundai says it follows its new design theme of “fluidic sculpture,” all those curves and dips remind me of less successful Hyundais of yore. The danger here is of design decay, when today’s trendy look becomes unbearably dated a year later.

Functionally, though, the Hyundai ranks with the best in its class. The steering is precise, the ride firm, and the 2.4 liter 16-valve engine propels the Tucson to 60 miles per hour in 8.2 seconds — enough punch for almost any purpose. EPA rates the fuel economy at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway.

Three hours in pre-Easter New York City traffic evinced only admiration for the comfort of the seats (and the availability of XM satellite radio).

For daily driving or running Saturday errands, you can’t beat crossovers, with their versatility, ease of entrance and egress, and command seating position.

Though competitors may gripe about Hyundai’s reliance on favorable Korean exchange rates and its aggressive use of incentives, there is no gainsaying its achievements in product planning and vehicle engineering. The Tucson should quickly find its place in the sweet spot of the U.S. market.