Before last year's Sport/Utility of the Year, we would never have expected to welcome a compact Hyundai to the Truck Trend long-term fleet. But two key things happened: The Tucson proved itself one of the best performers in the competition, and gas prices spiked at over $3.50 a gallon in Southern California. We had a hunch the Tucson could be a versatile alternative to bigger, thirstier (even more capable) SUVs, but it would take time behind the wheel to know for sure.

To be specific, we added a 2006 Hyundai Tucson AWD Limited to our fleet. The Tucson was introduced in 2005, and Hyundai created the Limited trim level one year later, which replaced the previous LX version; GL and GLS remain the same. Our Desert Sage model came with only one option: carpeted floormats ($125). Everything else was standard. And the list of standard features reads like the options available on most cars, electronic stability control with traction control, ABS with electronic brake distribution, four-wheel disc brakes, tire-pressure monitoring system (not available on the GL), six airbags, leather seats, seat heaters, an in-dash six-disc CD changer with AM/FM and cassette, auto climate control with outside temperature display, power windows and locks, cruise control, and a host of other goodies. There are also plenty of compartments, storage bins, cupholders, and three 12-volt power points to store, hold, or power anything you need.

The Tucson's 2.7-liter V-6 (a significant step up from the base four-cylinder) also is standard on the Limited, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual shift control. For those looking under the hood, you'll think it odd that a transverse-mounted engine has a cover designed to look like there's a longitudinally mounted engine underneath. We'll deduct points from Hyundai for that. Front drive is standard on the entire line with electronic AWD a no-cost option on the Limited. This system normally routes up to 99 percent of the power to the front wheels, but can run 50 percent of the power to the rear as conditions change. The Tucson's center differential can be manually locked for an even 50/50 power split at speeds below 25 mph at the push of a button.

During the first few thousand miles of driving highways, freeways, city streets, dirt roads, and canyons, initial feedback has been mostly positive, but there are complaints. Several editors note the four-speed transmission hunts for the right gear going up hills and at freeway speed. Another issue is with the texture of the steering wheel. It feels too slick and slips through the drivers' hands too easily, we suspect this could turn into a safety issue in the wrong circumstance. But most feel the Tucson delivers a good amount of value for the money and applaud the manufacturer for designing a second row that actually folds flat.

The Hyundai also went in for its first service, which was supposed to be at 3500 miles. We took it in a little late (4973 miles), when it received a lube, oil, and filter change. One driver noted a coolant smell, but the dealer couldn't detect it or any leaks. The Tucson left the dealer receiving a clean bill of health. Overall, the first impression is that this small vehicle does everything well, but falls just a point short of being spectacular. We'll keep taking this SUV through the paces, and fill you in on how the Korean soft-roader fares.