Hyundai couldn't help but improve upon the outgoing version of its Tucson CUV. Even if you ignore the bold and distinctive styling of the all-new 2010 Hyundai Tucson -- which is making its debut in U.S.-spec trim at the 2009 Los Angeles auto show -- this is a vehicle that finally looks to be ready to make some serious inroads in the ever-growing compact crossover segment.

Regardless of whether the Tucson is the class leader in driving dynamics (stay tuned for our first drive), what's important here is that the Hyundai now has the power, fuel economy, and interior amenities to do battle with competitors from Honda, Chevrolet, Toyota, and others. We couldn't say the same about the outclassed 2009 Tucson, which sells about as well in one year as the Honda CR-V does in one month. Clearly, the Tucson has nowhere to go but up.

And down, actually. A 2010 Tucson GLS fitted with the new six-speed automatic transmission is 63 pounds lighter than the 2009 model -- due in large part to the use of high-strength steel and that new transmission. Developed in-house, the six-speed is 26.4 pounds lighter than the five-speed auto it replaces and has 62 fewer parts. A six-speed manual is also available.

Power for the 2010 Tucson will come from Hyundai's new, all-aluminum Theta II 2.4-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder engine good for 176 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque -- a power number that essentially ties it with almost every naturally aspirated entry in its class. Arguably more significant for Hyundai's marketing department, of course, is fuel economy. A front- drive Tucson with the six-speed automatic transmission will be rated 23/31 mpg city/highway. Those numbers place the Hyundai right at the top of the efficiency heap for the segment, neck-and-neck with the four-cylinder Chevrolet Equinox, which gets 22/32 mpg city/highway. Both SUVs are rated at 26 mpg combined.

For the 2011 model year, a more fuel efficient Tucson Blue will join the lineup powered by a Theta II 2.0-liter four-cylinder. This engine is upgraded from its performance in the last-generation Tucson, where it made 140 hp. Like the Elantra and Accent Blue, the Tucson Blue will function as a fuel-efficient and inexpensive option, complete with low-rolling-resistance tires, reduced final drive ratios, and improved aerodynamics.

All Tucson drivers can use the Eco Indicator, part of the standard trip computer, which glows green when the driver is driving efficiently.

In its dramatic redesign which employs the automaker's "fludic sculpture" design philosophy, the Tucson appears to have lost some rear visibility, but prospective owners will most likely forgive Hyundai's designers. The more you look at the new Tucson, the easier it is to understand what was more than likely the goal of the new design: Make the Tucson look more crossover-like and less rugged.

The new Tuscon's transformation is more striking inside. Sure, we're basing this comparison on a 2010 Tucson with the optional 6.5-in. navigation screen, but the look is still much more modern. Hyundai tells us the cloth seats have a hexagonal pattern incorporated into the fabric that matches the two-part grille. A two-piece panoramic sunroof is new and, along with features like the touchscreen-activated navigation system and rear-view camera, CleanAir Ionizer, Downhill Brake Control, Hillstart Assist Control, heated leather seats. We expect an all-wheel drive Tucson with all the bells and whistles to approach the $30,000 threshold.

Yes, there could be some cannibalization for the soon-to-be refreshed Santa Fe SUV, but the Tucson is strictly a two-row crossover, unlike its midsize sibling. A better comparison is with the old Tucson and the Hyundai's crowded compact crossover competitors. The new Tucson is 3.3 in. longer and 1.0 in. wider than its predecessor but 1.8 in. shorter, including the roof rails. The Tucson's 34.7-ft. turning radius is about the same as that of the Toyota RAV4 and is more nimble than the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Nissan Rogue.

More precise handling is made possible on the 2010 Tucson by a number of changes including larger stabilizer bars front and rear. The Tucson uses a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension. Steering is electrically powered and we hope that this system is better than most of the new fuel-saving electric power steering units we've tested.

If there's one key weakness with the 2010 Tucson on paper, it's cargo volume. The Tucson has tidy dimensions: the SUV is 6.1 in. shorter than the class-leading Honda CR-V and a full 14.6 in. shorter than the much longer Chevrolet Equinox. With the second row of seats in use, the Tucson's cargo volume, at 25.7 cu. ft., is improved over the last-generation model, but still trails the Honda (35.7 cu. ft.) and Chevrolet (31.4). The situation is no different with the second row folded down. The Hyundai provides a respectable 55.8 cu. ft. of space while the Honda leads with 72.9 cu. ft. and the Chevrolet allows 63.7 cu. ft. The Tuscon does boast a total of 19 drink holders and other storage areas throughout the cabin.

If you want a larger SUV, Hyundai can simply point you to the six-cylinder Santa Fe. Potential Tucson customers can see the vehicle for themselves when it goes in sale this December. Barring any major omissions we discover while testing the Tucson, Hyundai appears ready to make life a lot more difficult for players in the compact crossover segment.

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