Checking out Hyundai's new soft-roader' SUV, the Tucson
City slicker Accessible: The Tucson SUV looks like it also has that same magic combination of product and price as Hyundai's hugely popular Matrix

CAN the Tucson do for Hyundai in Category B what the Matrix did for the Korean marque in Cat A?

On the surface, the compact SUV seems to be what the Matrix has become - an attractively priced alternative to the traditional Japanese stalwarts. The Matrix mini-MPV is Hyundai's top-selling model and with its help, Hyundai overtook Nissan to become the number two brand in Singapore in the first half of this year. The compact hatchback accounted for 43 per cent of all cars sold by authorised distributor Komoco Motors from January to June.

The reason for the Matrix's popularity is a combination of product and price. The Tucson sport-utility vehicle looks like it also has that same magic formula.

The compact SUV sits in Cat B, the COE category for cars above 1,600cc. It is not the first Hyundai SUV but it looks more accessible than the larger and more macho Santa Fe. It also has a more appropriate capacity. There are two engine sizes - two-litre four-cylinder and 2.7-litre V6. Both have continuously variable valve timing (CVVT). The two-litre version, which arrived late last month, is expected to be the mainstream model and is targeted at the likes of other 'soft-roaders' like the popular Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4.

Like its Japanese rivals, the Tucson is a fairly handsome car with a spacious cabin and high driving position. Unlike the competition though, its price is substantially lower - about $20,000 less.

Other differences also emerge. The two-litre CVVT engine is torquey but buzzy (although the noise level could have been higher because the test car's engine had yet to be broken in).

The four-speed automatic has a tiptronic-type gate for manual shifting. With its good pick up and firm suspension, the Tucson 2.0 has sporty handling and can tackle fast corners with little body roll. The downside is that at lower speeds and over uneven road surfaces, the bumps and other undulations enter the cabin relatively unfiltered.

Overall, the Tucson is easy to drive with its light steering and good all round visibility. Its interior is simple but efficient, with hard wearing plastics and robust controls, such as the big buttons and switchgear. It is also thoughtful, with two big but unobtrusive cupholders in front of a cute centre armrest that can pop up and forward - like a hopping frog - for smaller drivers. The split tailgate is also convenient, with the rear glass window's ability to open separately from the rest of the hatch.

The front-wheel-driven Tucson 2.0 costs $81,888 with COE (the 4WD 2.7-litre version is priced at $88,888). At this level, the two-litre Tucson is about $23,000 less than the Honda CRV and $19,000 less than the cheapest Toyota RAV4.

Of course, the prices reflect the differences in equipment (the CRV is 4WD) and perception (of image and build quality). But that hasn't stopped close to 200 potential buyers who have put down a deposit within less than a month.

Only time will tell if this sport-utility vehicle can climb the sales charts.

SPECS

Hyundai Tucson 2.0

Engine: 1,975cc

Gearbox: 4-speed Shiftronic automatic

Max power: 142 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Max torque: 184 Nm @ 4,500 rpm

Price: $81,888 (with COE)

Distributor: Komoco Motors 6475-8888