2014 Hyundai Tucson

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No pint-size CUV can be called elegant but, thanks to its side cladding and character lines and creases, the Tucson now comes close. Note the LED bling in the mirror, new—along with the projector headlights, LED taillights, roof rails and the 18-inch wheels—for 2014. Hyundai

Hyundai, one of Korea, Inc.’s fraternal twins (Kia being the other), is drawing attention with its top-of-the-tree cars, the new 2014 Equus and 2015 Genesis—which, at roughly $70K and $50K, respectively, make many other imported sedans look obscenely overpriced.

But no company becomes one of the world’s largest automakers by ignoring the middle, much less the bottom of the global car market.

That’s where models such as this 2014 Tucson baby crossover have made the Koreans so successful, and where they earn the cash that lets them crash the luxury party so effectively.

By middle and bottom, I don’t mean in quality but in price. A Limited AWD—the dressiest of three Hyundai Tucson variants—delivers a ton of goodies for its sticker:

Lockable on-demand all-wheel drive, 182 horsepower from a new 2.4-liter direct-injection gas engine, a 6-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, tire-pressure monitors, rear-view camera and color touchscreen, leather interior with seat heaters and power driver’s seat, pushbutton ignition and proximity unlocking, two-zone automatic climate control, automatic headlights, heated wing mirrors, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel with cruise, stereo and phone controls built in, Sirius, Bluetooth, Bluelink (Hyundai’s telematics system), AM/FM/CD/MP3 plus iPod, USB and auxiliary ports, a shark-fin antenna and a panoramic sunroof, self-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink transmitter, roof rails, carpeted floor mats and a retractable cargo cover . . . plus all the safety features, from air bags to ABS, stability and traction control to seatbelt pre-tensioners.

The two-row, five-seat 2014 Hyundai Tucson is real-world small outside, surprisingly large inside. This is the Limited AWD, so note the seat-heater switches and the leather, the touchscreen, the “smart” steering wheel and mirror, and the automatic HVAC. Hyundai

Over the past 22 years, other factors also have pushed Hyundai from oddball to shoo-in, including long warranties, high crash-safety scores (this Tucson earned four or five stars in all five categories) and easy ordering. The big Equus, for example, comes equipped two ways, at two reasonable prices; just tick the box you want, with none of the costly extras required by other similar cars. Hyundai, BTW, sold 66,107 vehicles in the US in April—its best month ever.

Back to the Tucson: The starter version, the GLS with front-wheel drive and 164 horsepower, lists for $22,325 delivered. From there to $28,685—the sticker on our Limited AWD, with delivery fees but before any haggling—is a relatively small jump in dollars but, as noted, those dollars buy a lot of toys.

Every AWD Tucson has the attributes of a two-row sport-utility vehicle, including room and comfort for five people, all-weather capability and that raised driving position that everyone seems to crave. As a CCUV, a compact crossover utility vehicle, the Tucson weighs far less than two tons, so it also handles pretty nimbly and either of its four-cylinder powerplants provide decent motivation. Fuel efficiency could be better, though. In the Limited AWD, we managed 22 miles per gallon in town and 27 on the highway—the very same numbers we got a week earlier in a V-6 Range Rover, with twice the power lugging around a ton more mass.

However, Hyundai is looking to slash fuel usage significantly, and earn global bragging rights for technology at the same time, by introducing a Tucson powered by a fuel cell. Not in three years, but next month.

A fuel-cell car uses a chemical reaction powered by hydrogen to create electricity for its motor. It’s an energy-efficient process, and a clean one; it spits only a few drops of water from its tailpipe—no carbon dioxide or other toxic emissions. Unlike “normal” electric or hybrid cars, a fuel-cell vehicle never causes a drop of oil or lump of coal to be burned on its behalf. The entire energy-generation process takes place onboard.

Very green and cool, yes, but hardly simple. Seen any hydrogen stations in your neighborhood? I thought not. Hyundai is only selling (leasing, actually) its fuel-cell Tucson in southern California, at least until hydrogen pumps spread elsewhere.

Instead of launching such a high-tech program with a pricey luxury model, Hyundai chose the Tucson as its bellwether because it’s the right size and price for many markets around the world. If fuel cells prove to be the way of the future, Hyundai will be ready for green production on a global scale. And the humble Tucson shall lead the way.

—Silvio Calabi