If ever there were a brand that has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 25 years or so, it is Hyundai. The same could also be said for its age-old Tucson, as well as the Sonata, both ugly ducklings which have just been reborn as swans. Relatively new by flag-bearing automotive standards - the Hyundai Motor Company only having been established in 1967 - the Korean carmaker has moved aggressively from being a load of old Pony, as the London Cockneys would call it, back in the early days, to marking a place as a serious player alongside the biggest names of the Far East.
Back in the day, Hyundai models boasted more shiny plastics than a SABIC catalogue, but the company now claims as many international awards as it once had ill-fitting panels. Ssangyong has been left behind by Hyundai and Kia as the remaining joke of the Korean car industry. Hyundai has definitely changed for the better, and this should come as a surprise to nobody, even if it really does. In the past Hyundai, along with Kia, was a synonym for budget and economically worthy cars, but Hyundai's transformation into a purveyor of quality and style has happened so quickly - and also so subliminally - we must start to react to its fast rising stock.
The Tucson, which was once a very unattractive little crossover, is a pertinent case in point as it illustrates the changing face of the brand - literally. Like the much better looking Sonata, the far more appealing Tucson is now a proud proponent of Hyundai's new and bizarrely named "fluidic sculpture" design philosophy, which results in class-beating lines inside and out. As a bonus, the sleeker, more eye-catching lines of the new-look Tucson improve the car's aerodynamics and excellent fuel economy, with a combined stat of 8.6L per 100km.
Every vestige of the frumpiness of previous generations has been eliminated from the latest Tucson, and it is as compact in its shape and styling as it is thorough in its spec list. In spite of minimal dimensions - smaller than each of the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, its most obvious competitors - it makes the most of its size to provide good space to seat five passengers in comfort.
Indeed, it is extremely comfortable, even when taken off the road, and handles well on lightly challenging surfaces. The Tucson is available with 2.0L and 2.4L in-line-four options, both of which suit either car well, but like pretty much every vehicle on offer in the UAE, most punters will opt for the bigger engine, whether they need it or not. The 2.4L version that I tested could become a little noisy at pace but, on the whole, it provided a generally quiet, easily manageable experience. City drivers in particular would enjoy both cars' characteristics and, let's face it, even in all-wheel-drive form, the Tucson would never be seen tackling a tough dune or wadi. It's a perfectly fine car to take the family to the beach and even the rocky path down to Hatta pools shouldn't tax it too much, but give it a miss as a Desert Challenge competitor.
Inside, the Tucson's interior has improved on the bland and often poorly finished Hyundai interiors of the bad old days. Options such as brushed metal on the steering wheel and leather seats all add touches of class that were absent on previous Tucsons. What stands out about the latest generation of Hyundai is that its models are always better than one would expect them to be. The marque might be fighting hard to shake off the reputation of being the budget option but the quality of design and build is clear to anybody. And with a growing range of models designed to cater for most drivers now, the Korean car maker clearly has its sights on becoming a real threat to its Japanese neighbours in every respect. The Tucson is a proud reminder that Hyundai is now a brand to be seriously considered by buyers who want comfort, sound performance and great value for money.
With Hyundai and Kia improving in leaps and bounds, the Koreans are getting it right with every new model year. Well, apart from the hapless Ssangyong. firstname.lastname@example.org