2010 Hyundai Tucson (© Hyundai Motor America)Click to enlarge picture

The 2010 Hyundai Tucson's design is as curvaceous as the old model was boxy. In front, the compact SUV has more attitude than before, thanks in large part to its two-part grille.

As I wind my way through the highways and byways that crisscross Los Angeles County in the all-new 2010 Hyundai Tucson, it becomes increasingly clear to me that this attractive hunk of sheet metal is going to emerge as the next superstar in the South Korean automaker's already impressive arsenal. A truly well-made arrow into the heart of the compact SUV market, the Tucson offers sporty looks and feels rock-solid on everything from Southern California's congested freeways to its dizzyingly curvaceous oceanside drives.

But something else, possibly more important, also becomes clear as I pilot this smart-looking little ute: Hyundai's approach to building and selling cars that consumers want to buy and drive is brilliant.

While the recession has flattened the rest of the auto industry, this company has actually thrived. It's one of just three brands — along with Subaru and Hyundai's own Kia subsidiary — that squeezed lemonade from the lemon that was 2009. Sales of its cars were up more than 6 percent during one of the worst fiscal periods in automotive history, when almost every automaker was showing double-digit sales decreases.

Compare: Hyundai Tucson vs. Ford Escape vs. Subaru Forester

How Did They Do It?
Not long ago, the Hyundai name was a punch line, synonymous with disposable cars. Not anymore, says Rebecca Lindland, director of automotive research for market analysts IHS Global Insight: "They've always been like the teenager of the industry, always under construction. But they're not teenagers any longer; they're maturing and blossoming."

Proof of this blossoming can be seen in recent models such as the award-winning Genesis luxury sedan, the sprightly Genesis Coupe and now the redesigned Tucson. These machines prove that Hyundai has become a no-apologies rival to brands from Japan, Europe and Detroit. It has accomplished that feat by making visible strides in design, quality, technology and fuel economy, and by steadily building trust through its warranties and consumer-savvy marketing.

It wasn't an easy task. Analysts say that in many ways, Hyundai has faced a steeper climb than did Japanese brands in the '70s and '80s. Toyota and Honda found a playing field largely to themselves, popularizing small cars and trucks that Detroit had never bothered with. In contrast, Hyundai has had to battle it out in mature markets filled with big-name brands and sophisticated cars from around the world.

Persuading consumers to trust the Hyundai brand has been the key to the company's success in the new millennium. In 1999 — with its reputation in tatters, thanks to several notoriously trouble-prone cars — Hyundai ran a Hail Mary play. It rolled out an unprecedented 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty on its cars. Just as importantly, the company backed up the warranties with steadily improving quality. By 2007, Hyundai had risen to fourth place overall on J.D. Power and Associates' respected Initial Quality Survey, behind only the glittering brands Lexus, Porsche and Cadillac.

View Slideshow:  J.D. Power 2009 Initial Quality Study Winners

Raising Its Game
The 2010 Tucson is simply the latest example of this evolution. The outgoing model was a nonfactor, an underpowered and undersized SUV that managed to grab only about 1 percent of compact crossover sales.

The new, larger Tucson, honed to Americans' tastes at Hyundai's California design studio, is a serious player. A 176-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine matches the power of the previous model's V6, yet offers 20 percent better fuel economy. That engine offers up to 31 mpg highway, trumping the economy of its rivals, the venerable Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, thanks in part to a 6-speed automatic transmission (including a manual-shift mode) that you won't find on the Toyota or Honda.

Compare: Hyundai Tucson vs. Toyota RAV4 vs. Honda CR-V

Plus, the hill-start assist, which prevents the car from rolling backwards on grades, and a downhill-assist system that lets the car walk itself down hills, are two more features that go missing on most small-SUV rivals. An optional panoramic sunroof is another class first.

And the sport ute is also well-proportioned. The Tucson is 6 inches shorter than a BMW X3, and also narrower and shorter in height. Yet the Tucson is significantly roomier inside, with 101.9 cubic feet of interior volume compared with just 90.1 for the BMW. Not surprisingly, the Hyundai also has more rear-seat legroom than the RAV4, CR-V, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue or Subaru Forester.

Would you consider a Hyundai?

A major emphasis on chassis solidity and aerodynamics pays off with an interior that feels as quiet and vibration-free as many luxury models in this class. Hyundai says the Tucson's body structure is 38 percent more rigid than the Nissan Rogue's. Yet the Tucson is also the lightest vehicle in its class, barely topping 3,200 pounds in front-wheel-drive trim. The tight turning circle, at 34.7 feet, again leads its field.